I don’t usually try to enter public discussions of this kind, but in the interest of fairness, I feel I must write about the matter of Cardinal Ratzinger’s alleged condemnation of the Harry Potter books, which was being circulated widely via the Internet right before the recent release of the newest Harry Potter book.
The Best Remedy
The remarks as reported by LifeSiteNews.com seem to make it an open-and-shut case that good Catholics should not be reading the Harry Potter books, because the pope himself has spoken against them.
I want to note that Cardinal Ratzinger made these remarks and gave permission to have them reported when he was a cardinal. His remarks should be taken for what they are: not a papal pronouncement, but the reasonable opinion of a church official. As cardinal, Ratzinger also made statements condemning rock music, calling it “the complete antithesis of Christian faith in the redemption.” But I doubt that even the most devout Catholic parent will stop listening to the Beatles because the group contributed to the rock culture, even if this is Ratzinger’s opinion. I do not mean to disparage the prudence of the cardinal regarding rock music (I tend to agree with him), but I am simply pointing out that in that case, we can see that it is a matter of a wise man giving his opinion, not a Church directive.
Furthermore, it is not clear to me that our Holy Father has ever read any of the Harry Potter books, even if he has read a book about them. Thus, I would respectfully question his judgment as a cardinal about the books. Now that he is our Holy Father, I think it unlikely that he would give an opinion on the Harry Potter books, because, being the prudent and wise man that he is, he would realize that disproportionate weight will be given to his opinion.
For those concerned about the books, the best remedy is for them to read the books and examine the evidence for themselves. I thought the books were much more sinister until I actually read them. Now that I have read all the published books, I find that most of what Catholic critics have written about them is exaggerated and in some cases, misleading. Although O’Brien and others have claimed otherwise, I find many similarities between J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings by Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien.
Objections to the Magic
Here is a summary of some salient concerns of Catholics regarding the books. I write this as a Catholic author, as a homeschooling parent, and as a fierce critic of most children’s literature being written today.
Objection 1: The Harry Potter books promote occult magic.
The magic in the books is not occult magic, but fantasy magic. Occult magic, “real magic” requires the calling upon of higher powers to operate. The Church condemns calling upon any spiritual power but God. In the Harry Potter books, no higher source is ever called upon or used not the Force (as in Star Wars), not the Valar (as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), not Aslan (as in the Narnia books) not Mother Earth or any kind of other power.
In the Potter books, magic works because wizards say the right words, much as a magician (apparently) produces a rabbit by saying “Abracadabra.” Thus the students at Harry’s School of Wizardry are not learning real-world occult magic. In fact, the bulk of the “spells” they learn are simply Latin words for different commands (the author is a Latin scholar). From an occultist’s point of view, the spells in the books could never work, because there’s no “motor,” no invocation to a spiritual power. This is probably not coincidence. Just as organized religion is noticeably absent from Tolkien’s imaginary world, there are no spiritual powers in Rowling’s world for the characters or the reader to worship or put before God.
Objection 2: The Harry Potter books show children learning and using magic.
The students (including Harry) at the school are not human children learning magic, but wizards. They are an entirely different species, similar to Elves like Legolas in the Lord of the Rings (but without pointy ears). Like Tolkien’s Elves, they can be mistaken for humans, they can marry humans and have children with them. Like the Elves, they have innate powers that come naturally to them and which can’t be learned by humans (in Harry’s world, it’s useless or even dangerous for ordinary humans to learn magic).
In school, wizards are taught how to use these powers in moral and constructive ways (in Book 3 we see that without training, these powers can become random and destructive). Also like the Elves, wizards prefer to live in seclusion from ordinary humans and are not as concerned with human affairs as with their own troubles. They live in hidden places outside the human space/time realm. Thus in significant ways the “wizarding community” of the Potter books is nothing like societies of wizards and witches in our own world, which all consist of humans practicing occult magic. Harry isn’t an ordinary child who suddenly discovers an “inner calling” for magic he is the child of two wizards who was hidden in a human family for his own protection when his parents were murdered by an evil wizard. If it’s not wrong for Tolkien’s Elves to use their own magic, neither is it “wrong” for a member of the wizarding “species” like Harry.
Objection 3: The books are elitist and occultic.
Occult fiction typically packs an emotional punch by building up a picture of the magical person as a misunderstood victim of society who nevertheless has special powers that are beyond fundamentalist stereotypes of good and evil. Readers are encouraged to want to be like these enlightened and solitary figures with “a high and lonely destiny.” Hard rock music and much teen fiction also play into this emotional game. But readers looking for this kind of kick will not find it in the Harry Potter books. Despite superficial resemblances to this scenario in the plot of the first book, Harry learns quickly that being a wizard doesn’t excuse him from morality, including humility. As the books go on, readers learn that wizards aren’t victims of human misunderstanding at all in fact, they’re extremely powerful and must not abuse their powers by lording over lower creatures.
