Harvard University’s acceptance of a satanic black mass re-enactment on campus raises larger questions of tolerance and whether it is being applied selectively, scholars say.
“If there is a serious question to ask here, it concerns the limits of liberal toleration itself,” said Dr. C.C. Pecknold, theology professor at The Catholic University of America.
“Far from facilitating mutual respect and reasoned argument, such anti-Catholic performances really show how distorted liberal and secular reason is when it comes to respect for religious liberty,” he told CNA May 12.
He referenced the recent resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, whose opposition to redefining marriage came under fire from members of the LGBT community.
“Why is it that a CEO can be fired for upholding traditional marriage as a public good, but an anti-Catholic act such as this one should be tolerated precisely for the sake of liberalism?” he asked.
Pecknold’s comments came in response to the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club’s plans to host a May 12 re-enactment of a satanic black mass on campus. The announcement of the event has prompted a wave of criticism and calls for its cancellation.
A black mass is a sacrilegious ceremony structured as a parody of the Catholic Mass. Connected to witchcraft and demonic worship, it invokes Satan and demons, often in Latin.
The ceremony is centered around the desecration of the Eucharist, which is generally done by stealing a consecrated host from a Catholic Church and using it in a profane sexual ritual, or defecating and urinating on it.
A spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, which is staging the event, initially told media outlets that a consecrated host would be used, although the temple and the Cultural Studies Club both later denied this, insisting that only a plain piece of bread would be used.
Responding to widespread criticism, the Cultural Studies Club told CNA that those offended by the event have closed-minded beliefs “based on intolerance and ignorance,” which are “arrogant and egocentric.”
The club claimed that the black mass “began as a propagandistic literary device to justify brutal purges against alleged witches,” saying that “(t)he idea originated with the Church itself.”
However, Pecknold responded that it “is patently false to claim that the idea of the Black mass originated with the Catholic Church itself.”
“The Black Mass is largely a modern invention of anti-Catholic propaganda. Anton LaVey (founder of the Church of Satan and author of The Satanic Bible) admitted that much.”
“What we really should be asking is what the sponsors of the Black Mass are aiming at. What is their goal?” Pecknold continued.
“The sponsors claim not to be mocking the Catholic faith, but that is precisely what Black Masses are designed to do: ridicule, desecrate and mock that which is most sacred and holy to Catholic Christians. Can you imagine if the same group treated the Jewish or Muslim faith this way?”
“My guess is that the aim is not reasoned argument, but spectacle designed to test the limits of toleration,” he suggested.
Questions regarding the purpose of the black mass re-enactment were also raised by William Edmund Fahey, president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H.
“As a College President, I am stunned that, under your leadership, Harvard University is hosting an event so injurious to a significant portion of the academic community,” Fahey wrote in a May 12 letter to Harvard president Drew Faust.
“As a Roman Catholic, I am equally shocked that you would sponsor an event which so clearly insults the beliefs and jeopardizes the well-being of every Catholic student, professor, and employee of Harvard University,” he continued.
“Indeed, I would argue that the well-being and beliefs of every member of the Harvard community are harmed. Can we pretend that even a single lie or act of hatred does not tear at the unseen fabric of a community?”
Fahey pointed to a section of the Harvard Handbook which states that certain religious events are “prohibited when the educational and work environment of an individual or the community is jeopardized.”
“The sponsorship of a Black ‘Mass’ seems clearly to fall in this category,” he said.
He also referenced the university’s hate speech codes, questioning why the school maintains policies against harassing speech but insists on allowing an event that administrators acknowledge to be “abhorrent,” “highly offensive,” and “flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory.”
Questioning how the administration can characterize the event as both repugnant and worthy of encouragement, Fahey called it “sheer intellectual dishonesty” to defend a satanic ritual as an educational or cultural endeavor.
Unlike a Buddhist meditation or a Shinto tea ceremony, which are also being hosted the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, a black mass “has as its fundamental premise the denigration of the central religious act of Roman Catholicism,” he stressed.
“The entire ritual is intended to mock and blaspheme the Christian God, and to call upon and pay homage to powers of darkness which are, as all Satanic worshippers will acknowledge, openly and strongly antagonistic toward Roman Catholics,” he said.
“Rather than foster religious ‘dialogue’ or provide cultural illumination, such a ‘re-enactment’ is in grave danger of inciting feelings of animosity toward the very Roman Catholics whose worship the service mocks and denigrates.”
In a May 12 statement, President Faust said it was “deeply regrettable” that the student group was choosing to host the event, which she described as “flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory.”
“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,” she said.
But despite acknowledging that the black mass “mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond,” Faust said that for the sake of “free expression,” the student group will be permitted to continue with its ceremony.
Faust said that to show her respect for the Catholic faith, she plans to attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction to be held by the Catholic community at St. Paul's Church on the edge of campus, to coincide with the black mass.
Pecknold noted this, saying, “I trust that far many more will join her in Eucharistic adoration tonight than will have anything to do with the Black Mass.”
“So perhaps the real object lesson here is that God always triumphs in the end, bringing good even out of the most disordered and absurd events at Harvard University.”