Judging Harry

ROME — Catholics, said G.K. Chesterton, are bound in faith to agree on a few things, but tend to disagree about everything else.

That's what's been playing out in the wake of recently revealed letters that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger apparently wrote to the author of an anti-Harry Potter book.

The letters, which were publicly released by Lifesite News July 13, have reopened the debate among Catholics as to the moral quality of the Harry Potter series just days before the release of J.K. Rowling's sixth Potter tome, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Cardinal Ratzinger's comments — made as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, two years before his election as Pope Benedict XVI — were included in two letters to Gabriele Kuby, a German author. Kuby had sent him a copy of her book Harry Potter — gut oder böse? (Harry Potter: Good or Evil?)

“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 wrote in the first letter. In the second, Cardinal Ratzinger “gladly” gave permission to Kuby to make public “my judgment about Harry Potter.”

In an e-mail interview with the Register, Kuby said that she is surprised by the global media attention, but is glad that the world has received a warning from the Pope.

“What he says, to my understanding, is this: It takes time for faith to take root in the soul of a young person,” Kuby said. “If that inner space is filled up with fascinating — and therefore seductive — imagery that has no room for God, Christian faith cannot grow.”

J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was published in 1998, and fans ate up the story of the adventures the title character faced with his friends and foes at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.

Harry was 11 years old in the first book — and most of his fans are in elementary school, though adults have also taken to the long chapter novels.

The sixth Harry Potter novel went on sale at midnight, July. The stories have been successful in film versions of the novels in a series that began in 2001.

Potter Pros and Cons

As one of the foremost critics of Harry Potter, Michael O'Brien — artist, author and father of six — said that he was also heartened by the Pope's statement.

“The blessing in Cardinal Ratzinger's letter is that his points will have to be considered seriously on their own merit. It's no longer possible to dismiss critiques of Harry Potter as fundamentalism or hysteria,” he said from his home in Combermere, Ontario. O'Brien recognizes this as an opportunity to reassess Harry Potter.

“In his letter, Cardinal Ratzinger points out that the long-range effects of these books are very subtle and very corruptive; because of their subtlety, large numbers of people of good will have accepted them,” he said. “We have an opportunity to take some time out and do some real thinking about the effects of a cultural phenomenon such as the Potter series on the formation of the coming generation.”

It's a discussion many Catholics have already been involved in over the growing popularity of these books. Regina Doman, a young adult fiction author and mother of six based in Front Royal, Va., was once a critic of Harry Potter but now is a defender.

Doman is the author (with illustrator Ben Hatke — see page 12) of Angel in the Waters, a pro-life children's picture book.

“I have gone from feeling the books were a threat to considering them possibly the greatest literary coup of the 21st century — stealth Christianity in the form of children's fiction — and out-of-control bestsellers to boot,” said Doman. “Before reading them, I had presumed that the books were so wildly popular because they were demonic in origin. I hope that, as a Catholic critic of most teen literature, I can be forgiven for not thinking that the books might be incredibly popular because they are incredibly good books. But that's what I have found.”

As for the recently revealed Ratzinger letters, Doman said, “I can appreciate that Harry Potter is a thorny issue, and if the cardinal hadn't read the books himself but only read about them, I can quite understand his reaction. Sadly, the critics of Harry Potter tend to exaggerate the books’ problematic areas.”

It was not clear from news reports whether Pope Benedict had read the books, and the Vatican was not commenting.

Protecting Young Readers

Many Catholic parents continue to be concerned about what Harry Potter teaches children. One mother of four, Vivian Dudro of San Francisco, said that she has steered clear of the fantasy series because the books make sorcery and witchcraft appear to be morally neutral and encourage a disordered quest for supernatural power.

“I don't want my kids to be confused about the moral and spiritual life — I want them to be in a position of strength about the faith,” she said.

Dudro, who also works in book publishing, said that she appreciates the support of Pope Benedict.

“I was comforted to see the Holy Father say that it's potentially corrupting to youth because I've gotten a lot of flak for taking this position.”

Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, a former curial official, told Catholic Insider that he suspects the letter was penned for Cardinal Ratzinger by an assistant. He pointed out that the “subtle seduction” referred to in the letter is not specified — a clue to him that “it was a generic answer.”

He also said he found Kuby's book “unconvincing.”

“I don't think she understands English humor,” he said of Kuby. “For example, she said: One sign that these books are making fun of Judaism and Christianity is that Voldemort, the wicked magician, who is the great evil power against whom Harry Potter has to fight, is referred to often as ‘he who must not be named,’ and she takes this as an insult to the name of God” which was never spoken, traditionally.

Msgr. Fleetwood continued, “I replied to her: Don't you know that even within English families, men who make fun of their relationship with women in a nice, lighthearted way say: ‘Oh, she who should not be named,’ meaning the power in the house, their wife?”

Keeping Perspective

Distinguishing a personal position from a Church teaching is imperative, said Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press and provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.

Father Fessio studied theology as a protégé of Father Joseph Ratzinger in Germany. In light of the letters, Father Fessio said, “It is important to remember that the statements of a pope are not engaging the infallible authority of the Church except under very certain circumstances. There is always a danger of blurring the person and personal ideas of the pope with his official statements.

“The better the pope, the more beloved and the more intelligent he is, the more that blurring will occur,” he said. “People will want to accept what he says even if he isn't always authoritative.”

But Father Fessio, a friend of Pope Benedict's, stressed the wisdom in listening to the Pope's personal opinions.

“All that said, I think someone with his love of culture, art and literature — and considering his wide knowledge and prodigious reading — his judgment is worth giving some heed to. We should be disposed to want to follow the leadership of our superiors in the Church, even in areas in which they don't necessarily have proficiency.”

Annamarie Adkins is based in St. Paul, Minnesota.