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‘Black Mass’ at Harvard: Not a black and white issue

Black mass montage of occult goat skull overlaid with a Satanic pentagram against a grunge texture background of alchemy symbols.
Black mass montage of occult goat skull overlaid with a Satanic pentagram against a grunge texture background of alchemy symbols.

Black mass montage of occult goat skull overlaid with a Satanic pentagram against a grunge texture background of alchemy symbols.

When I first heard about the planned “Black Mass” reenactment at Harvard Extension School, scheduled for tonight (Monday), I had mixed feelings. (Update: Organizers have announced they are moving the event to an off-campus site.)

I am an atheist and an advocate of free expression. But as a member of the Harvard community, this event troubles me—and it raises concerns about the selective ways in which we support free speech.

The Cultural Studies Club at Harvard Extension School has argued that the reenactment, led by the New York-based Satanic Temple, is intended to be educational: “Our purpose is not to denigrate any religion or faith, which would be repugnant to our educational purposes, but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices.”

This event, however, is not merely a “different cultural practice.” It is designed to specifically parody and mock a sacred Catholic ritual.

As a Harvard chaplain working to support students of all religious and nonreligious identities, I can’t help but think of the many Catholic friends and social justice activists who have inspired me. Though one could argue the “Black Mass” is a sincerely practiced Satanic ritual, it also clearly targets Catholicism.

It should be no surprise, then, that Catholics at Harvard and beyond are concerned—as are many of us with Catholic friends and colleagues, myself included.

On the other hand, I’m resolutely committed to free expression. The right to freedom of speech—even speech that deeply offends—is essential. As a queer atheist, I’ve been the target of numerous attacks on my most central beliefs and my very personhood. Yet I understand that just as I must be free to condemn such speech, others must be free to offer it.

After listening to arguments for and against the planned “Black Mass,” I wasn’t sure how to respond—but then I spoke with an atheist friend who is also a former Catholic. She said that she thinks the Cultural Studies Club should certainly be allowed to host this event. But she also said that, even as an atheist, it feels like an attack on her Catholic family members and friends.

So I asked myself: How would I respond if this were a ceremony designed to mock the sincerely held beliefs, practices, or identities of another group? How would I feel if it were a “Black Seder” instead of a “Black Mass”? What if this were a ritual mocking a same-sex wedding ceremony? The sense of liberation an atheist feels when she can speak openly about her skepticism? A Muslim call to prayer?

Would I react in the same manner?

It is a difficult question that evades an easy answer.

I don’t mean to equate Catholicism with Islam, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) identity, atheism, Judaism, or any other identity or worldview. Muslims, Jews, Catholics, LGBTQ people, and atheists have historically experienced very different kinds of oppression and prejudice, and continue to today.

Rather, I’d like to invite all involved to consider how we sometimes unintentionally approach freedom of speech issues selectively, depending on the things that we care about—revealing our own biases in the process.

Ultimately, we cannot succumb to the desire to shut down free speech. But instead of immediately waving away concerns, we should also confront the sincerity behind both the “Black Mass”—and the responses to it.

Is there a genuine moral intent behind what appears to be a mockery of a practice that connects and strengthens many Catholics?

How should we approach practices that specifically target another community?

If this event is intended to educate, provoke discussion, and challenge religious ideas, is there another way to do so that invites critical thinking and conversation, rather than inciting suspicion and distrust between communities?

In other words, this situation is far too complicated for anyone to respond to the genuine offense of a group by simply saying, “Sorry, but freedom of speech.”

I’m heartened that most of the responses from the Harvard community haven’t called for the administration to intervene and cancel the event, or simply dismissed the concerns of Catholic members of our community—but have instead called for an expanded and inclusive dialogue. In a statement, Harvard President Drew Faust said, “I plan… to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.”

Perhaps this incident will inspire diverse groups to meet with one another and openly discuss their disagreements and differences. I suspect that a conversation between Catholics, Satanists, and others could very well be more constructive than an event mocking a sincerely practiced Catholic ritual behind closed doors.

