Harry Potter vs. the Pope?

By Steven D. Greydanus

Years after LifeSiteNews first ran its highly misleading storyPope Benedict Opposes Harry Potter,” the damaging meme continues. I recently received an email from a Decent Films reader who wrote:

I just read your (very long) article on Harry Potter, “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf,” that was written just before the first LOTR movie and the first Potter movie came out. I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings and I have also read The Silmarillion.

I want you to know that I think very highly of you and have heard you before on EWTN and Catholic Answers Live. I think you made some very good points on the issue, but I would like to say that I disagree that Harry Potter is far from the occult.

Pope Benedict XVI (when he was still a cardinal) wrote a letter to a German critic of Harry Potter (Ms. Kuby), “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.” Also, the chief exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, said that, “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.”

So obviously if the pope and the chief exorcist of Rome are against Harry Potter, who are we to say that it is okay to read?

While the claim that “the pope and the chief exorcist of Rome are against Harry Potter” is so misleading as to be basically false, for what it’s worth I have never made a blanket statement that the Harry Potter books are “okay to read,” as if there were no reason to criticize the Harry Potter books morally. I have always argued that the books do pose some significant moral issues, and that parents may reasonably conclude that they don’t want their children reading them. On the other hand, I do think that other parents may reasonably conclude that the Harry Potter books pose no moral danger to their children. There is room here for discerning Catholics to reasonably reach different conclusions.

However, it is one thing to raise moral criticisms, and another to invoke ecclesiastical authority to condemn something as occult.

The very brief correspondence from Cardinal Ratzinger’s office to Ms. Gabriele Kuby has been badly misrepresented and apparently somewhat misleadingly translated. It is not at all clear that Cardinal Ratzinger actually read Ms. Kuby’s book, or that he ever read a single word of the Harry Potter stories, let alone intended to offer a critical opinion of them. It is not even clear that the letter in question was personally written by Cardinal Ratzinger himself, rather than by an assistant in his office, as such routine correspondence often is.

Some context is helpful. Ms. Kuby sent her book first to Cardinal Ratzinger and then — acting on the advice of the cardinal’s brief response — to Msgr. Fleetwood of the Pontifical Council of Culture, a Vatican official who just the month before had commented positively on Harry Potter in the media (describing them as the work of a “Christian by conviction” whom he believed meant the stories to illuminate the difference between good and evil).

Upon receiving Ms. Kuby’s book, Msgr. Fleetwood wrote what he later told Catholic News Service was a four-page letter explaining where he thought Ms. Kuby’s book erred in misreading the Harry Potter stories. Msgr. Fleetwood says Ms. Kuby never wrote back to him.

Instead, she wrote again to Cardinal Ratzinger, eliciting a second reply granting her permission to “refer to” the cardinal’s “judgment regarding Harry Potter.” Apparently on the authority of this permission, Ms. Kuby published the comments from the earlier Ratzinger letter on her website and reportedly on the back of her book (although the comments clearly were not written as a blurb and don’t say much of anything about Ms. Kuby’s book).

This sequence of events suggests a simple interpretation. When Ms. Kuby wrote first to Cardinal Ratzinger and then to Msgr. Fleetwood, she was seeking a publicity blurb to help sell her book. Cardinal Ratzinger’s initial letter may thus be a polite deflection of the blurb request to Msgr. Fleetwood. Then, when Msgr. Fleetwood’s response was not at all what Ms. Kuby was hoping for, she went back to Cardinal Ratzinger’s initial note and used that instead.

At the very least, the first Ratzinger letter seems to suggest that Ratzinger thought that Fleetwood qualified to evaluate and comment on Ms. Kuby’s book, and considered him the appropriate go-to guy in this case. It seems likely, too, that he considered Ms. Kuby’s book and its subject to fall more under the competence of the Pontifical Council of Culture than the CDF, and perhaps felt that a blurb on such a topic ought to come from the former rather than the latter.

Ratzinger may even have known Fleetwood as a man with some familiarity with the subject matter; it is possible that he was aware of Msgr. Fleetwood’s public comments on Harry Potter from the month before. If so, the cardinal could have had some inkling what sort of response Ms. Kuby was likely to get from Msgr. Fleetwood.

Seen in this light, the polite comments in the first Ratzinger letter tell us very little about the cardinal’s opinion (if any) of Ms. Kuby’s book, much less the Harry Potter books. Here is the key sentence as related by Zenit:

It is good that you shed light and inform us on the Harry Potter matter, for these are subtle seductions that are barely noticeable and precisely because of that deeply affect (children) and corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it (the Faith) could properly grow. (Parenthetical clauses added in translation)

The reference to “subtle seductions” is notoriously unclear, given that the plural pronoun “those” has no grammatical antecedent. There may or may not be an implied antecedent in Ms. Kuby’s unavailable original letter, which might or might not have direct reference to Harry Potter. (My understanding is that the German does not specifically connect the “subtle seductions” to the earlier reference to Harry Potter.)

