Devil in the details: Oklahoma religion writer shows how to report a controversy

Devil's advocate? Carla Hinton of The Oklahoman didn't go quite that far in her story about an archbishop versus a Satanist group. But she did talk to both sides and showed how a principled, professional religion writer works.

At issue was a lawsuit by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City to halt a planned "black mass" in a public hall. His complaint was that the mass would include a desecration of the Host, or consecrated Eucharistic bread -- and argued that the bread must have been stolen.

In a couple of crisp paragraphs, Hinton and contributing writer William Crumm lay out the issues:

Coakley is asking the court to require the Oklahoma County sheriff to obtain the Eucharistic host from the Satanist group and deliver it to him as the local leader of the Catholic Church. The lawsuit states that in order for an unauthorized individual to have a consecrated host, he or she would have had to obtain it through illicit means such as “theft, fraud, wrongful taking or other form of misappropriation, either by Defendants or by someone else.”

In the lawsuit, Coakley said the consecrated host — typically a small unleavened wafer of bread — is considered sacred by Catholic Christians. It is an integral part of the Eucharist, also called Holy Communion.

This is where many mainstream media, unfortunately, would stop. Hinson, who has covered religion since 2002, continues by explaining the doctrine of transubstantiation, and why it's important to the archbishop:

Transubstantiation, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says, is the “miraculous change” by which, according to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dogma, the Eucharistic elements at their consecration become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine. A host must be consecrated by an ordained priest.

Coakley said in his statement: “Catholics believe Jesus Christ is truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist, and it is the source and summit of our faith.”

Hinson reports that the lawsuit claimed all consecrated bread and wine are the property of the Roman Catholic Church. It added that any Catholics who receive it during communion must consume it immediately, and never take it from the church. Ergo, if the Satanists have some, they got it illicitly.

In an impressive show of fairness, the story devotes nine paragraphs to Adam Daniels of the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu Syndicate, as the Satanist group calls itself. Daniels denies that his group stole anything, and he accuses the archdiocese of trying "defamation" and "intimidation" to prevent the Sept. 21 black mass.

"I'm being falsely accused of a crime I never committed," he tells Hinson rather redundantly.

He also volunteers some you-can't-make-this-stuff-up details on where he got the bread, and why he thinks it's fit for satanic consumption:

Wednesday, Daniels said he initially heard about the lawsuit from a representative of a Catholic blog. He said he acquired the host from a Catholic priest in Turkey who consecrated it and mailed it to him. Daniels said the priest, whom he refused to name, was killed recently by Muslims in Turkey because of his satanic beliefs.

“I did not say where it came from and they have no proof” the host was stolen, Daniels said.

One hole in the story is not saying on what basis the Catholic Church claims ownership of all consecrated bread and wine. The article quotes the archdiocesan director of communication, but not on that point. Talking to a canon lawyer would have helped.

Another soft spot is when Daniels says the black Mass "will not include sexual acts, nudity or urination because the event is being held in a public building and these actions would violate public indecency laws." How about a couple of follow-up questions: "Are all those things standard parts of a black Mass? Have they been done elsewhere in our circulation area?" I think the readers would want to know.

The story could have also asked more about the Satanists, who don’t get a lot of explanation in the mainstream media.  If Daniels couldn't or didn't want to talk, the organization does have a website. The site says the group blends western satanic images with belief in the Zoroastrianism devil, Hinduism's destructive goddess Kali, and even Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel of the Yazidi religion. The goal is apparently to free one's "natural animal instincts" through blasphemy.

Hinson recovers in getting a third side: Oklahoma City officials. They say simply that they’ll rent public space to anyone who pays the fee and keeps the law. They say they’ll have police attend the black Mass to make sure of the latter.

A late postscript: On Thursday afternoon, the Satanists gave the host to the archdiocese, though the black Mass is still scheduled. In return, the archbishop dropped the lawsuit.

That late-breaking story, from AM station KRMG, also mentioned an effort to put up statue of Satan on the grounds of the state capitol, next to its Ten Commandments monument. It's by a different group -- the Temple of Satan -- but it's interesting that this Midwestern state is suddenly ground zero for the other side.

Having said all that, I have to repeat my praise for the Oklahoman story -- an article that goes deeper into both Catholic and Satanist beliefs than most in mainstream media. Even if it means giving the devil his due.

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