Whenever I hear a comedian making a nasty joke about the Catholic Church, a simple question usually comes into my head: would that comedian have the bottle to make a similar joke about Islam?
Before the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in 2010, Channel 4 let Richard Dawkins do a documentary about whether or not the Catholic Church was a fan of Holocaust denial. An absurd theory brought about by an administrative move involving a disgraced cleric who the Church were trying to bring back into line. A PR gaffe, for sure, but clearly nothing more sinister.
Dawkins’ actions, though, were incredibly sinister – and also quite gutless. As one commentator pointed out at the time, there is one particular religion which is (at least in certain factions) very explicit about Holocaust denial, but yet funnily enough Dawkins chose to focus his attack on the Catholic Church.
It seems as though the world is replete with comics and intellectuals out to score points by slamming religion, but yet they always pick one religion in particular. They steer clear of Islam, for fear (probably wrongly) of violent reprisals, and they steer clear of the other religions because those are seen as minorities. Criticise a minority and the powers that be will quickly pitch up and hint at racism.
The end product of this politically correct posturing is that Christianity gets the flack time and again. Few Christian communities seem to be exempted but (and perhaps this is a biasedview) Catholics seem to get more flack than most.
And so it was last week that Harvard University was all set to host a black Mass – a parody of the Sacrament of the Eucharist which Catholics hold so dear. A ritual, in fact, which is often enacted by using a stolen host from an actual Mass – something which Catholics literally believe to be the Body of Christ.
The Harvard group, of course, did this to look risqué and daring, but would they have dared conduct a parody of Muslim Friday prayers? I think we all know the answer to that.
For the uninitiated, I should explain that Mass is the central act/ ritual/ prayer in the Catholic tradition. It has been described as the summit and source of our faith, and it comes directly from the Last Supper when Jesus took the bread and the wine and told his disciples to ‘do this in memory of me.’
Mass is – and I’m oversimplifying a lot here – a way to pray, to celebrate, to remember, and to bond together as a community. Most of all though, Mass is a re-presentation (anemnesis, to use the formal term) of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. It unites us with that sacrifice and in so doing, Jesus’s body and blood become literally physically present to us.
The Church asks Catholics to go to Mass at least each Sunday. Many go far more often.
And that’s why black Masses are so awful. They deliberately take something that is at the heart of a community and mock it in the worst way possible. Imagine, if you will, somebody defacing a war memorial. That’s bad enough. But then imagine if the community around that memorial actually believed that the memorial was more than just a symbol, and actually had some physical, spiritual link to those who had fought and died. It’s an analogy that breaks down after a certain point, of course, but it serves its purpose.
One ray of hope to come out of the whole affair, however, was that the event ended up being cancelled. First Harvard booted them off campus and then their back up venue pulled the plug too. The protest Mass in response went ahead and was packed to the rafters. Catholics under attack do not resort to violent protest but they do resort to prayer.