The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has condemned plans by an independent student group of the Harvard Extension School to stage a historical reenactment of a satanic ritual that mocks the Catholic Mass.
The group, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, says its reenactment of the so-called black mass is intended as an educational activity to provide history, context, and the origin of the ritual as part of a student-led series exploring different cultures. The group said the event, planned for Monday, is not designed to insult religious traditions.
That reassurance did not mollify the archdiocese, which on its Facebook page issued a statement expressing “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,” the archdiocese said. “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.”
A black mass is an often obscene mockery by satanic cults of the Mass performed in the Catholic Church. The ritual, for example, might substitute the bare back of a woman for an altar. To complete the desecration, the black mass generally uses a consecrated host, the bread or wafer blessed at Mass that Catholics believe is the body of Christ.
The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club said its reenactment will use a piece of bread, but not a consecrated host.
“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,” the students’ statement said. “This performance is part of a larger effort to explore religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture.”
The archdiocese, in its statement, asked the university to disassociate itself from the reenactment. While stopping short of endorsing the event, the Harvard Extension School said that it supported “the rights of our students and faculty to speak and assemble freely.”
The school’s statement noted that the Cultural Studies Club is also planning a Shinto tea ceremony, a Shaker exhibition, and a Buddhist presentation on meditation.
Stoking concern about the reenactment is the participation of the New York-based Satanic Temple, a group that has recently made waves for its effort to have a satanic statue erected at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
According to a flier advertising Monday’s reenactment, members of the Satanic Temple will perform the black mass while a narrator provides commentary and historical context.
Studies of satanic rituals are not new to campuses. For example, an 1891 novel by French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, “La-Bas,” which describes in detail satanic rituals, black masses, and their practitioners, can be found on college syllabuses.
The public venue of the reenactment at the Queens Head Pub in Memorial Hall, on the main Harvard campus, probably spurred the archdiocese reaction.
Terrence C. Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, indicated that the Catholic Church’s objections to the black mass have nothing to do with whether it is a staged reenactment or the real thing.
“In the strongest terms we reject anything that is an attack on the Eucharist,” he said.