Satan at Harvard

So here’s my two bits, or three, about the black Mass controversy at Harvard.

1 bit. I’m not really buying the claim of the cultural studies club who sponsored the event that their “purpose [was] not to denigrate any religion or faith… but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices.” I can see how they could convince themselves that was a sincere statement. But the Satanic Temple is an organization that engages in iconoclasm to make political points–like their petition to erect a statue of the devil at the Oklahoma state capitol in order to protest the erection of a Ten Commandments display. Great move, as far as I’m concerned. (If the statue gets the green light, I’m happy to pitch in a few bucks.) But you can’t pass iconoclasm off as a benign exercise in multicultural exposure. “We just wanted to observe Satanists at worship… Just like the Shinto tea ceremony we’re going to stage next week.” Oh please.

Iconoclasm is offensive: that’s the point. So have the backbone to stand by it as such if your club is going to sponsor it. Instead of this pablum about experiencing other cultures, issue a feisty statement about free speech. At the end of the day, Harvard’s president, eager though he was to appease Massachusetts Catholics, did a better job of defending free speech than the cultural studies club did.

2 bits. Opponents of the black Mass have been using the word “blasphemy” a lot. (High-ranking clergy have also used the occasion to affirm the reality of the devil and his works, which I found intriguing from a “post-secularization theory” angle.) If Harvard permits the “blaspheming of Catholic sacramental practice,” Francis Clooney asked readers of the Harvard Crimson, “what’s next?” “Historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies?” “Parodies that trivialize Native American heritage?”

Before I go after Fr. Clooney’s rhetoric with my penknife, I’m going to submit myself to a discipline of empathy. I understand why he’s upset. If, let’s say, an evangelical student group on my campus were to invite a countercultist to come lecture on Mormonism, and if it were announced that this speaker were going to don Mormon temple robes and reenact portions of the ceremony which adherents treat as ritual secrets–that would get my blood boiling in much the same way, I imagine, that the black Mass upsets Catholics.

But if we’re going to play the “What’s next?” game, let me offer some alternative scenarios. If outraged Catholics can successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to stage an event that the Catholics consider blasphemous–what’s next? Could outraged Catholics successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite a member of Roman Catholic Womenpriests to celebrate Mass? Could outraged Muslims successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite Salman Rushdie? Could outraged Hindus successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite Jeffrey Kripal? Could outraged evangelicals successfully pressure a student group to cancel plans to invite, I dunno, John Shelby Spong or Gene Robinson? Those are all cases in which critics could invoke the term “blasphemy.” How far does Fr. Clooney expect his university to go in deferring to charges of blasphemy? I’d like to know.

3 bits. Let’s be clear about what happened here. A religious group that enjoys considerable clout on the local scene launched a protest against an event planned by a minority religious group that resulted in the minority group’s event being, in effect, shut down. (Emphasize “in effect.”) In these situations, my sympathies tend to lie with the underdog. How good does domination taste, Massachusetts Catholics?

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