Pope Benedict and Harry Potter

Pope Benedict and Harry Potter

by Michael D. O’Brien


Many of you will recall the controversy that arose in the world’s media a few years ago over the Harry Potter series of fantasy novels for young readers. Numerous articles appeared in the press praising the books as a breakthrough to a more literate form of culture for young people. They exalted its dramatic qualities, imaginative story-telling, humor, and promotion of “values.” Little serious reflection was given to the fact that the foundational element of the series is witchcraft and sorcery, which is glamorized and offered to the reader as normal, even a saving path. The central character, Harry, is a sorcerer in training. This is not the place to restate the arguments, pro and con; I have done this in previous articles, which are posted on this website. However, I would like to emphasize again that few if any cultural works in the history of mankind have spread so far and so quickly as the Potter series. Indeed there are now hundreds of millions of readers.
There were of course some dissenting opinions about the books, writers such as myself who examined them in the context of the ongoing paganization of children’s culture—a phenomenon that already has proved to have negative consequences. Generally, critics of Potter were dismissed as “hysterical alarmists” or “fundamentalists.” The situation was made more difficult when in February, 2003 the world media erupted with headlines announcing that the Vatican and the Pope were in favor of the books: “Pope Approves Potter” declared the Toronto Star. “Harry Potter Is Ok With The Pontiff” declared the Chicago Sun Times. Throughout North America, England, Australia, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and points beyond, the press and e-media proclaimed, “Vatican okays Harry Potter” (News 24, South Africa), “Vatican gives blessing to Harry Potter” (Scotsman), “Pope Sticks Up for Potter Books” (the BBC); “Vatican: Harry Potter’s OK with Us” (CNN Asia), and so forth.

This was a classic case of media disinformation. In fact, neither the Vatican nor John Paul II had in any way approved the series. The “story” had its source in a remark made by Monsignor Peter Fleetwood during a press conference for the release of a Vatican document on the New Age movement. Responding to a reporter’s question about the Harry Potter series, Fleetwood replied, “If I have understood well the intentions of Harry Potter’s author, they help children to see the difference between good and evil.” 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.

The media failed to give equal coverage to a more significant statement on the Potter series when, two years earlier,Fr. Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist of the diocese of Rome and head of the worldwide association of Catholic exorcists, warned parents against the books in an interview with the Italian ANSA news agency. Fr. Amorth, who is also the president of the International Association of Exorcists, said bluntly, “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.” He maintained that many of the ideas expressed in the books were from the realm of darkness, that they contain innumerable positive references to magic, “the satanic art”, and attempt to make a false distinction between black and white magic, when in fact the distinction “does not exist, because magic is always a recourse to the devil.” He also criticized the disordered morality presented in Rowling’s works, which he believes strongly reinforce moral relativism.

In the ensuing years the controversy raged on, most notably in articles attacking critics of Potter. It has been disconcerting to see that many such articles have been published in orthodox Catholic journals. At root was a failure to understand the power of cultural material over human consciousness, and thus its effects on human actions. There was, as well, a kind of academic over-reliance on individual reason, perhaps because intelligent people of faith generally consider themselves capable of absorbing a good deal of flawed material without being harmed by it. This was to forget that the young are in a state of formation, are the most vulnerable to deformation of their understandings of reality, especially the nature of good and evil.

The controversy declined during the past year, yet it now promises to revive as the sixth volume of the Potter series—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—is about to be released. Amazon Books apparently has registered more than a million pre-orders for the book, and sales in retail outlets promise to be much higher in number. Another wave of the cultural tsunami is approaching. It is also, we should note, a spiritual wave.

It will be very interesting to see if the media will give as much coverage to the position of Pope Benedict XVI on the subject as it gave to a minor official in the Vatican. Prior to his election to the Chair of Peter, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had outlined his concerns about the Potter books to a German sociologist, Gabriele Kuby, who had written a book on the problems in the series and its negative effects on children. Her book, Harry Potter—gut oder böse? (Harry Potter—good or evil?) strongly critiques the series. In his March 7, 2003, letter to her, written a month after the press had falsely proclaimed that the Church approved of Harry Potter, the cardinal, who was Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time, encouraged her in her critique.

In an interview that appeared in the German language edition of Zenit News she expressed concern that many people, including even devout Catholics, have overlooked the dangers she found in the Potter series:

“I have no desire to see and depict devils where there are none,” she said, “but when I see with my own eyes, when my intelligence and heart inform me, that there is a devil painted on a wall even though most everyone else sees on this same wall only flowery wallpaper design, then I feel obliged to give witness to the truth, whether convenient or unwelcome. There is such a thing as public deception—we Germans know about that.”

see http://www.zenit.org/german/visualizza.phtml?sid=45441

Elsewhere she has noted the widespread phenomenon of anger against Potter critics, some of it coming from orthodox Catholics who vehemently defend the series. Her arguments have been misrepresented, her integrity publicly ridiculed, and not infrequently she has suffered other kinds of ad hominem attacks  against her person. This is a fairly common experience among those who resist the Potter revolution. What is surprising is that some of the worst attacks have come from serious-minded Christian commentators who are generally considered to be people of reason.

