Satan and scandal: A Harvard student group canceled plans to reenact a Satanic black mass


Banished from Heaven, Satan rouses his rebel angels from the fiery pool in ‘bottomless perdition’ in an illustration from Book I of the 1688 first illustrated edition of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraved by Michael Burgher. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Update 9:20 p.m.: The Satanic Temple and Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club have reportedly cancelled the event, which was scheduled to be held tonight, citing their inability to secure a venue.

A Harvard student group’s plans to host a “satanic black mass” on campus tonight has managed to roil even the most liberal of college campuses with controversy.

The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, which is affiliated with the university’s continuing education division, says it plans to team up with the Satanic Temple (the same group that brought us this gem: a satanic statue for Oklahoma’s state capitol) to reenact the ritual.

The Satanic Temple claims the event is not supernatural in nature (because, of course, they do not believe in the supernatural) and the Harvard club suggests that it is all about the study of different religions.

But the Catholic Church isn’t brushing it off as the religion-baiting shenanigans of a campus group. The Archdiocese of Boston released a statement condemning the group’s plans, citing the recent warnings of Pope Francis about the encroaching influence of Satan in the world:

The Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Boston expresses its deep sadness and strong opposition to the plan to stage a “black mass” on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge.

For the good of the Catholic faithful and all people, the church provides clear teaching concerning satanic worship. This activity separates people from God and the human community, it is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil.

In a recent statement, Pope Francis warned of the danger of being naïve about or underestimating the power of Satan, whose evil is too often tragically present in our midst. We call upon all believers and people of good will to join us in prayer for those who are involved in this event, that they may come to appreciate the gravity of their actions, and in asking Harvard to disassociate itself from this activity.

Over the weekend, my colleague Anthony Faiola had a fascinating dispatch from Vatican City about the modern pope’s very old-school warnings in a church that has increasingly de-emphasized the Prince of Darkness.

In this case, the church in Boston appears to be heeding his warning about a ritual that is considered at the very least the highest form of blasphemy, and at worst, a direct invitation to Satan.

In general, “black masses” are intended to be a mockery of traditional Catholic Mass, though there is wide variation in how it is actually practiced. And there is also little historical evidence that it was commonly practiced at all.

Despite this, the student club’s reasoning, according to its statement, is that the “historical event” is only being used as a tool to “explore religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture.”

But aside from a few limited historical references, the “black mass” is mostly a fascination of modern so-called “satanists,” according to J. Gordon Melton, a professor of religious history at Baylor University.

The first recorded black mass, Melton said, dates back to the court of Louis XIV of France. Seeking to use black magic to preserve his love for his mistress, Françoise Athénaïs, he enlisted the help of a renegade Catholic priest who drew upon lingering notions of pagan magic to perform the dark ceremony.

The secret sauce: a consecrated host or Eucharist (which Catholics believe is the body of Christ) and a murdered infant, Melton said.

“They sacrificed a baby in the first black mass,” he said.

The ceremony was believed to combine “old ritual traditions and surviving ideas about magic” with ceremonies from the church, based on the belief that “there were things you could do to mystically align the universe in your favor,” Melton said.

Until the 1960s, the references to black masses in historical documents were usually few and far between. And the rituals usually involved doing something fairly illegal in some way — using blood, desecrating the church or, at the very least, stealing a consecrated Eucharist, Melton said.

In the 1960s, probably the best known satanist of recent years, Anton LeVey, created his own interpretation of the black mass, which, according to Melton, didn’t typically involve illegal acts — just sex.

“Instead of centering it on a host or a sacrifice or doing something with blood, he simply had a nude female for an alter,” Melton said. “It became something that was sexually oriented rather than something that was related to blood or evil.”

Either way, the Satanic Temple managed to infuriate Catholics by initially suggesting that they would use a consecrated host — the highest form of blasphemy.

Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Graves managed to quickly walk that back, but not without a dose of snark:

“While Black Masses are supposed to utilize a consecrated host, ours is merely representative of a consecrated host,” Greaves told CNSNews.com. “It is not consecrated. We neither believe in nor invoke the supernatural.”

But Catholics are probably right to question the suggestion that omitting a consecrated host makes the event any less intended to be a mockery of their faith.

According to the Cultural Studies Club: “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.”

Representatives for the cultural studies club declined to identify themselves and answer questions for this story.

Asked whether black masses historically had any component to it that involved actual religious practice, Melton said, “not really. It’s much more of a parody of a religion than anything else.”

Though Catholics believe that black masses are central to the practice of Satanist sects and cults, Melton suggested that Satanism in general and the practice of black masses in particular are far less common.

In fact, since they first appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries, the recorded examples of the ceremonies being practiced are limited, he said. When they did come up, it was rarely in an organized or consistent way.

“I like to say that Satanism is the largest religion in the world that doesn’t exist,” Melton said.

Catholics affiliated with Harvard are petitioning against the event, which is scheduled to be held at 8:30 p.m. tonight at the Queens Head Pub in Memorial Hall, and the Archdiocese of Boston plans to counter it with a holy hour scheduled about the same time.

Harvard President Drew Faust issued a statement this morning condemning the “abhorrent” event, but she said that Harvard won’t interfere because of its commitment to freedom of expression. She will attend the holy hour at St. Paul’s Church instead.

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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