Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harry Potter: The Pope Does Not Have an Opinion

I have gone back and forth on Harry Potter over the years. What I do firmly believe is that parents should educate their kids about the actual dangers of magic and occultic practices so that they know how to recognize the difference between power coming from God and from the devil. But in an alternate universe where God doesn't feature and there are other kinds of powers at work -- such as in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, we can't just equate "magic" with "bad." Either way, the Catholic novelist Michael O'Brien has done most of the philosophical work arguing for why the Harry Potter books are dangerous for children. However, he has also been in the news several times for claiming that Benedict XVI agrees with him and has condemned Harry Potter. Whether one thinks Harry Potter good or not, claiming that the pope has an opinion about it is nonsense, and for the sake of truth and honesty, I'm posting a good and thorough report on the subject below. This is a report by Rita Skeeters and I've taken it from Hogwarts Professor:

The most frequently requested article from the old Hogwarts Professor site after “Obviously Dumbledore is not Jesus” has been this piece on the scandalous use of the Pope by Canadian Harry Haters and Culture Warriors the day before Half-Blood Prince was released. I re-print it now in anticipation of similar shameful efforts in the third week of July this year. Harry Potter is a phenomenon those who style themselves latter-day Savonarolas almost certainly will not let pass without a volley and flourish.

“Pope Opposes Harry Potter”? Hardly.
Michael O’Brien and the Kuby Letters: Rita Skeeter covers the Vatican

A Time Line and Commentary on the Kuby Letters, supposedly written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), on the subject of the Harry Potter novels written by Joanne Rowling.

February, 2003:

The story begins at the press conference releasing the Pontifical Council on Culture and Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s of “Vatican statement on New Age Religions’ Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life (A Christian Reflection on the “New Age”).

Fr. Peter Fleetwood at the Press Conference for this document was asked about Harry Potter. In an interview 15 July 2005 on Vatican Radio Fr. Peter said that, at the 2003 Press Conference he had said only that (1) the books reflect Rowling’s Christian upbringing and study of myth and (2) that the books are about good triumphing over evil. This was widely reported and interpreted as a Vatican endorsement or “closet imprimatur” for the Potter books.

Michael O’Brien, Canadian painter and self-described “combat soldier in the culture war,” has said about this event:

“In short, it was the superficial personal opinion of a man who may or may not have read the books. That the media turned this into a major world-class story (and at the same time largely ignored the reason for the conference, the release of the Vatican’s teachings on the New Age movement) is so blatant a violation of journalistic standards that one cannot help but wonder over it.”

March, 2003:

In March 2003. a German sociologist and self-educated Catholic apologist sent a copy of her Harry Potter book to then Cardinal Ratzinger asking for his endorsement. She received this response (English translation by

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Vatican City
March 7, 2003

Esteemed and dear Ms. Kuby!

Many thanks for your kind letter of February 20th and the informative book which you sent me in the same mail. 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.

I would like to suggest that you write to Mr. Peter Fleetwood, (Pontifical Council of Culture, Piazza S. Calisto 16, I00153 Rome) directly and to send him your book.

Sincere Greetings and Blessings,

+ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Ms. Kuby did send the book to Fr. Peter Fleetwood as instructed by then Cardinal Ratzinger and received a four page response explaining where he thought she may have misunderstood or read too much into the books. He said he never heard back from her.

Ms. Kuby did write the Cardinal again, asking permission to use his book blurb and received this response (translation again from

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Vatican City
May 27, 2003

Esteemed and dear Ms. Kuby,

Somehow your letter got buried in the large pile of name-day, birthday and Easter mail. Finally this pile is taken care of, so that I can gladly allow you to refer to my judgment about Harry Potter.

Sincere Greetings and Blessings,

+ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

The Cardinal’s sentence was published on the book which was reviewed in Germany and largely dismissed. As German Catholic priest and literature critic Fr. Karl Leisner pointed out at the time and again recently, and as Fr. Fleetwood has said he wrote to her in response to then Cardinal Ratzinger’s request that she write to him, Ms. Kuby is neither a careful reader nor a competent critic, however admirable her intentions.

April, 2005:

The matter rested there until Cardinal Ratzinger’s elevation to the Papacy the next spring. Ms. Kuby then shared her letters supposedly from the new Pope about Harry Potter again with the Press. This made a “big splash” in the papers and Harry Potter fan sites at the end of April, 2005.

There was very little said about this report after the announcement in April, other than notices being made that the letters were (1) from Cardinal Ratzinger writing a book blurb for a friend, not from the newly elevated Pope speaking ex cathedra and (2) that it was very unlikely that then Cardinal Ratzinger had read either the book by Ms. Kuby or the Harry Potter books. The story died a natural death.