But then again, no issue concerning religious freedom and free expression is black and white—not even a “Black Mass.”


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  • You’ve answered your own questions.
    The ritual (play acting or not) serves to denigrate, mock, and belittle. It is not an action to foster relations or free speech. It is nothing more than an intolerant act clothed in a demand for inclusion and tolerance.

  • “How should we approach practices that specifically target another community?”

    How about Mormonism’s classification of itself as Christianity? Christianity’s positioning itself as a successor to Judaism? Catholicism’s incorporation of gods from pagan and native religions into its system of saints, or different versions of the Virgin Mary? (On the last, next time you’re in D.C. pay a visit to the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University of America for examples.)

    Religions–like other parts of human cultures–tend to be highly syncretic, absorbing elements of other cultures and adapting them to fit.

    It seems to me that you are on a slippery slope–if you object to Satanism’s incorporation and revision of elements of the Catholic Mass, then you should also object to Catholicism’s incorporation and revision of elements of other religions, as well as to other syncretic religions like Voodoo, Santeria, Rastafarianism, and so on.

  • Denigration of other cultures and faiths is an integral part of Christian and Muslim religious practices and beliefs. It is the essential step taken in proselytizing of a monotheistic faith. Such efforts are deeply offensive to the religious beliefs of others and usually involve some form of mockery. Yet Christians and Muslims are charged with a duty to convert (and essentially insult) the “heathens”.

    The only difference between such efforts and the Black Mass are the Satanists acknowledge the acts are offensive and aren’t making excuses for it.

  • So how does this differ to missionaries and proselytizing efforts who frequently insult, mock and belittle the religious beliefs of others in their effort to “Spread the Word”?

    The missionaries and others never acknowledge that they are giving offense.

  • Aren’t you equating the actions of individuals with the purpose of a black mass?
    The 2 are not the same. The New Testament teaches that if ‘the word’ is falling on deaf ears then you are to wish them peace and don’t let the dust settle on your feet. Some individuals may take the actions and speak the derogatory words, but to do so contradicts the teachings of the Church.
    Conversely, the entire purpose of a black mass is to mock, belittle and denigrate what Catholics hold sacred.
    There is a vast difference between the 2.

  • Why not?

    They are both intentional denigration of another religious belief and practice. The difference being the missionaries/proselytizers are usually tone deaf to the offense they give. The Satanists are open and honest about it.

    What the New Testament says about “falling on deaf ears” and how Christianity is actually practiced in this regard are two very very different things. You are simply trying to put spin on centuries of offense given.

    Its not “some individuals may take actions and speak derogatory words” its been a regular practice from inception of the faith. Its been part and parcel with the role of a missionary. You are simply using a “No True Scotsman” argument to make light of what has been a significant part of how the religion has always been spread.

  • With the introduction of Holy Communion in the hand it is very easy for the likes of these to leave a Catholic Mass with a consecrated Host.

  • Not at all,
    One are the actions of individuals, and the other is a stated purpose and intent.
    The intent of a black mass serves the sole purpose of denigrating the Catholic faith.
    Equivalence in this instance only justifies intolerance.

  • First –it is funny how, recently, the burning of a Koran brought instant condemnation from all quarters and very little discussion of freedom of speech.
    But the central act of Catholic worship–the Mass–gets trashed and violated and all of a sudden its debate time.
    The fact of the matter is that the First Amendment protections of free speech are directed at protecting citizens from any government abuse of power–not the rights of any organization to police its own internal affairs. Harvard could easily, within the law, tell this group to practice its mockery elsewhere. In fact, nearby, at Brandeis University they did what they had every right to do-decided not to give an honorary degree to an activist woman fighting against the abuse of women in Islamic countries (opposing, particularly, things like genital mutilation of women). She was derided widely in academe as being” homophobic .” as she was shown the door.
    But, apparently, it is OK to mock Catholic worship which is what the Black Mass is really all about.

