Has the Pope Condemned Harry Potter?
A LifeSiteNews article from last week, headlined “Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels”, made it appear that Benedict XVI has read the Potter books and found them dangerous. Given the release a few days later of the sixth novel in J. K. Rowling’s famous series, the timing of the story can only be considered brilliant by those who oppose the Harry Potter phenomenon. This news is already swirling around the Internet.
When contacted by LifeSiteNews, Potter opponent and Catholic novelist Michael O’Brien was quick to state that this judgment “reveals the Holy Father’s depth and wide ranging gifts of spiritual discernment” and that “it is consistent with many of the statements he’s been making since his election to the Chair of Peter, indeed for the past 20 years.” O’Brien concluded that Benedict XVI “is the father of the universal church and we would do well to listen to him.”
Now I’ve made no secret of the fact that I regard the Harry Potter series as a set of rollicking good adventure stories, filled with both humor and moral sense, and in general dangerous to nobody. Of course, there is no telling how a particular individual will respond to any book, and I certainly don’t propose that parents who judge these books potentially dangerous to their children should follow my judgment instead of their own. Indeed, men and women of good will can disagree about Harry Potter.
What Really Happened
But there is less room for disagreement about the abuse of references to papal authority to bolster one’s own point of view. In the present case, there is so much wrong with the LifeSiteNews story and O’Brien’s response to it that both must be faulted for a significant failure of objectivity. I submit the following as a fair summary of the bare facts:
- In early 2003, at a conference on the New Age sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, one of the presenters, Peter Fleedwood, made an off-hand remark which led much of the world’s press to report that Pope John Paul II approved of the Harry Potter books.
- Immediately afterwards, Cardinal Ratzinger apparently received a letter of complaint about Fleedwood’s remarks from a German woman who also enclosed her book, entitled Harry Potter—Good or Evil?, which argued that the Potter series corrupts the hearts of the young and prevents them from developing a properly ordered sense of good and evil.
- On March 7, Cardinal Ratzinger replied to Ms. Kuby in two very brief paragraphs thanking her for the book and remarking “it is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.” He then suggested that Ms. Kuby “write to Mr. Peter Fleedwood . . . directly and send him your book.”
- A little later, Cardinal Ratzinger received a second letter from Ms. Kuby requesting his permission to make his letter public. On May 27, 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger answered with one more very brief paragraph, in which he graciously apologized for his slowness to reply and stated that “I can gladly allow you to refer to my judgment about Harry Potter.”
Now, at what point does private correspondence from Joseph Ratzinger when he was a cardinal become, in any sense, a judgment of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope? Further, at what point in this correspondence do we find a clear and precise statement of any kind, let alone one that is not only consistent with Cardinal Ratzinger’s entire body of work but also an integral part of his message thus far as Pope? Indeed, at what point does anything in this correspondence remotely suggest that Cardinal Ratzinger had even read any of the Harry Potter books? Finally at what point do these letters necessarily go so much as one step beyond ordinary graciousness and encouragement to a well-meaning author who was attempting to do good?
What Does This Really Mean?
An interpretation at least just as likely—and I believe far more likely—is that Cardinal Ratzinger was in the habit of giving kindly replies to authors who sent him books. He saw that Ms. Kuby had advanced a number of pious arguments about certain problems she claimed to find in the Potter books and, taking these at face value, he replied that her work was valuable in alerting the public to this sort of problem. At the same time, as this was very likely nothing more than a gracious reply, he avoided giving the least hint that he too had read the books and found them wanting, or that he agreed that the problems Ms. Kuby identified were actually characteristic of J. K. Rowling’s work. I suggest that any good and intelligent Church official, if he had not read the Potter books, would have responded in precisely this way.
I also note that Cardinal Ratzinger refrained from any specific reference by which anyone could possibly know what he meant by those “subtle seductions”. In context, this would appear to be an encouraging reference to the seductions identified by Ms. Kuby, without any judgment on Cardinal Ratzinger’s part that these seductions were actually present in the Potter books. In any case, just as any of us would do in writing a similar reply in a similar circumstance, he closed by stating that Ms. Kuby really should send her material directly to the man about whom she was complaining. In other words, his main purpose was not to make a judgment but to redirect the author’s ardor to the correct department.
The attempt to broker this correspondence into a profound and even magisterial pronouncement is unworthy of both LifeSiteNews and Michael O’Brien, who has much better claims to fame than his opposition to Harry Potter. First, the letters don’t necessarily say anything to the purpose. Second, even if they did, they would still be the private correspondence of a cardinal, worthy of interest certainly, but of no more ultimate value than a well-informed parental judgment.
To make of them anything more is to violate the rules of evidence, and to misuse the authority of the Church to favor one’s own cause.
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