June 27/July 13, 2005:

In late June and then again three days before the release of the sixth Harry Potter novel, a small Catholic news service that reports pro-life stories located in Combermere, Ontario, Canada, releases a story with the headline “Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels” with the location of the news release being given as “Rimsting, Germany.” The articles feature comments by Catholic novelist Michael O’Brien, also, remarkably, of the small town Combermere, Ontario, Canada. He says in this piece:

“This discernment on the part of Benedict XVI reveals the Holy Father’s depth and wide ranging gifts of spiritual discernment.” O’Brien, author of a book dealing with fantasy literature for children added, “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 - a probing accurate read of the massing spiritual warfare that is moving to a new level of struggle in western civilization. He is a man in whom a prodigious intellect is integrated with great spiritual gifts. He is the father of the universal church and we would do well to listen to him.”

The timing of this article and the remarkably deceptive headline caused the firestorm one would expect. Catholics around the world were led to believe by newspapers (that picked up this story and headline from a news-scanner called Drudge) that their Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, had weighed in on this subject. Mr. O’Brien appeared on a CNN news program Friday, 15 July, which program belittled his position but reported without qualification the story about the Pope. O’Brien proclaimed this a victory on his website, saying:

The great grace of Friday’s CNN show was that the Holy Father’s letter regarding the Potter series was read, even in the midst of everything working against it.

The delight of staffers in the spread of their story from is evident in this posting on a Catholic web site by “Hilary” on July 13th:

I’m very proud to say that was us. LifeSite has been hammering at Harry Potter for years and we got the letters by contacting the woman presonally. Drudge picked it up this morning and we rushed to get the graphics off the story before the tidal wave hit us and crashed the site, which has happened the couple of other times we have been picked up by Drudge. He’s really good at crediting us and as also always happens, the first few stories who pick it up from Drudge also credit us, but by the time the Washington Post gets it and it rolls back to Canada’s National Post, we have dropped off the radar. But it seems to be better this time, John Henry got a call from the London Times this morning, which is something because we are six hours ahead of them.

But you should hear the neo-catholics screeching at us! Every time we go after Harry the Weigelites come after us with knives sharpened. They really REALLY hate to have their complacent little tea party with The World disturbed by difficult truths hey?

I should enjoy it less I suppose…but that’s whaty I’ve got a spiritual director for I guess.

But is this letter from Cardinal Ratzinger actually from Cardinal Ratzinger? Has it been translated verbatim or in a way that sensationalizes and misrepresents what the Cardinal or the curia bureaucrat who wrote it has said? And what is the Vatican position on Harry Potter, if any?

The Vatican was, of course, immediately besieged by requests for confirmation or denial of the story with the headline “Pope Opposes Harry Potter.” The Pope and his secretary were at the Pope’s retreat villa in the Northern Italian Alps so there was no response from Pope Benedict XVI. Vatican Radio, however, “the Voice of the Pope,” on July 15, two days after this report was re-released from Michael O’Brien’s hometown, featured an interview with Fr. Peter Fleetwood about the Kuby letters. The Catholic News Service, the most reputable source of news for Catholics, also reported on the “New attention given to 2003 Cardinal Ratzinger letter on Harry Potter.”

In the interview, Fr. Fleetwood makes it clear he doubts the letters were written by the Cardinal:

I was sent a letter from a lady in Germany who claimed to have written to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that she thought Harry Potter was a bad thing. And the letter back, which I suspect was written by an assistant of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that there was a subtle seduction in the books. What that subtle seduction was, was not specified, which makes me think it was a generic answer. And she had written a book on these subjects and so the Cardinal’s signature was at the bottom of the letter, suggesting she should send me the book. She sent me the book, and I found it a very unsatisfactory book.

So unsatisfactory was the book that he felt obliged to send her a four page letter detailing the errors and misunderstandings in it. Ms. Kuby, Mr. O’Brien, and make no mention of this exchange and Ms. Kuby’s failure to heed or even respond to a letter sent from an official of the Pontifical Council of Culture who has read the books.

As Fr. Fleetwood points out, the wording in the German is generic and “subtle seductions” does not point to Harry Potter the way the translation presents it. The German language version in fact reads more like a description of poisons that don’t allow plants to grow normally in the soil. It congratulates the author for being watchful for such subtle seductions in even children’s books but does not say that Harry Potter is one of these.

As the Catholic News Service report makes clear, “Cardinal Ratzinger did not say he had read any of the Harry Potter books.” His letter did, however, direct the author to a Pontifical Office that dealt with these matters and to a person that had read the books, whose guidance and instruction Ms. Kuby has ignored and neglects to mention.

The Vatican position, if there is one, seems to be the one expressed by Fr. Peter Fleetwood on Vatican Radio. As reported by Catholic News Service and available verbatim on line :

The most appropriate way to Judge Harry Potter is not on the basis of theology, but according to the criteria of children’s literature and whether children will read the book willingly.