  • Obviously you have personal, unsettled issues with faith systems in general and Christianity in particular. I’d imagine the same of black mass participants. Perhaps we should all attend to our own issues first before mocking others. If you believe someone is trying to convert you maybe you can act the adult and ask them to stop. Used to work with the Hare Krishnas.

  • There is nothing wrong with trying to persuade or argue people to one’s point of view. They do this in the political world all the time. In fact atheists are more and more evangelizing their point of view–you can see this in comments at web sites all across the internet. But Christians defending themselves or promoting their point of view, even politely and thoughtfully, seems to infuriate some beyond the parameters of civilized, but strong. debate .

  • It is my understanding that the Black Mass has some history behind it and is not something that a Satanist made up last week just to garner publicity. It is part of the religion of Satanism, is it not? If Catholics are going to believe in an entity named Satan who is God’s nemesis, it would seem to make a certain kind of sense that a Satanic mass would be an inversion of a Catholic mass.

    Given that, it seems to me that any call for Satanists to abandon the Black Mass is a tacit declaration that some religions are “more equal than others,” so to speak. What gives Catholics and “interfaith” types the right to decide what kind of rituals other people can perform?

    Mr. Stedman brings up the hypothetical example of someone parodying a same-sex wedding ceremony. First of all: So what? As a gay man, if someone wants to stage a mock gay wedding it makes no difference to me. Secondly, surely Mr. Stedman is aware that a great many Christians view gay weddings as themselves being twisted mockeries of opposite-sex marriages. They get quite upset over it, really. I suspect that Mr. Stedman doesn’t lose much sleep over their outrage and hurt feelings (I know I don’t), and so I wonder why this does not lead him to reconsider his position that Satanists should refrain from performing rituals that offend others.

    There are situations in which free-speech absolutism can be problematic, but I honestly don’t see how this is one of them. At the risk of sounding flippant: if you don’t like Black Masses (or gay weddings), consider declining an invitation to one. Beyond that, it is not your business what type of religious services others choose to hold.

  • Re: “This event, however, is not merely a ‘different cultural practice.’ It is designed to specifically parody and mock a sacred Catholic ritual.”

    So there’s no freedom of expression for parody? Or is this prohibition limited solely to “religious” parody … because religion is ALWAYS above reproach or something?

    I must have missed the “no one is ever permitted to critique religion” law when it was passed. Can someone please cite the statute? Thanks!

  • But we aren’t talking about a critique or different cultural practice. We are talking about something specifically designed to mock, denigrate, and belittle the Catholic faith.
    Harvard attempts to display and proclaim their tolerance by allowing insult and mockery, how tolerant of them.

  • I wonder what our Founding Fathers, who wrote the First Amendment, would say. Though not all Christians, and some even anti-Catholic, they recognized that religion has a positive role to play in people’s lives.

  • The black mass is a hate ritual, regardless of your faith or afaith perspective. Let’s hold a KKK cross burning next for the dramatics. Same hate, different day.

  • Judging intent seems to be the moot point here. Does the Black Mass have religious, cultural or artistic merit? Or is it masquerading behind freedom of expression for the underlying purpose of vilifying Catholicism? Not an easy thing to decide and not easy to determine who best to decide. Both paths (freedom and censorship) are, at their extremes, poison for any society. Both at their extreme have the potential to lead to some sort of oppression and even violence. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws enacted to protect faith and believers from insult, are today used legally and politically to suppress and terrorise minority religions, especially ‘other’ Muslims. In 1987, photographer Andres Serrano used freedom of expression to portray the religious figure of Jesus Christ(as) drenched in urine.

    Regardless of the legal semantics applied around the concepts of freedom and offence, I think it is entirely possible for thoughtful people of goodwill to express their faith, point of view or criticism in a respectful manner. And allowing others to do the same (respectfully) is essential to a harmonious, pluralistic society. I don’t accept the argument that simply presenting a point of view (e.g. through religious preaching) is to ‘always’, by definition, insult the person who disagrees. That is nonsense.

