This article was originally published on AlterNet.
If there’s anywhere in the U.S. where you’d expect aggressively conservative, domineering religion to be a relic of the past, it’s tolerant and culturally liberal Massachusetts. But even in that blue enclave, the theocratic impulse is still surprisingly powerful. We found this out when a student group at Harvard University, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, ignited a furor by announcing that they were planning an educational program of ceremonies from different belief systems around the world; and that one of these ceremonies, in partnership with the New York-based Satanic Temple, was going to be a Satanist black mass.
Because this is an easy mistake to make, it should be emphasized that most Satanists don’t literally worship the Devil. They’re atheists who treat the figure of Satan as an inspiring piece of mythology, a symbol of individual freedom and resistance to oppressive orthodoxy. (One of their current projects is a campaign to end corporal punishment of children in schools.) And, it has to be said, there’s also an element of conscious satire in Satanism, a cheeky attempt to shock the easily shocked.
In spite of this, Satanism has always drawn hysterical fright from religious believers who seem terrified of the mere concept, even though they claim to worship a god who’s infinitely more powerful. True to form, the announcement of the black mass provoked immense outrage and fear among Catholics in Boston and beyond. Harvard faculty, chaplains, alumni and students, as well as the Archdiocese of Boston, demanded that the black mass be canceled, or that Harvard step in and prevent it from happening. Some prominent Catholic bloggers expressed real fear that the students, without meaning to, would literally summon the literal Devil and lose their souls (shades of the famous Jack Chick comic which claims that Dungeons & Dragons teaches teenagers to cast real black magic spells).
But what drew the most outrage is that, in a true black mass – to the extent that such a thing exists, and isn’t just the invention of medieval heresy hunters – there’s a prop representing a Eucharist wafer that’s symbolically desecrated, such as by being stepped on. A rumor, subsequently denied by the Satanists, that they’d be using a real consecrated one drove Catholics to new heights of frenzy. Some commenters urged that the Satanists be arrested and charged with hate crimes (I hate to break it to these people, but holding a religious ceremony that offends members of other religions is not actually a crime in America). Another proposed a Mission: Impossible-type commando raid on the Satanists’ meeting place to rescue the imperiled wafer from harm, a suggestion which has more than a faint echo of the anti-Semitic medieval belief that Jews would steal Eucharist wafers and stab them with nails or knives to torture Jesus.
Faced with these protests, Harvard grudgingly announced that they respected the principle of free speech and wouldn’t forbid the event, but their administration made it clear where their sympathies lay. Harvard’s president, whose actual name is Drew Faust, announced she’d be attending a Catholic-organized protest against the black mass. Harvard’s dean of students, Robert Neugeboren, also said, “We do not agree with the student group’s decision to stage an event that is so deeply disturbing and offensive to many in the Harvard community and beyond.”
Although Harvard publicly claimed they weren’t forcing the Satanists to move, it seems likely that behind-the-scenes pressure was applied. The night it was supposed to happen, the club announced they’d be moving the event off campus as a show of good faith. But even after this, Boston’s Catholics continued to hound them, making apparent that it wasn’t Harvard’s sanction that was at issue, but their belief that Satanists should have no right to assemble or practice anywhere. In the end, the event took place, though apparently in an informal and scaled-down way, at a local restaurant.
The Harvard Satanist fracas shows the immense hypocrisy of the Catholic church and its spokesmen. In their battle against the contraception mandate, they’ve made religious liberty their watchword, arguing that a believer’s right to follow the tenets of his faith is sacrosanct and must never be infringed, even if it causes harm or inconvenience to others. But when it comes to a belief system that the church doesn’t like, they claim, two-faced, that those beliefs can and should be stifled and their practice barred.
The other, more surprising thing it shows is how unreformed this faith still is. Catholic apologists claim theirs is a rational religion shaped by the light of philosophy; but scratch the surface and you’ll find that the ancient, superstitious fear of the dark is very much alive. Several hundred years after the scientific revolution, the church still subscribes to the belief that the cosmos is swarming with evil spirits, ready to harm human beings who attract their attention.
And the Harvard case is far from an anomaly. As another recent story shows, the Boston believers who spurred this Satanic panic were quite possibly getting encouragement from the very top. Specifically, the pontiff himself – the allegedly progressive and kindly Pope Francis – is pushing a major resurgence of belief in a literal Satan and literal demonic possession. Before he became pope, when he was the Argentinian archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, he called same-sex marriage “a move by the Father of Lies“, and subsequent evidence suggests he didn’t mean it metaphorically.
For instance, Francis has backed a renewed belief in exorcism, including by apparently performing one himself on a mentally ill man who claimed to be possessed by demons, although his spokesman later backpedaled on this (for the record, the man himself claims it didn’t work and that he’s still possessed). The Catholic church still has several hundred professional exorcists, and they’re reportedly thrilled with the recognition and encouragement Pope Francis is giving them.
Some observers have speculated that Pope Francis is doing this because he comes from a culture that’s more open to supernatural claims. But I have a different explanation: it may well be that the church’s newfound emphasis on the demonic is a purely political calculation, a bid to shore up its earthly authority.
In other areas, that authority looks increasingly tattered. Their insistent teachings forbidding contraception, divorce and abortion are almost universally ignored by Catholic laypeople. The bishops’ claim that employers should be able to dictate their employees’ access to reproductive health care is likewise rejected by wide margins, as is their claim that terminally ill people should have no right to assisted dying. Same-sex marriage rights continue to spread, despite the increasingly shrill and futile opposition of religious conservatives. And church attendance rates among the young continue to decline, a fact that’s caused much consternation among church apologists.
With the church struggling to maintain its relevance, there’s an obvious appeal to reviving the claim that people are menaced by supernatural evil. Like the best advertising agencies, it’s a case of inventing a problem so that it can sell the solution. That said, they clearly still have some work to do to fine-tune their message. You may have heard this bizarre story in which one church exorcist recounted a harrowing experience on a flight:
During the conference, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. “Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.
Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.”
We may laugh at stories like this, but we shouldn’t forget that that this belief has real and serious consequences. Demonic possession and exorcism aren’t quaint superstitions of a long-gone era; they’re alive and active in the world today, causing immense harm. The hounding of the Harvard black mass and the threats and vitriol directed against its organizers are just the tip of the iceberg.
In the name of fighting off demons, mentally ill people have been falsely imprisoned and subjected to torturous exorcisms instead of getting the medical care they need, and children have been horrifyingly tortured, abused and even killed, sometimes by their own parents. In the name of fighting absolute evil, church authorities have granted themselves the right to seize absolute power, and in the process, trampled on the lives and liberty of others. The inquisitors, witch hunters and exorcists may claim that they’re working for good, but the fact remains: Fear of demons does far more harm than worship of demons ever did.