Before it was cancelled around 5 p.m. yesterday, the Cultural Studies Club of the Harvard Extension School was scheduled to stage a “reenactment” of a black mass in a pub in the basement of Memorial Hall on Harvard’s campus. The club stated that “misinterpretations about the nature of the event were harming perceptions about Harvard and adversely impacting the student community,” and as of now, it seems unclear where, or if, the reenactment will actually take place. I am not a scholar of Satanist movements (though here are some people who are), so I have no coherent treatise to offer. Instead, here are the four thoughts that have been knocking around in my head for the past few days.


(1.)  Nobody knows what the planned reenactment would have consisted of because nobody knows what “the black mass” itself consists of. There is no central, Satanist Congregation for Divine Worship that publishes ritual rubrics, no Satanist Pope who is the “custodian” of the liturgy. Sure, Anton LaVey published a handful of books and founded what he called the “Church of Satan,” but there is no universally-recognized, set text of “the black mass” that we could sit down and pick apart, nor is there any universally-recognized leader of satanism. As Professor Joseph Laycock noted in a Religion Dispatches essay yesterday, “It’s doubtful that true black masses ever occurred and the only recorded incidents of black masses were improvised ceremonies performed by libertines. Still, everyone weighing in on the controversy seems quite certain about how a proper black mass is performed and what it symbolizes.” Instead, “black mass” seems to have originally been a Christian label for suspected blasphemous rituals that suspected blasphemers carried out (and Christians have been imagining and fearing such activity for ever). Those who felt discriminated against by the church then adopted the label (along with the label “satanist”) as a sort of satirical protest against the authority claims of Christianity. It’s somewhat akin to modern women calling themselves “witches” or “crones” as a protest against patriarchy. This is why the organizer of the Harvard event wrote that Catholic opponents “seem terribly disappointed that this event is not all about them, to the point that they refuse to accept it.”

(2.)  In response to concerns raised by Catholics, the club stated that the event would not include a consecrated host but would instead be a “historical re-enactment of a black mass ceremony that has a narrator providing historical context and background.” If that’s the case, then how would this event have been so different from, say, reading aloud from the Greek Magical Papyri in a college class? Or pretending to perform a typical Greek or Roman sacrifice in a graduate seminar? Many early Christians believed that performing such rites was nothing more than interaction with demons. Why isn’t the Archdiocese of Boston warning students that this behavior, which happens routinely in Religious Studies programs and divinity schools, “places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil“?

(3.)  I was surprised by how quickly people jumped on the “If we were Jews/Blacks/Pick-Your-Token, everyone would be defending us” train. Geez, Catholics, are we sure we want to go there? Professor Francis Clooney, S.J., for instance, asked in a Harvard Crimson editorial, “And what’s next? The endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies familiar from Western history or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.” I suppose I would be more sympathetic to his argument if, you know, the Roman Catholic Church hadn’t been responsible for a good portion of that anti-Jewish and anti-Native history. Or if Catholics did not enjoy a privileged place in American society today. Or if “satanists” even had enough institutional continuity that they could have persecuted Catholics the way the Catholic Church persecuted heretics and heathen. Or if the oppression of Jews and Native Americans were something that we had collectively “gotten over” as Christians, such that we could now invoke it as a shaming device to show how civilized we are. I mean really, this is as bad as white conservatives comparing abortion to slavery. It’s an easy analogy that seems to pack a lot of punch, but it also packs a tremendous amount of ignorance about exactly who has wielded power over whom, and arrogance about who gets to profit linguistically from other people’s trauma.

(4.)  I can’t wait for The Onion to pick this up.



5 thoughts

  1. Terrific post.

    “…but there is no universally-recognized, set text of “the black mass” that we could sit down and pick apart.”

    Opus Dei might be a resource on this. Can anyone confirm that they’ve re-opened the canon to include Ayn Rand’s works, so they can use them in their liturgies?

  2. From a comment I made on a friend’s facebook:

    Having been in the archdiocese where it happened… While I’m offended by the black mass (if it is a real thing), I think both sides behaved like idiots. The Satanists were trying to get a rise out of the Catholics, and the Catholics didn’t disappoint. I think a quiet Benediction/Adoration would’ve gotten the point across way better than a procession through Cambridge. I also would’ve preferred O’Malley open dialogue with Harvard, rather than try to tell them what to do. I think a “Hey, this is what we find offensive. Let’s discuss this” would’ve gone a long way than his “Don’t do X.” That having been said, there was a lot of awful [excrement] from the other side, as well. (I’m talking the Harvard community, not the Satanists, who I think just sat back and watched chaos ensue.)

    That the local news reported on it more than the Red Sox or Bruins made it worse, I think.

  3. “Nobody knows what the planned reenactment would have consisted of because nobody knows what “the black mass” itself consists of.”

    Are you suggestion that the ritual might not have parodied Catholic symbols?

    Still, it remains that it was called a black “mass,” intending to evoke the ritual that lies at the heart of the Catholic faith. While it’s true that we don’t know what the ritual would have contained, everyone clearly had certain assumptions. The group could have made it clear in a statement that it would not do anything intended to symbolize the desecration/ profanation of the Christian religion, no?

    It’s a bit of a leap to say that Catholics were eager to make it about them when it was being called a Mass, a Host was being used and no efforts were made to clarify that it wasn’t actually a parody of the Catholic ritual.

    While the Host is unconsecrated, wasn’t it fair for people to assume that they would have enacted out something that was deliberately disrespectful to Catholic piety? I don’t see how it was at all like the Greek magical papyri hypothetical you mentioned.

    I think a double standard was clearly at work here. However, also on the part of many Catholic commentators who were so quick to pull the cultural sensitivity card.

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