Harry leaves school each year with a burden of moral responsibility to fight the tendency of wizards to become selfish and evil starting with himself. He is asked to be humble about his talents, to be charitable and respectful to his piggish human relations, and to sacrificially oppose evil. Harry and the reader are called to live out a higher standard of morality that corresponds in suspiciously many ways to Christian morality. It is hard to describe how different these books are in tone from most fantasy literature about witches and wizards. In fact, the actual Satanist credo, “There is no good and evil only power and those too weak to use it,” is mouthed by the villain of the first book, and Harry adamantly rejects it.
Objections to the Morality
Objection 4: The books glorify evil.
The evil Dark Lord of the books, Voldemort, is a Hitler-like figure whose goals are the extermination of humans and human blood from the wizarding world, and the conquering of death. His followers are known as Death Eaters. The good wizards oppose him through morality and through acceptance of death, especially sacrificial death for the good of others. The German critic of Potter accuses the books of being “steeped in racism” but she neglects to say that the racism is portrayed as abhorrent and leading to evil (though even some of the “good” wizards wrongly tolerate it). Furthermore, Rowling succeeds in making good more interesting and attractive than evil. Harry Potter’s villains are uniform in their personalities and tactics they act out of pride and selfishness, and are not very interesting as characters. On the other hand, the good characters display a wide and attractive variety of goodness they are funny, eccentric, noble, etc. similar to the allies of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Goodness is seen as difficult, but necessary and attractive. The headmaster Dumbledore warns the children of the school that in their lives they will be forced to chose “between what is right and what is easy.” This saying, repeated in the teaser for the fourth Harry Potter movie, is the strongest and most refreshing condemnation of relativism I’ve come across in children’s literature today.
Objection 5: The Harry Potter books muddle good and evil.
Michael O’Brien, a prominent critic of the Potter series, has written a book called A Landscape with Dragons where he examines how much modern children’s fiction reverses symbolism in order to subvert morality. But I charge that it seems that J.K. Rowling has read and absorbed Mr. O’Brien’s book, because she stringently adheres to traditional symbolisms for good and evil. For example, in Rowling’s world, dragons are always dangerous and untrustworthy not misunderstood but lovable creatures as is typical in children’s fantasy fiction. And serpents in Potter-world are always evil and tightly associated with the evil wizards. The Dark Lord in the books keeps a gigantic serpent as a pet. A statue of a prominent dark wizard literally spouts serpents from its stone mouth. The symbol of the Death Eaters, the dark wizards, is a skull with a serpent emerging from its mouth.
The symbolism in the books goes deeper than that. Author John Granger notes that in every book, Harry is saved or aided by a magical entity that has traditionally been associated with or used to symbolize Christ the Philosopher’s Stone, a phoenix, a stag. Other positive figures in the books are unicorns and hippogriffs, also Christ-symbols. Deeper still, the dark wizards, vehemently opposed by Harry and the reader, use rituals that are recognizable blasphemies of the Christian religion. For example, in Book 4, the Dark Lord regenerates himself through a series of rituals that are inversions of the Christian sacraments, including Baptism and the Eucharist. Remember that every blasphemy pays tribute to the power of the object it ridicules. John Granger notes that the very name “Death Eaters” should remind us that Christians are “Life Eaters” we live on Christ, the Bread of Life.
The meticulous and ordered layers of traditional Christian symbolism in the books can only lead to the conclusion that Rowling, herself an Anglican, has done this deliberately. To sum up, there is no attempt in the books to portray good and evil as the same or interchangeable. There is no suggestion (as in Star Wars) that good and evil need to be “balanced.” There is no attempt to equalize the two or to make evil more powerful. On the contrary, in the books as in the Catholic faith, good is more powerful, and evil is subordinate and can only copy and mock the good. Evil and good have very different characterizations and visual symbols attached to them which leads to the reader feeling an emotional repulsion towards evil and an attraction towards the “harder but better road” of goodness.
Objection 6: Harry is a bad role model for children.
Harry is often cited as a bad example for children because he disobeys rules and tells lies. However, his moral character grows over the course of the books. In book 4, he suffers ridicule and setbacks because he refuses to cheat at a school function and insists on playing fair when his peers don’t. And in Book 5 he suffers for refusing to tell lies. My husband and I have found that Harry’s anti-authoritarianism is greatly exaggerated by critics. Harry has a true respect for legitimate authority such as the headmaster’s and his very strict teachers. And he honors the memory of his dead parents and accepts them as role models. The stature and legitimacy of a father’s authority grows throughout the books, especially in Books 3 through 5. It’s actually shocking to realize how much the books underline Harry’s innate need for a strong father figure as a moral compass in his life. That alone makes them a valuable resource.
Objection 7: The Harry Potter books attack the family and the culture of life.