  • Not just positive, but essential. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” –John Adams. We live in interesting times, when we might finally get to see whether or not the Founders were right about this.

  • The very definition of a black mass intentionally mocks, degrades, and belittles the Catholic Mass. It is a travesty, an insult, and has no desire to create an atmosphere of free and open dialogue.
    The Harvard student group was doing nothing more than giving a very public platform to a group to preach intolerance, while wrapping themselves in a jingoistic cloak of free speech.

  • I’d rather live in a country that celebrates freedom of religion and speech and does not restrict such because someone takes offense at the meaning they see therein.

  • @Joanna No I don’t have issues, I have points to make that you are just uncomfortable with. But I see where you are trying to marginalize my position by pretending I am somehow crazy, hostile and off kilter. Its a very typically passive-aggressive Christian response in an effort to ignore the conversation and not particularly appreciated. .

    Far from it. I am pointing out merely how tone deaf many Christians are to actions which would be considered offensive to someone outside their beliefs.

    Maybe you can act like an adult and address the conversation instead of trying to give backhanded insults.

    One does not proselytize by showing respect or understanding of one’s pre-existing belief. The act of proselytizing always involves denigrating the faith of others in favor of your own. Conversion of the heathens involves attacking and denigrating their “savage unchristian ways”.

    Equivalence in this instance is merely being honest about what it means to be on the other side of such things. Showing a little perspective that is otherwise ignored.

  • @Larry
    Conversion and a call to the faith most certainly does not involve denigrating others beliefs. It is counter productive and counter intuitive.
    Are there examples of this being done? Of course and with a 2,000 year history you may find 2,000 examples simply using 1 per year. Holding this up as an equivalence and a matter of routine and practice is not accurate or true.
    Peace be with You!

  • To do so you have to denigrate and attack the religious belief of the person you are trying to convert. It is giving offense, although you don’t think so, because you are doing it for the Lord. Many Christians excuse offensive actions on such a basis.

    We have an article on this site about how the Vatican is annoyed that Jesuits in India are too respectful of Hinduism in their efforts to convert people. That they are not insulting that faith enough in order to sell Catholicism.

    The problem is you are so used to being on the giving end of denigrating another’s religious faith that you have no perspective of what it means to be on the other side of it. As I have been saying, you are tone deaf to the offense you are giving. Now the situation is reversed.

  • Not unlike when Christians make efforts to convert people over to their faith. Such efforts require mocking, denigrating and belittling the religion of the subject.

  • Welcome to the First Amendment. It protects not only stuff you like, but stuff you don’t.

  • Do you not see, Larry, that you are doing the same thing right now that you are accusing Christians of? You are belittling our faith, constantly saying that it doesn’t make sense. You don’t even make an effort to try and understand it. And you’re doing all of this for yourself. To make yourself look better than a people of faith. If you were so sure of your stance in no God, you wouldn’t be trying so hard to justify it. You would have no need to.

  • Its not an accusation at all. Its simply seeing a side to actions that you are unwilling to look at. Pointing out facts that you don’t want to consider is hardly an act of insult.

    I am not saying your religion doesn’t make sense, for whatever that means. I am saying your religion give deliberate and intemtional offense to others in efforts to “spread the word”. To complain about being on the other side of such things is simply being hypocritical.

  • Interesting that you use a Christian ceremony as an example of a hate ritual. The KKK are a christian organization. Cross burning is considered an act of devotion.

    (And legally OK if it is on your own property according to Justice Clarence Thomas)

  • I have not said they have no right to express their beliefs (or lack thereof). I have criticized the student group. They were elevating the satanic groups written and stated intolerance as something to be tolerated and worthy of consideration. If it were directed at most any other group, it would be categorized as hate speech.

