Épater le bourgeois catholique

Stories about religion seem to do odd things to otherwise sensible reporters. Some news articles ignore the religious element of a story, or they suspend judgment (and belief) and accept without question or examination the claims of religions.

In my most recent GetReligion podcast with host Todd Wilken of Lutheran Public Radio I argued the fracas at Harvard University over a Black Mass was a fake story. By saying it was fake, I do not mean that it did not happen. Rather the press went along for the ride in a story about Satanic claims that set off a massive over reaction by the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

What we had was a student club seeking to shock bourgeois Catholic sensitivities with a faux outrage — and the leadership of the Catholic Church responded by using a bazooka to swat a fly.

How did this happen? Because reporters did not do their job and ask the hard questions at the start of the controversy. Once the hysteria began, it was too late to do anything. What we had was a Catholic version of the Terry Jones Koran burning story — this time with people involved in planning the event making conflicting claims about whether this rite would take place with a consecrated host.

After the story broke I posted an essay at GetReligion entitled “Why should the devil have all the best press?” that discussed the then planned Harvard Black Mass along with the annual academic conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum on exorcism. I argued that the newspapers should have asked some hard questions of Harvard and the Satanists who were supposed to be putting on the Black Mass.

Questions like: “Is this a real religion or are you recreating a scene from a 19th Century French horror novel and calling that a religion?” Or, “When you say you are Satanists what do you mean by that? Are you devil worshipers? Followers of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan?”

Which leads to the question is the ’60s Satanism of LaVey a bona fida religion or a scam?

LaVey has been accused of being a conman who attracted nuts (Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez the night stalker) while pursuing celebrities to join his cult: Sammy Davis Jr. and Jayne Mansfield, for example.

An apocryphal story about Sammy’s dalliance with Satanism was that it was part of a plug for his 1973 film, Poor Devil. And that he was briefly into the scene, man, for the chicks.

My second post on the Black Mass entitled “Some new facts on Harvard’s Satanists from Daily News” noted that newspaper’s reporting on the group and their claims. I applauded The Daily News for not taking at face value the claims of some members of the student club.

Though I did not mention it in the podcast, a commentary piece by Kathy Shaidle entitled “Pick your demons” offered the best overview of this contretemps, from my point of view. Discussing the reaction of the Catholic Church and Catholic commentators, Shaidle wrote:

So now Catholics are congratulating themselves for preventing a handful of dingbats from giggling their way through an hour of masturbatory “shock the bourgeoisie (of the 19th century)” performance art.

If only they’d shifted themselves so decisively when something truly evil was going on inside the Church itself. Did Eucharistic processions encircle courthouses where gay “marriage” was being declared law? With the exception of abortion, the last issue the Church seemed to be on the right, very public, side of was Solidarno??.

Sadly, the Catholics are taking their cues from the culture at large instead of the other way around. The Harvard Black Mass diversion was simply more no-risk, too-little-too-late activism of the #BringBackOurGirls variety. Because Satanists aren’t a protected identity group (yet), the protesters didn’t have to worry about being called homophobic or misogynist.

Let me say at the close that I am not discussing the reality or non-reality of Satan, the demonic or the occult. My concern is with reporters willing to suspend their critical judgment in order to sex up a story.

Well, that was what I had hoped to say in my interview. To listen to my latest rant click on the link.

Editor’s note: The short podcast to which George Conger is linking here was meant to be part of this week’s larger Crossroads podcast (click here for that podcast), in a twin-bill with Bobby Ross, Jr. At this point the main podcast link does not include Conger’s material. We hope to get this fixed as soon as possible.

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  • Julia B

    Actually, there were a lot of complaints that Catholics were not wanting to allow a religion to express itself. And that nobody has the right to silence people who say they are religious – even pastafarians. I posted a clip of one such that occurred on MSNBC involving Stephen Hayes and Fr James Martin. I’ve posted it again here.

    http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/should-satanists-be-treated-like-christians-256201795956

    Note the comments the eminently logical and unemotional Jesuit Fr Martin received at his FB page concerning all of this. I’ve never seen him “over-react” to anything. Why don’t you consider this Black Mass to be a serious matter? Catholics consider that something real is happening in the Mass, even if Episcopalians think it is all just symbolic.

    https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10152036162616496

    • fredx2

      That would be true if the ones putting this one were Satanists. In fact, they were atheists who did not even believe in Satanism. So, it was not an attempt to exercise their religion, it was just a liitle hate speech exercise by a few morons.

