The recent revelation of the sexual temptations of Albus Dumbledore, mentor wizard of the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling, has caused quite a media brouhaha. The news comes on the heels of Rowling's interview with MTV in which she openly admitted the Christian foundations of the books. So now both Catholic fans and Catholic critics of Harry Potter have experienced the feeling of holding the trump card on the issue, at least momentarily, within the past month.
John Granger, homeschooling dad and Eastern Orthodox supporter of the Harry Potter novels, has written extensively on the context of J.K. Rowling's revelation and I would refer Rambler readers to his site for more information.
As a British novelist, Rowling has demonstrated before her ignorance of or indifference to the culture wars of America. Secular elites fume over her lack of concern about saving the planet or teaching teens about safe sex; American critics seethe that she doesn’t seem to realize that featuring wizards, witches, and spellcasting in her books could lead children into the occult.
Rowling has seemed equally blasé, revealing first that she is a Christian (incensing her secularist fans), and next that she has no reluctance to use homosexual inclination as a plot device in her books (disappointing her Christian fans). This is the problem with living authors: you have no control over what they might say next to cast new and glaring light upon their published work. No wonder most serious critics prefer their authors safely dead and ready to be dissected.
I admit I have difficulty in separating an author’s life from her work. But Catholics, including myself, should not be strangers to the phenomenon of writers who can create great and truly Christian works of art while holding opinions or leading lives at variance with the beauty of their beliefs. Some writers manage to write like Christians as well as act like Christians: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien come to mind. But others like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh produced Catholic classics, even though it’s difficult to see how their Catholic faith made them more moral or more pleasant. Going further back in history produces even more examples of this paradox.
Thus, I can hold that even if Rowling is what our culture would term “pro-gay,” this does not mean that she hasn’t produced an astonishing work of literature that adds to the Christian compendium of great fiction. However, I’d like to examine how Rowling uses homosexual inclination in her work and demonstrate how it backs up, rather than undercuts, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
Homosexuality has risen to prominence in today’s culture in the sordid wake of the sexual revolution. Formerly a minor and rather rare perversion, homosexuality now has a movement of its own whose adherents demand new legal definitions and “rights.” But even though it is a vocal movement, it is relatively small and possibly not as deadly as we might believe (though of course it is dangerous, and like abortion, should be opposed).
I believe that the three most destructive forces in our culture are divorce, contraception, and pornography, all of which are so embedded into our society that outlawing two of them would be next to impossible, and even restricting the third is becoming unfeasible. I see the growth of homosexuality, like fornication and abortion, as an effect of these three root sins.
So what is homosexuality? As I explore in my novel Waking Rose (www.wakingrose.com), the causes of homosexuality do not seem to be genetic: there is ample evidence that it is caused by early childhood experiences of the lack of a protective, strong, and loving paternal figure (hence, it is often connected to divorce). Homosexuality is not so much a sexual desire towards one’s own gender as it is the feeling of an inability to connect with and bond with the opposite sex. I want to particularly focus on same-sex attraction as it affects men (as in all things, women have their own particular quirks and nuances, even in this area).
God calls men to image Himself, God the Father, whereas women are called to image His receptive creation. Hence, women are called to image something they already are, whereas men are called to image something that they are not: they are not God, but they are called to be like Him. This is, fundamentally, a terrifying prospect. Hence, the preparation and training and education of men is so critical and so important: a boy must learn to become strong and to have courage, to learn to hold on, in preparation for his life task of giving himself fully to God, to a woman, or to a mission.
It is tragically easy for a young man to feel that he is completely unable reach this goal, and to give up, especially in the absence of a father or male mentor. Seeing that men are gifted with a goal-orientation, the temptation simply not even to try to start what he doesn’t feel he can finish is very potent. A woman’s perennial temptation is to feel unloved: a man’s is to feel inadequate.
Catholicism gives us a very concrete, very real image of what a man’s life task will cost him, an image that stands in every Catholic Church as an inspiration and a warning: the image of Christ’s male body, crucified naked on a cross. What man doesn’t understandably find this daunting? It’s certainly not in line with most male career goals!
And marriage means submitting to this public crucifixion for the sake of one, very human woman. Woman is the crown of God’s creation: but she can also be demanding, fickle, unappreciative, and mean. When men are faced with her as a goal and considering the cost involved, it can be temptingly easy to turn away from women altogether. When a boy has never been under the tutelage and care of a strong and loving father, or sometimes when he has been abandoned to a dominating and self-sufficient mother, he can doubt his ability ever to give himself to a woman, ever to be strong enough to protect, comfort, and satisfy her.
The gay lifestyle invites a man to turn aside from the woman and substitute the pleasures of life instead: clothing, cars, excitement, travel, developing talents. Instead of submitting himself and his desires to one woman and her children, he is invited to find fulfillment both through brief, nearly anonymous sexual encounters and to find emotional sustenance through male friendships with romantic overtones. He need take no responsibility for pregnancy or for raising children, or for the wearying task of keeping a woman happy. Essentially, the gay lifestyle is the easy way out.
