A Disconcerting Incident

I am the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, and a Roman Catholic priest. On all three counts, I am concerned about the plan for a black mass hosted by the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club on Monday, May 12.

The club explains: “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 performance is part of a larger effort to explore religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture.”

If only the organizers had said more on which “religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture” are highlighted in the performance of a black mass. This is, after all, a practice that, as far as its murky history reveals, seems often to have included the inversion and blaspheming of Catholic sacramental practice, as well as actual worship of Satan. Will these dimensions be present in Monday’s enactment? And what’s next? The endeavor “to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices” might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies familiar from Western history or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.

Such events would surely raise legitimate concerns among all of us at Harvard; no one should be surprised if Catholics are concerned right now.

In response to the growing concern about this event, Robert Neugeboren, dean of students and alumni at Harvard Extension School, has said: “Harvard Extension School does not endorse the views or activities of any independent student organization. But we do support the rights of our students and faculty to speak and assemble freely. In this case, we understand that this independent student organization, the Cultural Studies Club, is hosting a series of events—including a Shinto tea ceremony, a Shaker exhibition, and a Buddhist presentation on meditation—as part of a student-led effort to explore different cultures.”

If only the University had managed to show that it recognizes the potentially great differences between “a Shinto tea ceremony,” “a Shaker exhibition,” and this black mass. It is too easy, and rather superficial, to compare a black mass with a “Buddhist presentation on meditation.” Why not present a Catholic presentation on the Eucharist? No one would have objected to that. All of us at Harvard should be able to understand why many on and around campus are greatly worried about the prospect of a black mass, possibly in parody of the Catholic Mass that is a living faith practice celebrated each day in congregations that include Harvard faculty, staff, and students.

The club also insists that “while a piece of bread is used in the reenactment, the performance unequivocally does not include a consecrated host.” It is remarkable that what we Catholics hold to be a precious sacramental reality has become big news at Harvard in May 2014. Since there is no empirical way to show that one host is consecrated while another is not—consecrated hosts do not glow in the dark—there is also no way for anyone but the organizers to know whether a host used in a black mass has been consecrated or not.

Yet the identity of one isolated host is not the only point. Also at stake is sensitivity to the faith of a community that believes in, shares, and worships around this sacramental sign. Catholics at Harvard should not have to be worrying about where Monday’s host comes from. And if it turns out that this week’s black mass proceeds on the quite different premise that “the supernatural” is in fact meaningless, then of course there can really be no question at all of a “consecrated” host for those involved—nor of a real God or a real Satan. In that case, ironically, even the black mass itself, stripped of faith and faith’s uncomfortable commitments, would end up being emptied of meaning, trivialized.

Most importantly, perhaps, this event raises a larger issue: As a university community we need to do better in handling matters of religious import. It is not enough to say that Harvard is a secular institution, as if living faith and practice matter only off campus or in private. We need to have, on occasion, difficult discussions that necessarily involve matters of faith and faithful practice. Sometimes these discussions will unsettle the University’s ordinary and smooth manner of proceeding. After the lawyers have spoken and free speech has been reaffirmed, and after we all agree that much is to be learned from the history of our religions, we still need to be able to talk together about the sometimes difficult reality of living religion at Harvard.

Not only is our humane and spiritual sensitivity at stake, but also our intellectual credibility. Shall we not see this event of a black mass on campus as a reason to convene a new and deeper conversation on how religions are alive, vocal, and unruly even at secular Harvard?

Francis X. Clooney is Parkman Professor of Divinity and director of the Center for the Study for World Religions.

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