It is interesting how an incident can bring seemingly rambling thoughts and intuitions together into clarification. This has been the case for me as I have reflected upon the whole “black mass” incident at Harvard. I believe that the proposal for a black mass and how it seemingly developed as well as the uproar it caused in response reveals some very real deficits in our current secular world and understanding.
The first deficit is a lack of comprehension in our society in terms of what defines “religion” and therefore a much needed societal discussion on both “religion” and what constitutes “freedom of religion”. This is a discussion Americans don’t like to have and prefer to avoid if at all possible. “You believe what you want and I will believe what I want and we will call it even,” is very much the doctrine of our day. To some degree there is good in this. Better tolerance than religious wars. Yet, when people just assume that a black mass must be tolerated and even condoned by a university then something is lacking in our understanding of religion and religious tolerance. Here is where things get messy, “religious” groups and activities can and should be evaluated and judged. Not every group who claim the title “church,” “temple,” “shrine,” etc. should be automatically considered religious and therefore protected under freedom of religion.
We lack the language (and will perhaps?) to enter into this discussion and this is a real deficit in our time. I am not here proposing a comprehensive answer but I do believe that as a society we need to have the discussion and develop the language and clarification needed. To this discussion I would add this thought: I think it can be argued that a true religious practice protected by freedom of religion will not need to denigrate another religion in order to fulfill its purpose. A true religious practice will have the ability to stand on its own merit. A black mass cannot do this because it is meant, by its very purpose, to be a profanation of the Catholic Mass. It is meant to be the anti-Catholic Mass. In the black mass a consecrated host from a Catholic Mass is profaned – somehow a consecrated host has been obtained by either theft or deception and is then desecrated in the black mass. Therefore, a black mass is not neutral to other religions, specifically Catholicism. A black mass, in its very structure and purpose, is an act of hatred toward Catholicism. Because of its inability to stand on its own, it can be held that a black mass should not be considered a religious act protected by freedom of religion. Further, due to the fact that it’s foundational act is dependent upon an act of deception (falsely acquiring a consecrated host in order to conduct an anti-Mass), it can be demonstrated that it is an act of hate which, although it might be protected under freedom of expression, should never be condoned by a public institution such as Harvard.
The second deficit is an almost criminally negligent naivety about things spiritual and sacramental. This was witnessed in abundance throughout the Harvard black mass incident. Apparently the organizers could not even begin to comprehend why desecrating a consecrated host or even reenacting such a desecration (even if the host was not consecrated) would cause such an uproar and reaction from people. Why should this bother people? It is just another cultural experience we are exploring, similar to the tea ceremony we also sponsored. That attitude of “just another cultural experience” demonstrates a profound lack of spiritual and sacramental sensibilities. If one is seeking a prime example of living in a time dominated by a purely materialist understanding of reality then you need look no further. This is it. Further, on the other side, why should we worry about a Satanic Mass? It is just a cultural expression. There really is nothing to it after all. Who believes in the devil anyway? What real affect can it have? In this incident we find either total obliviousness to any possibility of a spiritual dimension to reality or, more troubling, an attitude seeking to denigrate a view of life that incorporates the spiritual dimension and those who profess it.
The third deficit is the university system itself. Something is fundamentally off-kilter on our college campuses. The weak response given by the administration at Harvard to the whole black mass incident is one example and it should give people pause. Yes, I am aware that the university president publicly condemned the choice of the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club to co-sponsor a black mass on campus and that she attended a public Eucharistic procession in personal rebuttal to the black mass but does it not demonstrate a deficit in the university system itself that something like this (which can clearly be demonstrated as an act of hate) could not be stopped outright? Another recent incident that should raise concern is the White House having to call colleges and universities to task for laxity in preventing and truly prosecuting sexual violence incidents on campus. A further pause can be found by reading College, the Great Unequalizer, a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Ross Douthat where he highlights the book Paying for the Party by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton who explore how higher education and the “party-pathway” through college contributes to inequality in our society. Here is a quote from the article by Douthat regarding the party-pathway as a mechanism of inequality: The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright. The winners, meanwhile, are living proof of how a certain kind of libertinism can be not only an expression of class privilege, but even a weapon of class warfare. I have witnessed this mechanism of inequality on college campuses and I have counselled its victims. There is a deficit in our current system of higher education and it needs to be discussed and brought to light.
This black mass incident has brought to light some troubling deficits of understanding in our society; hopefully we can find the backbone to move beyond the superficial to a true discussion that would begin to answer these very real deficits.