Whether or not any lessons will be learned in terms of religious tolerance or basic courtesy, the Harvard Crimson is getting a lesson in covering breaking news, as the story of the “black mass” (which was originally scheduled to start at 7 p.m. ET) has changed almost hourly.
In the most recent news, first announced via the Crimson‘s Twitter page, “Satanic Black Mass has been postponed indefinitely and will not take place tonight, according to Satanic Temple spokesperson… In email, Ext. School club informs members that it will ‘no longer be sponsoring this Black Mass’ due to difficulties finding a location.”
But first, some background: The event, sponsored by the Cultural Studies Club of the Harvard Extension School, was to take place at the Queen’s Head Pub at Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the night of Monday, May 12.
Sponsored by the Satanic Temple – a group that appears to exist to mock the notion of faith, if not so much to worship Satan himself, at least on purpose – the ceremonial re-enactment was originally said to be using a Consecrated Host, which would have to have been taken illicitly from a Catholic church.
No one knows exactly what the group planned to do with the Host – which, to Catholics, post-consecration, becomes the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ – during the ceremony, which is based on and intended to invert and mock a Catholic Mass. However, after some back and forth, the group said that the Host would not be consecrated and that this was an educational affair not intended to offend anyone.
Perhaps skeptical of that, Cardinal O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston spoke of his “deep sadness and strong opposition” to the event, saying, “it is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil.”
His concern was followed by more statements, including one from Father Francis X. Clooney, the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions.
In an opinion piece at the Crimson, he called it a “disconcerting incident.” He also asked, “What’s next? The endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical re-enactments 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.”
He also wrote, “After the lawyers have spoken and free speech has been affirmed, and after we all agree that much is to be learned from the history of our religions, we still need to be able to talk together about the sometimes difficult reality of living religion at Harvard.”
National Catholic Register investigative reporter Peter Jesserer Smith tweeted that the whole affair “would be an Onion story if it wasn’t true.”
In a blog post at the Register called “Harvard’s Black Mass Attacks All Religions,” he wrote:
The Catholics at Harvard and the Archdiocese of Boston reveal who they are in their response. They have chosen not confrontation, but prayer; to respond to the evil of having their religion [denigrated] under the guise of academic freedom with an 8 p.m. Eucharistic Holy Hour at St. Paul’s Church on campus, as a peaceful response – and they have the solidarity of decent people of good will, whether they be of faith or no faith.
We could all learn from their example, so in lieu of comments below, say a prayer and do a good deed for someone in the world who least expects your kindness, and join the Catholics of Harvard in prayerful solidarity at 8 p.m.
Harvard president Drew Faust issued the following statement on May 12:
The reenactment of a ‘black mass’ planned by a student group affiliated with the Harvard Extension School challenges us to reconcile the dedication to free expression at the heart of a university with our commitment to foster a community based on civility and mutual understanding. Vigorous and open discussion and debate are essential to the pursuit of knowledge, and we must uphold these values even in the face of controversy. Freedom of expression, as Justice Holmes famously said long ago, protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
But even as we permit expression of the widest range of ideas, we must also take responsibility for debating and challenging expression with which we profoundly disagree. The ‘black mass’ had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond. The decision by a student club to sponsor an enactment of this ritual is abhorrent; it represents a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community. It is deeply regrettable that the organizers of this event, well aware of the offense they are causing so many others, have chosen to proceed with a form of expression that is so flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory.
Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs. At the same time, we will vigorously protect the right of others to respond–and to address offensive expression with expression of their own.
I plan to attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul’s Church on our campus on Monday evening in order to join others in reaffirming our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.
All this being said, the Harvard Extension Cultural Club, which was not ordered to cancel the event or even to move it, decided to relocate the event off-campus to the Middle East Club in Center Square, only to later say the negotiations with the Cultural Club had “fallen through” for unspecified reasons.
The Cultural Studies Club was very unhappy to discover that its efforts to present, for educational purposes, an event specifically designed to denigrate a sacred religious ceremony had upset people.
In an email quoted in the Crimson, it said, “While it is unfortunate that many people took personal offense at rituals for which they have little or no understanding of their context, what we find most disturbing have been the demands that the rituals and beliefs of marginalized members of society be silenced… It is gravely upsetting to us that some people feel vindicated on the basis that they have disingenuously mischaracterized our invited guests as being part of a hate group.”
The Crimson also quotes another part of the email in which the Club said it hopes the event “draws attention to the bullying techniques of dominant powers and how they intimidate to silence voices they do not agree with or understand.”
Also, in an online statement quoted in the Boston Globe, the organizers said that “only 100 are able to attend and registration has far exceeded that.”
Meanwhile, the Eucharistic Procession from MIT to nearby St. Paul Church and the prayer service planned to counter the black mass are going on as planned, with Dr. Faust in attendance. According to Scot Landry of Catholic Voices USA, who is live-tweeting the event, it’s her first time there.
With Father Michael E. Drea, the senior chaplain to the Harvard Catholic Chaplaincy, celebrating, the Mass also features Bishop Arthur Kennedy and a program of Scripture readings, prayers, and hymns.
According to a tweet from the Crimson, “St. Paul Catholic Church in Harvard Sq overflowing as holy hour gets underway, even as black mass cancelled.”