This is the most serious charge and one that is very unfair to the books. If Rowling wanted to build up the culture of death, the books read like a series of missed opportunities. There is no divorce in the books, no non-traditional families, no cohabitation or fornication. There isn’t even any lip service to traditional liberal concerns like the environment or Marxism. The books could have been written in a vacuum so free are they from the usual agenda of contemporary society, and they do have a timeless, wholesome appeal to them because of this.
In fact, though O'Brien has accused the books of having a “spicy” sexuality, the first five books are remarkably free of any suggestiveness. [See Editor’s Note below.] Harry's first crush on a girl in Book 4 and 5 is innocent and awkward and almost pure. Physically, nothing more happens than a kiss under the mistletoe. Book 6, which takes place when Harry and his friends are sixteen years old, does contain more sexuality than the other books (confined to kissing, which is admittedly heavy in some cases), but still there's no mention of anyone dreaming of committing fornication. Most refreshingly for a modern teen novel, although much of the book deals with the thoughts and interactions of sixteen-year-old boys, there's no trace or mention of pornography. And critics seldom mention the significant role of the Weasley family in the books.
The Weasleys are a large wizard family of seven children and the family becomes very important in Harry’s emotional life as the books go on. Although the Weasleys are poor and are looked down upon by some single-child wizarding families (who compare them to “rabbits”), the Weasleys have a rich home environment that is welcoming and generous to orphans and outcasts like Harry. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are a loving married couple, and Mrs. Weasley is a stay-at-home mother whose life clearly revolves around her children there’s no suggestion that she’d be better off with a career. (Incidentally, Rowling has stated on her website that all wizard children are homeschooled until age 11, and some even longer.) Our family has found the scenes where Harry stays at the Weasley’s home to be among the most delightful in the books, and the reader is left with the firm impression that nothing would be so fun or so wonderful as to be a part of a loving large family like this one. Whetting the appetite for genuine goodness is a remarkable feat for any children’s author, and Rowling succeeds in this admirably.
Christian Fiction in Disguise
Another thing that impresses me is that Rowling, who has been fiercely criticized by the Christian community, has not retaliated at all, in fiction, or even, so far as I know, in public. One would expect to find caricatures of fundamentalist Christians in the later books: there are none. She has said that one of the themes in Book 5 is how sad it is that people who are on the side of goodness spend more time attacking one another than fighting evil, and that seems to be her only word on the subject. Regarding her own faith, she has told the media that she won’t talk about her faith until the series is over, because “otherwise people will know how the series ends.”
As a parent myself, I can respect Catholic parents who approach the books with concern. I myself had many concerns before reading them, and still harbor a few reservations about the books (after all the series isn’t finished yet, and I haven't yet read Book 6).
I think that it’s natural for serious Catholics in these dark times to be suspicious of the books, and that people should be forgiven for assuming that wildly popular books like the Potter series must be successful only because they are about the occult. I never dreamed that the books might be so incredibly popular because they are so incredibly good.
But once I read them, I started to realize that this might indeed be the case. Perhaps the jaded and beauty-starved and morally-adrift children of the world are devouring Harry Potter because the books are full of truth, goodness, and beauty although disguised with unfortunate terms like “wizard,” “witch,” and “magic.” If so, then Rowling has pulled the biggest literary coup in modern history, similar only to Tolkien’s success in becoming the greatest author of the twentieth century.
The main problem with the books could simply be that they are new. When I was growing up, I was encouraged by serious Christians to avoid The Lord of the Rings because the book was thought to encourage interest in the occult. After all, it had spawned the occultic Dungeons and Dragons games. But now Tolkien’s book is hailed as a Christian classic, simply because it has passed the test of time.
If the Potter series ends in the same way as it has gone so far, then it could be true, paradoxically, that the best-selling books of the 21st century will have been Christian fiction in disguise.
[Editor's Note: In fairness to Michael O’Brien, his comment regarding sexuality in the Harry Potter books is reproduced here in context, and readers should note that this was written when only the first four volumes had been published.
But the charming details are mixed with the not so charming at every turn: Repulsive details abound; one of the “good” characters seeks to cast a spell on another student that backfires on himself, making him vomit slimy slugs; students eat candy that comes in a variety of odious flavors; the ghost of a little girl lives in a toilet; excremental references are not uncommon; urination is no longer an off-limits subject; rudeness between students is routine behavior. In volume four especially these trends are in evidence, along with the added spice of sexuality inferred in references such as “private parts” and students pairing off and “going into the bushes.”
If you would like to read Michael O’Brien’s entire essay click here.]
Regina Doman is the author of several books for teens and young adults, including Angel in the Waters (www.angelinthewaters.com) and Black as Night (www.blackasnight.com). She is the editor of the upcoming John Paul 2 High fiction series for teens (www.johnpaul2high.com), and directed the radio drama The Shadow of the Bear for Catholic radio featuring Alex Fedoryka and Leonardo Defilippis. (www.chestertonproductions ) A complete list of her work can be found at www.reginadoman.com.