  • I am supporting free speech and free exercise of religion. There are far worse things than being offended. People who give offense on a regular basis should not be surprised if it is returned.

    I am bringing up the inconvenient fact that Christians give offense to other faiths as legitimate and accepted method of religious expression. Its only Christian privilege which allows them to think they can give offense but are somehow immune to receiving it.

  • I hate to break the news to you but a lot of what Christians and Muslims consider a vital part of their religious belief, to try to convert the unbelievers, is based on making statements of intolerance.

    How often is hell invoked by Christians to apply to people of a different faith? How often has a sect been considered heretical, “not really …” by detractors?

    Demonizing faiths and sects which believe differently (and compete for the same populations) is part and parcel with trying to get them to accept “the good news”. For example, one of the oldest arguments for antisemitism was that the Jews were a wicked people for refusing to accept Christ.

  • The quote is from Adams’ Message to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, which may be found in its entirety on pages 228-229 of Vol. IX of The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author by Charles Francis Adams (1854).

    Is “nuh-uh” really the best argument you can come up with? Read something besides atheist propaganda sites, for a change.

  • The whole link won’t post. But it’s easy to pull up on google books if you’re truly interested. Here is the address in its entirety.

    While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays I have received from Major-General Hull and Brigadier, General Walker your unanimous address from Lexington, animated with a martial spirit, and expressed with a military dignity becoming your character and the memorable plains on which it was adopted. in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the Nvorld; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, • would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

    An address from the officers commanding two thousand eight hundred men, consisting of such substantial citizens as are able and willing at their own expense completely to arm and clothe themselves in handsome uniforms, does honor to that division of the militia which has done so much honor to its country. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken and so solemnly repeated on that venerable spot, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.

  • The Catechism of the Church is on-line and available with key word search functions. If you really want to know what she teaches, you will find it there.

    Otherwise you are simply making broad brush arguments painting all with the color you choose, facts don’t matter.

  • That sounds all enlightened and stuff, but really, what does any of that mean? I ask this in all seriousness. When and where do you plan to draw the line between what you might view as “legitimate” critique, and “mocking” and “denigrating”? Precisely what metric would you like to apply?

    There are people in the world who seriously view even the slightest negative statement about their religion, to be “mocking” and “denigrating,” and they will go up in flames over it. Even things you subjectively might view as innocuous, could very easily enraged them. But should they … really?

    If what you’re saying is that NO parody or critique of anything religious is acceptable, so long as anyone anywhere might be offended by it, then you’re essentially saying no parody or critique of any religion is permissible at all. Which I am not going to buy into. That some religionists are whiny and hypersensitive, is not a valid reason to demand silence on the part of everyone else.

    In any event, the idea of the so-called “Black Mass” originated as an accusation to hurl against people the Church disliked. It doesn’t appear to be something anyone actually did, at least not until much more recently (after the Church’s propaganda efforts had generated sufficient legend about it). If, now, the Catholic Church is faced with the unpleasantness of its own propaganda campaign … well, tough cookies! Time for them to toughen up and take their lumps. For once.

    One last consideration: Church personnel are being hypocritical when they demand that no one else on the planet ever “offend” them, whereas their own officials, spokesmen, and defenders have, historically, not hesitated to offend others, whenever they’ve felt like it. You know, like the time when a bishop blamed the priestly pedophilia scandal on the Jews ( And when a cardinal blamed it on gays ( And when a bishop blamed the abuse on victims (,Top-archbishop-in-children-searching-for-love-gaffe), and when one of their media figures did the same (

    There is, of course, more … a lot more. If you need more examples, I’d be happy to provide them. (They’re remarkably easy to collect.) The number of times the Catholic Church has offended people is legion (to use a gospel-ism). Please explain how and why they’ve somehow managed to climb the moral high-ground sufficiently that they can now demand no one ever “offend” them?

  • Your link is crap. You fail to get the point that there is an active effort to fabricate quotes of founders to suit a fundamentalist theocratic agenda.

