Épater le bourgeois catholique

Stories about religion seem to do odd things to otherwise sensible reporters. Some news articles ignore the religious element of a story, or they suspend judgment (and belief) and accept without question or examination the claims of religions. In my most recent GetReligion podcast with host Todd Wilken of Lutheran Public Radio I argued the fracas at Harvard University over a Black Mass was a fake story. By saying it was fake, I do not mean that it did not happen. Rather the press went along for the ride in a story about Satanic claims that set off a massive over reaction by the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

What we had was a student club seeking to shock bourgeois Catholic sensitivities with a faux outrage -- and the leadership of the Catholic Church responded by using a bazooka to swat a fly.

How did this happen? Because reporters did not do their job and ask the hard questions at the start of the controversy. Once the hysteria began, it was too late to do anything. What we had was a Catholic version of the Terry Jones Koran burning story -- this time with people involved in planning the event making conflicting claims about whether this rite would take place with a consecrated host.

After the story broke I posted an essay at GetReligion entitled "Why should the devil have all the best press?" that discussed the then planned Harvard Black Mass along with the annual academic conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum on exorcism. I argued that the newspapers should have asked some hard questions of Harvard and the Satanists who were supposed to be putting on the Black Mass.

Questions like: "Is this a real religion or are you recreating a scene from a 19th Century French horror novel and calling that a religion?" Or, "When you say you are Satanists what do you mean by that? Are you devil worshipers? Followers of Anton LaVey's Church of Satan?"

Which leads to the question is the '60s Satanism of LaVey a bona fida religion or a scam?

LaVey has been accused of being a conman who attracted nuts (Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez the night stalker) while pursuing celebrities to join his cult: Sammy Davis Jr. and Jayne Mansfield, for example.

An apocryphal story about Sammy's dalliance with Satanism was that it was part of a plug for his 1973 film, Poor Devil. And that he was briefly into the scene, man, for the chicks.

My second post on the Black Mass entitled "Some new facts on Harvard’s Satanists from Daily News" noted that newspaper's reporting on the group and their claims. I applauded The Daily News for not taking at face value the claims of some members of the student club.

Though I did not mention it in the podcast, a commentary piece by Kathy Shaidle entitled "Pick your demons" offered the best overview of this contretemps, from my point of view. Discussing the reaction of the Catholic Church and Catholic commentators, Shaidle wrote:

So now Catholics are congratulating themselves for preventing a handful of dingbats from giggling their way through an hour of masturbatory “shock the bourgeoisie (of the 19th century)” performance art.

If only they’d shifted themselves so decisively when something truly evil was going on inside the Church itself. Did Eucharistic processions encircle courthouses where gay “marriage” was being declared law? With the exception of abortion, the last issue the Church seemed to be on the right, very public, side of was Solidarno??.

Sadly, the Catholics are taking their cues from the culture at large instead of the other way around. The Harvard Black Mass diversion was simply more no-risk, too-little-too-late activism of the #BringBackOurGirls variety. Because Satanists aren’t a protected identity group (yet), the protesters didn’t have to worry about being called homophobic or misogynist.

Let me say at the close that I am not discussing the reality or non-reality of Satan, the demonic or the occult. My concern is with reporters willing to suspend their critical judgment in order to sex up a story.

Well, that was what I had hoped to say in my interview. To listen to my latest rant click on the link.

Editor's note: The short podcast to which George Conger is linking here was meant to be part of this week's larger Crossroads podcast (click here for that podcast), in a twin-bill with Bobby Ross, Jr. At this point the main podcast link does not include Conger's material. We hope to get this fixed as soon as possible.

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