Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
On Monday, May 12, Harvard University is sanctioning one religion’s deliberate ritual mockery and denigration of another religion as “educational.” Neither Harvard University, nor the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club seem prepared to acknowledge that their actions have far wider implications than the Satanic Temple’s “Black Mass,” which are disturbing not merely to people of faith, but to all people of good will who believe in dignity and respect to all.
The “Black Mass” in a nutshell is a Satanic ritual that intended to mock Catholic belief and worship. We don’t know the exact origins of the “Black Mass” — whether the author of the Malleus Maleficarum was describing an actual Satanic ritual, or whether it was concocted from sheer imaginations by a theological crackpot whose lurid book was condemned by the Church in 1490. It doesn’t matter — whatever the origins, any practitioner of the “Black Mass” intends to denigrate and offend, as the Cultural Studies Club’s own presenter will inform the curious onlookers.
The CSC passed along to the Register their Kennedy School lecturer’s frank description of the Black Mass: “For those unaware of the ritual, a Black Mass is an intentional perversion of the traditional Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, taking the whole sacrament and turning it on its head. It is offensive to Christians and specifically to Catholics — and to be frank, it was designed to be that way.”
Here’s the thing: the Cultural Studies Club at Harvard is educating people about how a religious group — the Satanic Temple — has a religious ceremony — the “Black Mass” — to mock and vilify another religion and its core belief — the Catholic Church and its belief that Jesus Christ is present in his body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearances of consecrated bread.
I would give the CSC students the benefit of the doubt that they do not simply understand the consequences of their actions — it costs nothing to follow the example of Jesus Christ on the Cross and give them that benefit of the doubt.
President Drew Faust to her credit has unequivocally condemned the club’s actions as “abhorrent,” and a “fundamental affront” to Harvard’s values. But she stopped short of rescinding the club’s permission to host this “Black Mass” on Harvard’s campus citing academic freedom concerns. Unfortunately, Harvard has severely misjudged the serious ramifications that this inaction on the “Black Mass” holds for the future.
First of all, any decent person of good will, faith or no faith, would find Harvard’s failure to banish this event off its campus bizarre: it has taken action against offensive speech in the past. Why is Harvard allowing a precedent for any independent student group at Harvard to teach a fringe religious group’s ritual denigration of another religion? It’s a terrible error in judgment. Most people do not think of academic freedom as carte-blanche to educate others in religious hatred, which is what the Satanic “Black Mass” is pure and simple with its real (or simulated) desecration of the Eucharist, and calling down of curses on Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity.
Let’s say the CSC wanted to host a “re-enactment” an Inquisition book-burning and torch Torah scrolls and Qurans — the sacred things to Jews and Muslims. Even if the CSC said it was not using actual Torah scrolls or Qurans, but fake books — no decent person would buy into that excuse, because the fake books are just symbols, or stand-ins for the real thing. The club would still intend to present another group’s hostile act toward another’s sacred beliefs that decent people would condemn as offensive: anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-religion.
Symbolically, the club is participating in the Satanic Temple’s ritual denigration of Catholics, which Jews and Muslims and any people of faith would realize opens their own beliefs to desecration under the cover of “education.” Even though the CSC says it is not going to use an actual consecrated host, the Black Mass’s sponsor, the Satanic Temple, has demonstrated it couldn’t care less. That should tell Harvard what kind of group they’ve allowed on campus.
What decent person in their right mind would justify asking Pastor Terry Jones at Harvard to make a presentation on Islam and burn real (or fake) Qurans? What kind of person would bring the Ku Klux Klan on campus to give an educational, historical presentation and re-enactment of “cross-burning?” Who would want to host Illinois neo-Nazis to come at Harvard to re-enact an SS initiation ritual, or a Nazi torchlight procession through a Jewish neighborhood, complete with a lecturer giving historical commentary? Catholics, Jews, Muslims and people of good faith find these things repulsive, because they violate the dignity and respect owed to a human person.
Religious hatred has consequences in the real world. In the Middle East, Christians die on Fridays, when some radical imam preaches that a Christian has no human dignity or his religion deserves no respect, and his congregants act on that preaching. They kill also good Muslims who try to stand in their way. In the Central African Republic, Catholic priests and imams are desperately trying to preach mutual respect, dialogue, and forgiveness to prevent a genocide based on religious hatreds.
Our actions reveal who we are and what we truly believe. In Syria, Christians have witnessed to both Sunni and Alawi Muslims pitted on opposite sides of a civil war that peace depends on mutual respect — and they have paid for it with their lives, such as Jesuit Father Frans Van Der Lugt. The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, the Satanists at the Satanic Temple, and the silent Harvard Administration has revealed something about who they are.
The Catholics at Harvard and the Archdiocese of Boston reveal who they are in their response: They have chosen not confrontation, but prayer: to respond to the evil of having their religion denigration under the guise of academic freedom with an 8pm Eucharistic Holy Hour at St. Paul’s Church on campus as a peaceful response — and they have the solidarity of decent people of good will, whether they be of faith or no faith.
We could all learn from their example — so in lieu of comments below, say a prayer and do a good deed for someone in the world who least expects your kindness, and join the Catholics at Harvard in prayerful solidarity at 8 p.m. And if you want to ask the Harvard administration respectfully to reconsider its position and make sure this never happens again, you can email President Faust here, who is expected to join the Catholics at their Holy Hour.