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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Some new facts on Harvard’s Satanists from Daily News

The Harvard Satanist story will not die. Monday’s Black Mass continues to generate conversation on social media. Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are full of opinions and, in some cases, new information about Monday’s planned Black Mass at Harvard.

Into this mix has stepped the New York Daily News report that provides some new facts. In fact, this second day story answers several of the questions I raised in my GetReligion piece “Why should the Devil have all the best press?”

From the Daily News we learn that the Black Mass scheduled for next week is not a religious ceremony, but a literary event. At the top of its story the Daily News notes there is no historical evidence that Black Masses were ever celebrated. In its typically crisp style it noted:

The black mass is an inversion of the traditional Catholic Mass that medieval people associated with witches. The witches were accused of stealing a consecrated piece of Communion bread for the mass and worshipping the Devil. However, there’s little evidence that the specter of black masses was anything more than myth that was used by people in power to justify witch hunts and trials.

Of course, it would have been nice to have seen some attribution for that sweeping statement, but that is not the key point of this post. The key is that the team at The Daily News interviewed some of the organizers and reported the information that they are claiming this alleged Black Mass is a mere literary construct, not a religious event:

Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves says his group contacted the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club to organize a re-enactment of a black mass based on the imaginings of French writer Joris-Karl Huysman in the novel “La-bas.” Huysman wrote the novel during the French Occult Revival of the 1800s.

I presume then the club will recite portions of Chapter 19 of La-bas, (The Damned), which presents the Black Mass. However, if you read the service it is quite clear this is not magical or religious language, but a Huysman rant against the crimes of the Catholic Church. A sample:

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Why should the devil have all the best press?

Satan sells newspapers.

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.

The Satan angle has propelled the news of what would otherwise be an unremarkable conference being held this week at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum into the eye of the European press.

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.

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Why steal the blood of the Blessed Pope John Paul II?

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So let’s talk about the theft of that relic containing the blood of the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

For starters, I admit that this whole subject is a little strange for people who are not members of the ancient Christian churches of the East and the West.

Also, there appears to be some confusion about what, precisely, was stolen. Some reports say that robbers stole a vial of the pope’s blood, while others — BBC for example — report that the object stolen was a “piece of gauze once soaked in the blood of the late pope.”

Either way, journalists trying to cover this story face the challenge of answering one crucial question: Why would someone want a vial of the blood of someone such as this beloved pope, who will be proclaimed a Catholic saint in April?

This Religion News Service report contains several logical answers to that question. For example:

The thief or thieves made off with a large crucifix and a gold reliquary containing the vial of the blood of John Paul, who will be proclaimed a saint in April.

Once John Paul is elevated to sainthood, artifacts from his life will increase in value.

It was not immediately clear whether the intentions are to ransom the vial, sell it, or keep it for religious purposes.

Yes, there is the chance that the thieves could hold this relic for ransom. Several news reports have, thus, noted that this crime feels more like a kidnapping than an ordinary robbery.

Of course, using that same logic, the relic could also be sold as a treasure and the market price would rise with the upcoming rites to declare the Blessed John Paul II a saint.

But that only begs the ultimate question, which is suggested in the RNS report’s statement that someone may want to “keep it for religious purposes.”

So what, precisely, does “religious purposes” mean? Is the suggestion here that the goal is to sell this to a traditional Catholic, the kind of person who believes that such relics are signs of God’s power in the material world, a power that is somehow displayed in the bodies and lives of the saints? Really?

Let me make a comparison. Years ago, I had a chance to interview the Rev. Billy Graham about the process he goes through when preparing to preach. I asked him if he had a special Bible that he used in the pulpit. He laughed and said, no, he kept a stack of new Bibles for that purpose. Why? He said people often stole his Bible when he went out in public.

Stop and think about this for a minute: If you stole Billy Graham’s Bible, to whom would you show it off? Who would be impressed, as opposed to appalled? Does a devout person steal that Bible?

The bottom line: Do you sell a stolen vial of a John Paul II blood to the kind of doctrinally conservative Catholic who would want to venerate it?

Thus, some news outlets are turning that “religious purposes” answer on its head.

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Haunted story or not? On vampires, Satanism and murder

Day after day, the stunning story of young Morgan Lane Arnold has unfolded in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, with each revelation only making key elements of this bloody crime more and more mysterious.

Here are some of the core details. Sometime after 4 a.m. on May 10, Arnold’s boyfriend allegedly stabbed her father to death. The boyfriend told police that Arnold left a sliding door unlocked and urged him, in a barrage of personal messages, to kill her dad while he slept — so that the youngsters could flee as a couple. The girlfriend of the divorced dad managed to escape the attack.

In a recent update, the Sun team noted — no surprise here, in this day and age — that Arnold had previously been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Her parents had radically disagreed with one another on the prickly issue of how to treat her condition, in terms of medication, counseling and a strategy for mainstream schooling.

How much of the following information — the overture for this latest chapter in the drama — will surprise readers who have been paying attention to tragic news stories of this kind?

Morgan Lane Arnold, an emotionally frail 14-year-old freshman, navigated the hallways of her Howard County high school each day filled with anxiety, unable because of a learning disorder to decipher the social cues, jokes and emotions of her peers.

Her preferred environment, often accented by a Japanese anime soundtrack streaming through snug earplugs, featured a mix of fairies, mermaids and vampires, according to her mother. They were the protagonists of a digital realm where she said she was “practicing making friends” through role-playing games and social media.

“Her electronic communication devices were her world,” Cindi Arnold said in an interview last week, the first extended comments since Morgan and her boyfriend were charged with murdering her father, Dennis Lane, in his Ellicott City home. “That is how she felt comfortable interacting with her peers.”

So what makes this a GetReligion story? Is there a religion ghost in this tale?

I will say, right up front, that I am not sure. After the initial reports, I kept reading — expecting a religion shoe to drop in this tragedy.

Finally, there was this, via her mother, Cindi Arnold:

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