This interview and reports are the only statements made (1) by a legitimate Catholic official (2) speaking directly to the subjects of Harry Potter and the Kuby letters (3) from a Vatican news service.

How then are we to understand the Kuby letters?

I think the common sense conclusion but sad fact of the matter is that a provincial Catholic zealot group has exploited the Pope and Catholic feeling for their Holy Father for their own gain. “Pope Opposes Harry Potter” Hardly. The new Pope did not write these letters as Pontiff, it is doubtful then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote courtesy book blurbs, and, if he did write these letters, they don’t say what LifeSite News and Mr. O’Brien say they do. A better and more accurate headline would have been: “Vatican office sends polite thank you to frenetic Catholic Harry-Hater.”

Mr. O’Brien decried the “superficial personal opinion of a man who may or may not have read the books” when speaking about a Vatican official and Englishman who certainly had read the novels and spoke in a Pontifical Office charged with knowing about such things. It is ironic and hypocritical that he then says about then Cardinal Ratzinger, a German in an office with responsibilities not stretching to children’s literature and who almost certainly has not read the Potter novels, that “this discernment on the part of Benedict XVI reveals the Holy Father’s depth and wide ranging gifts of spiritual discernment” and that “he is the father of the universal church and we would do well to listen to him.”

O’Brien and have exploited the Pope and made him into something of a hand puppet to say the things they want him to say. Anything from the Vatican archives or waste bins that can support the Combemere, Ontario, position is “spiritual discernment.” Explicit correction, on the other hand, from Vatican offices charged with such matters are neglected or misrepresented.

“Star Chamber” and “Super-Catholics” are here evidently “Cafeteria Catholics,” picking and choosing what they like from the Vatican menu.

The Kuby letters are best understood as letters from a curia official writing a polite book blurb and thanking her for the kindness of sending the Cardinal a book. As Mark Shea has written, “the note was obviously about as doctrinal as a Papal handshake in a giant crowd.” The re-release of these letters by a Catholic artist and news service located in a provincial Canadian town on the eve of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’s publication, a re-release four months after the story had broken, speaks to the type of media irresponsibility decried by O’Brien and satirized by Joanne Rowling in the Harry Potter novels. Mr. O’Brien and, in fact, resemble with disarming likeness The Daily Prophet and reporter Rita Skeeter.

The only difference is, sadly, the satirical characters and media in the Potter novels could never have dragged down the faith of millions and diminished both a Pope’s reputation and “spiritual capital” for their personal gain. For a sober Catholic’s reflections on the Kuby letters and Harry Potter books, please read acclaimed Catholic novelist Regina Doman’s essay at the Zossima Press home page.

And please remember the next time you see Michael O’Brien on CNN or a quotation or story from that these provincial Canadian Catholics have their private agenda for you, the Pope, and faith and culture.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


Anonymous said...

Nathan, I have read the Potter books. All of them. I could leave the magic aside and tell you other reasons why it is a bad influence for children. Harry is constantly lying and cheating, on occasions he steals. His anger is uncontrollable. Those who hold on to rules are belittled. Dumbledore is fine with harry breaking the rules. In the Lord of the Rings this is not so. You read it or I read it we know it is wrong. But children reading a book where the hero cheats, lies, steals and has angry bouts and that is looked on as ok, that does affected children. Tolkien never tolerated that. When Pipen broke the rules he was in trouble. Not so with the potter stuff. These have a bad message for our kids. The privileged don't have to follow the order of things because they are the hero. The end justifies the means in potter. A bad way to live. Lying in potter is an example that children will be confused by. Your confirmation teacher.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ said...

Thanks. Again, I have only read the first book. I would like to read them all someday. I can easily believe that they could be a bad influence on children and that Harry may not be the best role model. My main point here is to question the claim about Ratzinger/Benedict which seems to me to be dubious at best.

I think the argument against the Potter books as bad role model is better than the "demonic" one. But that's from the little I've read about them. My main point was rather narrow concerning Benedict.

Anonymous said...

Hello Nathan,

I like what you wrote about the Benedict writings. The Truth is important even when were fighting evil. Never argue evil with a lie. I always argue the Harry thing from the lies and usually not the witchcraft. Everybody hates to be lied to. So I raise those points more then the witchcraft. By the the way Nathan the movies don't bring out the most of the book points, so don't watch the movies to decide on the books. Just like the peter Jackson LOTR and the real book stuff. Keep up the good work Nathan. It was good to see you. Your confirmation teacher.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ said...

Everybody hates to be lied to, even and especially children. If these books lie to children about reality and the deepest sources of what it is to be human, then they are dangerous. Hopefully I'll get around to reading them soon. It's so rare that I see the movies before reading the books! I'm almost embarrassed to admit it.