But this lifestyle is lonely and dangerous, and the cross of Christ haunts men of this sort. They fear it: they are sensitive to persecution and to the accusation that, along with their more common counterparts of the serial divorcee or the promiscuous playboy, they might be neglecting responsibilities that they should be shouldering. Hypersensitivity is endemic to the lifestyle, and I suspect that it drives the lawsuits and political activism of its adherents. They are anxious to show that they too suffer.
But as usual, it is the women they have left behind or whom they have failed to court, marry, defend and protect who suffer more — and the children too.
Let us examine how J.K. Rowling uses homosexuality in her novel in Dumbledore’s character and see whether or not it conforms to the Church’s view on the matter.
In Book 7, we learn the details of the young life of Albus Dumbledore: when Muggles (non-magical) boys assaulted his younger sister Arianna, Albus’s father attacked them in a rage of grief, and was punished for this by the wizarding community. He was sentenced to life imprisonment; thus Albus grew up without a father mentoring him. His mother was determined to hide Arianna’s unbalanced and dangerous mental state from the world and controlled every aspect of family life to guard this secret. Hence, she was the dominant figure in Albus’ world, and he sought to escape her influence.
Away at school, Albus gained fame for his talent and charisma, and threw himself into that life apart from his family. Then tragedy struck: during a fit, Arianna attacked her mother and killed her. Albus found himself head of the family, a role he did not want and which he detested. He did not want to be a father; he did not want to be the provider. He missed using his talents and hobnobbing with the famous of the wizarding world.
Then Grindelwald came into his life: a handsome foreign young wizard on holiday, who stayed next door. Like Albus, he was talented and ambitious, and he was also handsome. According to J.K. Rowling’s recent revelation, Albus fell in love and spent all his time with Grindelwald.
Like the gay lifestyle, Grindelwald offered the lure of excitement, travel, and fame to the young Albus, and Albus was seduced. He began to make plans to abandon his responsibilities and join Grindelwald on an international search for the Deathly Hallows, three valuable and famous wizarding artifacts. His sense of right and wrong was overcome by this tempting provision: he turned a blind eye to Grindelwald’s studies of the dark arts, and he joined in Grindelwald’s vision of wizards dominating the world and subjecting Muggles to slavery, though Albus convinced himself he would be doing this “for the greater good.”
Then, as Dumbledore relates to Harry in Book Seven, “reality returned” in the form of Albus’s younger brother Aberforth. Like Albus, Aberforth had been wounded by his upbringing, but he understood a man’s responsibility, and firmly opposed Albus’s mad plan to leave town with Grindelwald. Grindelwald, enraged (oversensitive to condemnation?) attacked Aberforth with his magic, and, in the terrible wizarding duel that ensued, Arianna was struck dead.
Hence, in the Harry Potter books, the one person we know about thus far who made an attempt to pursue the gay lifestyle: 1) lost his sense of morality, 2) attempted to abandon his responsibility as head, protector, and provider of a family, and 3) the casualty was a girl, in this case his younger sister, who ended up dead because of his negligence.
I would hardly call this an endorsement of the gay lifestyle.
Thus, in this storyline, J.K. Rowling shows an uncommon insight into the importance of the family, and, in particular, the importance of fatherhood. That she shows sympathy for those afflicted by a homosexual inclination isn’t remarkable, but it is extraordinary that she baldly shows the consequences of their actions.
What happens to Albus Dumbledore? At the funeral of his younger sister, Aberforth breaks Albus’s nose. Even though it is demonstrated in the novels that wizards can easily heal broken noses, Dumbledore retains his crooked nose till the end of his life as a public penance for his sins.
He does succeed in at least partially conquering his inability to give himself completely to a mission: as a teacher and later headmaster of Hogwarts, he gives himself completely to the mission of teaching young wizards, and particularly teaches the responsibility of wizards to protect Muggles. His life has earmarks of a consecrated celibacy: indeed, all the teachers at the school remain unmarried in what seems to be a holdover from monastic schools. There is no hint, even veiled, that Dumbledore ever pursues another liaison with another male wizard. One could say that he lives as the Church asks those struggling with homosexuality to live: chastely.
Whatever opinions J.K. Rowling may hold at variance with Church teaching, she consistently demonstrates a respect toward her young readers when it comes to dealing with sensitive subjects. Although she does not shy away from tackling hard subjects such as death, she is more reticent than graphic when it comes to portraying sexuality. That she included a plotline involving temptation toward the gay lifestyle is unremarkable in today’s society: what is remarkable is that she did not highlight the plotline in the book in order to preach tolerance for homosexual temptations.
She would have been applauded by the publishing establishment, the political left, and the educational system for doing so: but she did not. Instead, she left the plotline so obscure that most readers never picked up on it. And it may never have come to light, had not an adult reader asked her a direct question on the topic during a forum for adults at Carnegie Hall in October.