      • Julia B

        I think it was The Anchoress who spoke with the so-called Satanists’ leader who told her something like – well, we aren’t really going to use a consecrated host b/c we don’t believe in real consecrated hosts anyway. Woah! That was a way of saying that yes they have one and plan to use it and they think it’s a joke. It was only later that they said definitely there would be no consecrated host. Jerks!
        I was watching the ceremonies at Yad Vashem yesterday with the Pope and the Israeli dignitaries – would these “Satanist” idiots dare to mock those kinds of ceremonies?
        Saying that Catholics should just let it go is the same as saying our rituals are nothing to be taken seriously or respected. I don’t care if these idiots aren’t real “Satanists”, this whole business has revealed what lots of other people really think of Catholics. We are a joke to many of our fellow Christians. This episode proves it.

      • tmatt

        And worthy of coverage, as such.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I fear that you have strayed from the critique of journalism proper to this blog and into theological and pastoral critique. But given that you have, I will challenge your critique, with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

    1) It is to be noted that the main people who pushed this story forward were the Catholics (indeed, friends of this blog) Deacon Greg Kandra and Elizabeth Scalia. Without their vigilance, this would probably have not been noticed and it would have ended up being far more blasphemous than it was, in the sense that they would have gone fully forward with their proposed actions. Kandra’s and Scalia’s reactions were that this was a horrible thing that was planned and the press were responding to that reality.

    2) A threatened black mass is nothing to ignore, no matter the stature of who makes the threat. Considering Catholic theology of the Eucharist — it is the source and summit of our faith, the very Real Presence of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and I could go on — any blasphemy committed against It is a blasphemy of the highest (or should I say “lowest”?) order and is to be opposed with all our resources, even if it is being done by idiotic, attention-craving young people. The proposed action was no “flea.” Perhaps the people doing it were “fleas” comparatively speaking, but their proposed actions were anything but flea-like.

    So by saying that this was no big deal and should have been ignored by Catholics, I believe you’re letting your Anglican prejudices get in the way.

    • Thinkling

      I can sympathize with this to an extent, and also want to note fellow Patheosi Elizabeth Scalia’s huge efforts to get to both get to the bottom of the story, and to get the word out that indeed there was a story (or so she thought).

      But I can also sympathize with the OP, due to another Patheosi, Tom McDonald, who has studied these types of phenomena and basically concluded the incidents were basically publicity stunts. Not to poo poo the sacreligious threat, but he noted if there was real serious concern about what these students were going to do, we would never had heard about them. The publicity gives them away. If one followed Scalia’s efforts to do her own investigative journalism, one also was struck by the fishiness of what she found trying to interact with people involved. She herself often wondered how legit the whole thing was.

      So while this had potential to be a very serious story, it could easily have been defused into the Andy Warhol-esque 15 minute seeking it was, if only there was some good journalism up front.

      • fredx2

        What was even funnier is that originally, they scheduled the event to take place at a bar on Harvard property.
        That was cancelled, so they approached another bar owner, who denied them access.
        So, rather than ask, they showed up at the Hong Kong Restuarant’s bar, and according to the bar tender, they sat quietly and talked among themselves.
        Get that – they seemed to have intended a night of drinking no matter what happened. Why else use a bar as the venue?
        It was just some babies wanting to get attention.
        The church responded to this attempt to publicly mock and defame their Mass properly – by holding prayer vigils that reinforced belief among its faithful. By having a public profession of the Eucharist.
        And, they were atheists, not Satanists, so they were just trying to get attention.

    • tmatt

      Noted.

      • tmatt

        In this case, I side with Thomas. I believe there were valid, factual elements of the story that led to scandal. But George speaks for himself here.

    • George Conger

      I do not agree with you. And it has nothing to do with a belief or non belief in a real presence.

      A fringe group makes a claim that they would do something scandalous. No investigation is made by the media into the groups bona fides. Self-identified Catholic commentators see the potential for scandal and ask questions that leads them to believe something could happen. Hysteria ensues.

      There was no story here that I can see. The only difference between this and the Terry Jones story was that Terry Jones did have a Koran.

      My sympathies lie with the Kathy Shaidle story I cited above.

  • boinkie

    actually, it doesn’t matter; calling on Satan might just get you an answer, even if it was a joke.


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