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?

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What’s the black-market value of a Host in Ottawa right now?

When dealing with a crime, journalists (as well as police, of course) often ask question about what may or may not have been the motives behind the illegal act. That’s pretty logical, right?

With break-ins and common thefts, it is commonly assumed that the criminals want to sell valuable stolen goods on the black market. Diamonds are valuable, as are computers, etc. Money is money.

If that is the case, then the following story from The Ottawa Citizen — “Special mass held after theft of church’s tabernacle” — has a rather glaring hole, journalistically speaking.

First things first: Under Associated Press style, that reference in the headline — and later on in the story text — should be “Mass,” rather than the lower-case “mass.”

Second, the first question that jumped into my mind after reading the headline was this: Did the whole Harvard University “black Mass” story receive much coverage on wire services in Canada?

Why ask that question? Well, because of that logical crime-motive question I hinted at earlier.

So there is another question to ponder: What is the street price these days for a holy tabernacle stolen from a Catholic altar? And, yes, what is the going price on the fake-pagan market these days for containers of consecrated bread and wine? What is the price per Host? After all a “black Mass” with a consecrated Host is much more scandalous than one served with cookies, potato chips, ordinary bread or whatever banal or crude substance leaps to mind.

One key detail in this crime didn’t make it into the headline or the lede, but was briefly mentioned in an early quote. The first thing Catholic readers are going to want to know was whether the tabernacle’s contents were stolen. The golden box is valuable. The consecrated items inside are Sacraments.

As police began investigating the break-in, theft and graffiti as a possible hate crime, priests and parishioners from other local Catholic churches went to the St. Martin de Porres church in Bells Corners for a special “reparation” mass Friday.

“We have a long history of tradition and rituals and we have special masses and special prayers we can say when someone has done something like this, when they’ve desecrated a church, when they’ve stolen the blessed sacrament,” said Father Geoffrey Kerslake, episcopal vicar with the Archdiocese of Ottawa.

Kerslake, one of the leaders of Friday’s mass, said he found the parishioners’ response “striking.” He said the community wasn’t angry at whoever took the tabernacle and sprayed graffiti, which police said contained hateful words towards the Catholic church. “Although people were obviously shocked, and sad, I didn’t see any anger,” he said. “I didn’t see hatred. I didn’t see people screaming out for vengeance.”

Once again, Associated Press style is “Blessed Sacrament” rather than “blessed sacrament,” but it appears that the Ottawa Citizen copy desk disagrees with some doctrines in the omnipresent bible of daily journalism.

It’s clear that the material value question was asked, in this case. The spiritual question? Read on:

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