Further questions might be asked. What is “the Harry Potter matter”? Does it refer specifically to the books, or to aspects of larger cultural phenomenon around them? For example, is it possible that it could refer to excessive or disordered fascination with the books, rather than to the books themselves?

It is worth noting that Msgr. Fleetwood (responding to publicity regarding the letters after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict) has stated in a Vatican Radio interview that he “suspects” the letter was not actually written by Cardinal Ratzinger himself, but by an assistant in his office — a fairly common practice with this type of correspondence.

Even if the cardinal wrote the letter himself, he could easily have done so after only the briefest inspection of the book he was being asked to blurb. It is possible (though not clearly the case) that on some level Cardinal Ratzinger accepted of the general reasonableness of her position. However, there is no reason to think that the letter represents a critically examined opinion based on any wider familiarity with the issue, with what had been said by other parties, or with any first-hand experience of the Harry Potter books.

To summarize: What we have is an informal, brief, obscurely worded opinion, in a private letter that may or may not have been written by Ratzinger himself, apparently declining to comment on a book that he may or may not have perused about a series of books he may or may not have ever laid eyes on.

That leaves the second letter from Ratzinger’s office — again responding to an unavailable query from Ms. Kuby — giving her permission to “refer to my judgment concerning Harry Potter.” Once again, whether the word “judgment” has the sense of “verdict” or of “opinion” is not clear in English translation, and may not be clear in German.

Also unclear is in what connection this permission was requested. Since we don’t have the context of Ms. Kuby’s original letters, we don’t know whether Ms. Kuby’s second letter made it clear that she wanted to publish Ratzinger’s earlier comments as a blurb, or whether the permission she received to “refer to” the earlier comments was meant to cover that usage. It is possible that Ms. Kuby’s request was ambiguous, e.g., “Can I quote what you said?” or even, as Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers has conjectured, something like “May I mention to Fr. Fleetwood the opinion you expressed in your previous note about Harry Potter?“

It is also possible that Ratzinger, responding months later, no longer specifically remembered what was in the earlier letter (especially if he didn’t write it in the first place), but recalled that it was generic and harmless enough and saw no reason why Ms. Kuby should not “refer to” it. In short, it is not at all clear that the cardinal either realized that his comments would be publicized to help sell Ms. Kuby’s book or that he meant to give Ms. Kuby general permission to publicly represent him as opposed to Harry Potter.

Be all of that as it may, one thing seems certain: To seize on this terse, cryptic letter and seek to burnish its status in light of Cardinal Ratzinger’s subsequent ascension to the Chair of Peter is surely it is the last thing that Pope Benedict himself would want. The pope who took care to emphasize in the introduction to a carefully thought-out, critically informed book on Jesus of Nazareth that “Everyone is free to disagree with me” would not want Catholics elevating the informal, brief, obscurely worded opinions of pre-papal private correspondence to quasi-magisterial status.

A quite different situation exists, on the other hand, in the case of Fr. Gabriele Amorth. There is no question that Fr. Amorth is adamantly against Harry Potter and regards the books and movies as dangerously occult. Incidentally, it is worth noting that Fr. Amorth does not hold any such title as “chief exorcist of Rome.” No such office exists. Fr. Amorth is simply a well-known priest of the diocese of Rome authorized to act as an exorcist.

Fr. Amorth also seems to be a bit of a loose cannon … if not (for lack of a better word) a bit nutty. In his book An Exorcist Tells His Story Fr. Amorth claims to have performed 30,000 exorcisms in a nine-year period. As Jimmy Akin has pointed out, that’s an average of nine exorcisms every day (Sundays included) for nine years!

Whatever else Fr. Amorth may be, he seems to be a man mentally immersed 24x7 in the world of spiritual warfare. There is at least some reason to suppose that he may well be sort of man for whom phrases like “seeing a demon under every rock” were invented. Besides averaging several exorcisms a day for many years, he has stated not only that Hitler and Stalin were “certainly” demon-possessed, but also that “I am convinced that the Nazis were all possessed by the devil” (emphasis added).

That is a shocking statement. While the thesis that Hitler and/or Stalin were been possessed is not only possible but even not implausible, it’s not clear what evidence Fr. Amorth might have that this was “certainly” the case. But certainly anyone who would make the staggering claim that the rank and file of the Nazi party were all possessed is not the kind of person I would trust to give a critical evaluation of the evidence.

In any case, I have no confidence at all that Fr. Amorth knows anything about children’s literature or imaginative fiction generally, or the principles by which it ought to be judged.

Once again, none of this is to say that there are no reasonable grounds for critiquing the Harry Potter phenomenon in regard to its depiction of magic as well as on other grounds. My essay “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” was written in part to argue that there are. Parents who exclude Harry Potter from their children’s libraries are not necessarily overreacting, nor are parents who permit Harry Potter necessarily lax. Harry Potter should not be a Catholic shibboleth one way or the other.

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