Where would newspapers or television be without devil stories? Satanic ritual abuse, exorcisms, secret cults and rituals, demon possession — all are beloved by editors, and as Dan Brown knows well are snapped up by readers. I would make my fortune if I could write a story whose key words include Satan, an albino member of Opus Dei, Miley Cyrus and the Episcopal Church.
Coincidentally, a student club at Harvard has caught the attention of the Catholic Church and, through one of the heroines of the Catholic blogosphere, the American media after they announced plans to hold a Black Mass. The reaction to the Harvard story leads me to ask whether the press has sensationalized this incident. No one seems to have asked the question: What sort of Harvard Satanists are we discussing? Atheistic Satanists in the tradition of Anton LaVey, devil worshipers or silly students?
Which also prompts me to ask, who gets to define what a Satanist is?
The European wire service ANSA reports:
Catholic prelates from 33 countries are in Italy for the ninth annual conference on exorcism. ‘Exorcism and Prayer for Liberation’ is on through May 10 and is expected to draw 200 participants from countries as far afield as Australia and South Korea. Events are spread between Rome and Bologna. “It’s devoted mostly to priests who are the first to learn the ministry of exorcism, but not only to them,” said Father Cesare Truqui, an exorcist from the Legionaries of Christ, which is organizing the conference together with Catholic organization GRIS. “A priest is usually side by side with a group of laypeople who help,” he told Vatican Radio.
The story provides colorful comments from Father Truqui, who:
… noted that Pope Francis in his April 11 homily admonished the faithful to “learn to fight the devil … who exists even in the 21st century”. “The pope reminds us,” added the exorcist, “that speaking of demons doesn’t mean creating a new theology outside the Gospels, but rather staying within Jesus Christ’s teachings”.
It was after having read these Italian press accounts of the annual exorcism conference in Rome that I came across stories in Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald about Satanism at Harvard. (The Boston Globe has since filed their report.) The story has piqued the imagination of the Catholic press and spawned (spawn of Satan?) a great deal of chatter on the Internet. Is the noise justified from a press perspective, though?
The Herald approaches the story through a statement released by the Archdiocese of Boston calling upon the school to “disassociate” itself from a Black Mass planned for Monday.
“The Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Boston expresses its deep sadness and strong opposition to the plan to stage a ‘black mass’ on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge,” the archdiocese said in a statement this morning. “For the good of the Catholic faithful and all people, the Church provides clear teaching concerning Satanic worship. This activity separates people from God and the human community, it is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil.
The Herald reports the archdiocese in Boston, like Truqui in Rome, quoted Pope Francis as warning of the
… danger of being naïve about or underestimating the power of Satan, whose evil is too often tragically present in our midst. We call upon all believers and people of good will to join us in prayer for those who are involved in this event, that they may come to appreciate the gravity of their actions, and in asking Harvard to disassociate itself from this activity.”
The Herald adds some context to the story noting:
The black mass, reenacted by members of a New York-based group known as Satanic Temple, is being hosted by the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club. On its web site, the club called the reenactment educational and said it is not meant to “denigrate any religion or faith.” The club said a piece of bread is used in the reenactment but it won’t include a “consecrated host.”
Boston Magazine offers more detail about the groups taking part in the Black Mass.
The group has teamed up with members from the New York-based Satanic Temple, the same organization that has been fighting tooth and nail to get a bronze Satanic statue installed outside of Oklahoma’s State House this year, to carry out the demonstration and reenactment of the Black Mass. The Satanic Temple will provide commentary and historical background as the ritual is happening, according to event details posted on the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club’s website.
Call me a cynic if you will, but this all appears contrived. Is it a coincidence that shortly after a high-profile conference on exorcism takes place in Rome, a politically savvy activist group teams up with a student club to host this event? If I wanted to publicize my cause, this is how I would go about doing so.
The scholarly literature tells us that while Black Masses appear in fiction, there is no historical evidence that any such rite or cultic activity ever took place. In recent years some new sects may have created their own Black Masses, but does that qualify as a religious tradition? When staging a “reenactment,” as the kids at Harvard like to call this stunt, does that not imply they are doing something that has been done before?
And what sort of Satanism are we discussing? Is this the Satanism associated with Anton LaVey? LaVey’s Church of Satan propounds an atheistic, materialistic school of thought — and does not worship demons. Or is this group reenacting what they believe to be a ritual that seeks to glorify the power of the demonic? Should the press have asked these questions?
The Herald found a way to avoid the issue by allowing the Catholic Church to characterize what sort of Satanists are involved in the Black Mass. The protests of the archdiocese make this a bona fide news story. This raises the question of whether the archdiocese was wise to do what it did, but that is a public relations issue, not a question of reporting.
Is it the press’s job to decide what is a bona fide religion? Should it investigate the claims and antecedents of cults, holding them up to scrutiny? Where is the line drawn between a crackpot group and a new religious movement? And am I making a category error? Is the work of the Rome conference directed towards combating the sort of things planned by the Harvard student club? Should they be linked, or am I elevating one to a prominence it does not deserve.
What say you, GetReligion readers?