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Why are people freaking out about Satanism at Harvard?

A young woman dressed as a devil waves with fire in streets on December 5, 2013 in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic.
A young woman dressed as a devil waves with fire in streets on December 5, 2013 in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic.

On Monday night, May 12, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club planned on reenacting a black mass on the campus of Harvard University, but the event was canceled at the last minute, proceeding in limited form at a nearby bar.

People were pretty upset, and Boston's Cardinal even condemned the event. So it's worth asking: what on Earth is a black mass, and why are people so mad about it?

What is a black mass?

A black mass is essentially a parody of the Roman Catholic Mass. During the traditional Mass, Christians receive communion in the form of bread and wine, which, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In the Satanic parody, the bread and wine — also referred to as "the host" — are somehow desecrated or defiled, though the details of the method of desecration vary.

Most experts agree that the black mass is largely a 20th-century invention. But its roots date back centuries, Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at Catholic University of America, says. Beginning in the 16th century, those who objected to the Catholic Church's doctrine of transubstantiation began to mock the ceremony by parodying a key phrase of the Latin Mass. "Hoc est corpus meum," which is translated "This is my body," was jokingly turned into "Hocus Pocus." But, as Pecknold points out, it wasn't until later that the parody evolved into the dramatic reenactment that it now is.

There isn't one correct way of celebrating a black mass, though the main feature is to mock the Catholic tradition. For instance, urine could be substituted for holy water, or a black turnip for a communion wafer. According to Harvard's paper The Crimson, tonight's event is a performance, and "will model the script of the black mass articulated in novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans' work Là-bas." The Crimson didn't specify which of Huysmans' masses will be performed on campus. Huysmans describes several in Là-bas, including a "Spermatic mass" involving a chalice full of semen and "the naked buttocks of a woman."

Why do people perform black masses?

According to Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966, the black mass was originally intended to be a "psychodrama" — a way of symbolically expressing opposition to the Catholic Church by satirizing its beliefs and practices. In this way, celebrants of the black mass rebel against organized religion, and emphasize their individualism. LaVey has said the black mass is outdated to contemporary times, but other Satanic groups do employ the ritual.

Though there are many forms of Satanism, many of them share the defining feature of their pursuit of a heightened sense of individualism. For Satanists, the biblical figure of Satan, portrayed as the rebellious creature who dared to defy Almighty God, represents the qualities of free thought, autonomy, and ingenuity. Some Satanists believe Satan is real. Others believe he is a literary figure representing the above qualities. But all Satanists order their lives around what the biblical character represents. LaVey puts it like this:

We don't worship Satan, we worship ourselves using the metaphorical representation of the qualities of Satan. Satan is the name used by Judeo-Christians for that force of individuality and pride within us. But the force itself has been called by many names. … We are not limited to one deity, but encompass all the expressions of the accuser or the one who advocates free thought and rational alternatives by whatever name he is called in a particular time and land. It so happens that we are living in a culture that is predominantly Judeo-Christian, so we emphasize Satan.

Celebrating a black mass, then, is one way to achieve the force of individuality LaVey describes. It is a critical exercise, a way of separating oneself from religious groupthink — though, of course, the groupthink charge could easily be turned onto the group performing the black mass. Pecknold argues that neither the historical nor the contemporary black mass has much of a positive purpose aside from mockery. "What are the ends which this act really serve?" he says. "It seems only to be parasitic on what Catholics consider good, true, and beautiful."

What was Harvard and the Boston community's response?

As you can imagine, Pecknold wasn't the only critic of the campus event. The Archdiocese of Boston has called the event a mockery of the Catholic faith, claiming it is "contrary to charity and goodness." The Harvard Chaplains — a group that includes chaplains from diverse faith backgrounds, including Humanism, Zoroastrianism, Baha'i, and Islam — released a statement expressing their concern over the reenactment, noting that many people are "understandably distraught" about the event, and urging the organizers to reconsider going forward with their plans.

Drew Faust, president of Harvard, released a statement saying that while the planned black mass was "abhorrent" and "flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory," the University's commitment to free expression allows for "expression that may deeply offend us." Faust also said she planned on attending a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul's Church on Harvard's campus on Monday, as an act of "robust dissent" to the black mass. The Holy Hour went on as scheduled, and Faust was in attendance.

Not all, however, are pleased with Faust's response. Pecknold said that while he appreciated Faust's comments on standing in solidarity with Catholics, he thinks the president could have made a stronger statement. In fact, says Pecknold, Faust's response "would have been stronger" if Jewish and Muslim communities were the object of mockery. "Could you imagine if the same group treated a Jewish group this way? It would be on par with Holocaust denial. But this — why is it tolerable now?"

What is the case for the mass? And the case against?

Harvard political ethicist Christopher Robichaud sees events like Monday's Black Mass as an opportunity for critical reflection "outside the classroom and in the face of something controversial." For Robichaud, who was planning on delivering a lecture before the performance, the black mass reenactment was "an opportunity to inject some critical reflection into the messy but important process of … thinking seriously about the content of our political values."

The Harvard Chaplains rejected the idea that the black mass celebration was an issue of academic freedom:

Just because something may be permissible does not make it right or good.  Whether or not these students are "entitled" to express themselves through the ceremony of a "Black Mass" as a matter of law or University policy is a distinct question from whether this is a healthy form of intellectual discourse or community life.  We submit it is not.

Professor Robichaud disputes that the mass was an unproductive form of intellectual discourse. "When is it appropriate to reject a public activity solely on religious grounds in a pluralistic democracy where not everyone shares those grounds?" he asks. Controversial events, he says, are "healthy for the well-functioning of our republic," since they "wake us up, morally speaking, and force us to examine what we think our political and religious values demand of us."

But Pecknold questions Robichaud's definition of "healthy." "What counts," he asks, "as a good, healthy debate?" For instance, he says, "Why is it healthy to celebrate black mass, but not healthy to employ a CEO who supports traditional marriage?" referencing the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, which was prompted by outrage at Eich's opposition to same-sex marriage. To Pecknold, these questions starts to get at the broader question at play surrounding the black mass, which is, "What are the limits of liberal toleration?"

Why was the event canceled?

After receiving much criticism from many groups — including Harvard's own president, the religiously diverse Harvard Chaplains, and the Boston Archdiocese — the Cultural Studies club announced in an email their decision to move the event off campus because "misinterpretations about the nature of the event were harming perceptions about Harvard and adversely impacting the student community." The club emphasized that the university did not ask them to move the Black Mass off campus, and said they appreciated Harvard's commitment to free and open discourse. But for unclear reasons, the new location the group secured (the bar/restaurant/music venue Middle East) ended up falling through, and the club decided to pull its sponsorship of the event.

Christopher Robichaud — the Harvard political ethicist who planned on delivering a lecture before the Black Mass performance — decided not to participate once the event was moved off campus, noting in an email "the further from the Harvard community it goes, the less sense it makes for my involvement." Robichaud's intended lecture was on the responsibility we have "to answer the Socratic mandate of being reflective citizens" by critically engaging with diverse perspectives, "offensive to some though [they] may be."

The Boston Globe reports that a scaled-down version of the intended Black Mass did happen off campus at the Hong Kong bar, and was led by members of the New York-based Satanic Temple to "reaffirm their respect for the Satanic faith and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is to shame those who marginalize others."

The holy hour that was planned in opposition to the Black Mass proceeded as scheduled. More than 1500 people were in attendance. In an address to attendees, the Rev. Michael E. Drea called the intended Black Mass "an act of hatred … for the Catholic Church."

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the decision of the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club to move the event off campus, followed by their decision to pull their involvement from the Black Mass.

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