    I can cite numerous areas where this is apparent. Including your quote

    My prior link showed it was actually a paraphrase from a prior letter with no other corroborating reference.

    David Barton makes a living off of such fiction. It is taken as an article of faith by most fundamentalist Christian organizations to such a degree that many don’t even realize they are using his material. Any time a fundie quotes a founder in a way which shows support of Christianity, red flags should go up. It is probably a phony.

  • Larry, I can’t tell you how much fun this is! I cite you a volume of Adams’ speeches and correspondence compiled by the man’s grandson, for crying out loud, and you counter with insulting blather and a list of atheist blogs. Do you realize how you look when you wildly and blindly attack easily verifiable facts?

    Whoever this Barton is, he must have at least some of his facts in order, since you’re sure batting a big zero trying to attribute the founders’ statements to him. I’ll have to look him up. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • No you are citing A book of questionable provenance. Like you always do. This time it just happens to be something besides scripture. 🙂

    I can’t help it if your fellow theocrats were such bald faced liars as to make their references to our founding fathers inherently suspect as a matter of course. But there you are. David Barton’s antics are too notorious.

  • I see. So, so far, “books of questionable provenance” include:
    1. The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin (1888)
    2. The Works of John Adams (1854)
    3. The text of The Age of Reason (1794)

    Non-books NOT of questionable provenance include:
    1. Max and Larry’s collection of online evangelical atheist spew-factories created by and for historical illiterates.

    Larry, ordinarily I would advise you to stop embarrassing yourself. But you do such a great job of making the atheist position look ridiculous that I just can’t. So, keep on keepin’ on, my friend. And when you get tired, peruse these collections in more detail. Youl’ll find a lot more interesting statements that your friend Mr. Barton no doubt fabricated a hundred years or more before he was born.

  • We use religion as an excuse to deprive Palestinians of their land and lives. We bomb Muslims and children to appease Moloch-worshipping “Judeo-Christians”. We spend billions to foment insurrection to overthrow governments in Syria and the Ukraine.
    We blatantly worship Death, and sacrifice millions of unborn babies through abortion.
    We worship the devil with our false god of paper currency, all to foster a Zionist/Rapture Ranger fantasy. We rob Peter to pay Paul, and call it tolerance.
    As loathsome as the Harvard born elite silver spooner Satanist poseurs are, at least they call a spade a spade.
    How man of us support the Death Culture every day, but are offended by these drunken kosher Cultural rebels?

  • The elites are preaching what they practice, I’ll give them that. Look at their parents and expect anything different from them.

  • I wonder how this is can be considered an “attack” on anyone. If anything it is mocking a way of thinking. If we want to start picking what ideas should be protected from ridicule then we need to be consistent and we better be careful. Comedy is often based on mocking the ideas of others. What do we use as a guide as to what should be protected and what should not? Rights for gays and lesbians aren’t in the same realm as religious beliefs IMO. I was surprised to see them compared with religion.
    Catholics have a serious gaining any sympathy from me when they can gather thousands of signatures against this “black mass” and complain about how they feel attacked while they have completely dropped the ball when it comes to dealing with the abuse of children by their representatives. The sex scandal broke in 2002 and just this last December a taskforce was put together to discuss the problem? Doesn’t anyone else see the problem? It is a perfect example of how religion is harmful. You don’t deal with the real problem, you blame it on evil or satan, then you pray.
    Another point is- It was a reenactment. Are we going to stop reenactments now? Someone better tell all those civil wars actors. Anton LaVey was a theatrical fellow. The Church of Satan used theatrics to gain attention and it worked.
    I understand that some Catholics get it confused and take this as a personal attack on them. It is unfortunate that they didn’t do a better job of communicating maybe it could have been an opportunity to educate rather than censor or appear ignorant and paranoid. No one was being directly harmed, it wasn’t even being done with an intent to insult Catholics. They need to get over themselves a little bit, it isn’t always about them. When it is about them then they need to step up.

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