It goes without saying that no one is really immune from subjectivity. We are all sinners, and we all must struggle through trial and error to reach a proper integration of faith and reason. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book on the Church in our times, Called to Communion, “. . . we are all in need of forgiveness, which is the heart of all true reform. . . . The Church is not a communion of those ‘who have no need of a physician’ (Mark 2:17) but a communion of converted sinners who live by the grace of forgiveness and transmit it themselves. . . . I believe that the core of the spiritual crisis of our time has its basis in the obscuration of the grace of forgiveness.”

The fullness of life in Christ must never be reduced to a set of doctrines to which we give an intellectual assent, and no more than that. The mind, along with the body and the emotions, must be integrated with spiritual gifts—which includes discernment about cultural influences and their underlying motives, philosophy, and effects on the inner life of the human person, and hence his actions in the world. Without this integration, it will be difficult for us to see the actual dimensions of the problems in cultural phenomena such as the Potter series. To declare them harmless (and even good) simply because they are not a matter of doctrine, but only of culture, is to make a false and dangerous split between faith and culture.

Kuby maintains that the Potter books prevent the young from developing a properly ordered sense of good and evil, and in this regard she quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter:

“Thank you very much for the instructive book. 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.”  (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, March 7, 2003)

In a second letter to her, May 27, 2003, he wrote that he “gladly” gives her his permission to publicize his judgement about Harry Potter.

In  a handwritten personal Christmas card he sent to her in December, 2003, he said, “Thank you very much for your courageous engagement against occultism and magic.”

This discernment on the part of the man who is now Benedict XVI reveals the Holy Father’s depth perception. It is consistent with many of the statements he has been making since his election to the Chair of Peter, and throughout the past 30 years. His strong exhortation to the cardinals as they were about to enter the papal conclave focused on the need to resist the “dictatorship of moral relativism.” His is 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 prodigious intellect, wisdom, and rich cultural knowledge are integrated with profound spiritual gifts. Let us remember that the struggle for the soul of this generation is not a “mere” abstract discussion, but is intensely underway (sometimes subtly, but not always so) in every field of culture. Indeed it is in the field of culture that we have been losing many battles (and perhaps many souls) for a long time now. It has become the major front of the spiritual war waged over mankind—the war that will last until the end of time.

This is why we need especially to invoke all the graces Heaven wishes to pour out for us. Among the foremost of these is the role of the Mother of God in our lives. She has a particularly powerful role in the formation and protection of our children, one that is crucial to the outcome of decisive battles in the Great War. Articles, discussions, and debates are needed, but most of all we need to pray and fast, invoking Christ’s aid through her intercession. She is the Mother of mankind and the Mother of the Church. Benedict XVI is the father of the universal Church and we would do well to listen to him.

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See Gabriele Kuby’s website

(contains German and English text of pertinent correspondence)

Articles posted on Studiobrien.com dealing with fantasy literature are listed below:

The War For Our Children’s Souls

Why Harry Potter Goes Awry: an interview with Zenit News Agency

Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children’s Culture

The Potter Controversy: or Why That Boy Sorcerer Just Won’t Go Away

Fantasy and the Family: a letter to a concerned mother

Harry versus Frodo

Interview With Catholic World Report: Special Tolkien Issue

My book on the paganization of children’s culture, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for your Child’s Mind, is published by Ignatius Press. It can be ordered directly through the publisher’s website, www.ignatius.com or at considerable discount price on www.amazon.com (for U.S. and foreign visitors) or www.amazon.ca (Canadian visitors).

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July 16th, 2005, Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Dear Friends of StudiObrien

A large number of letters are pouring in following my appearance on CNN’s program “Paula Zahn Now” last Friday evening. Many of you who were praying for me at that time did not have access to CNN and have asked how it went.

CNN had invited me to a “debate” and promised that both sides of the controversy over the Potter books would be presented fairly. Those of you who watched the program saw that it was a biased, heavily manipulated broadcast from start to finish. But I’m grateful I was able to make a few points in the couple of 20-second sound bites before being cut off. John Granger, representing the pro-Potter position, was given a lot more time and I was given no chance to respond to his erroneous points. The great grace of Friday’s CNN show was that Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter of March, 2003, regarding the Potter series was read, even in the midst of everything working against it. And there was deep peace in my heart as I spoke my little info-bites and took the flak, which I attribute entirely to your prayers, invoking the grace of God in an impossible “forum.”

Please keep me in your prayers. There are aftershocks in the form of quite hateful messages being sent to StudiObrien. The battle is becoming intense and I have to be careful not to be sucked into the endless maze of nuanced debates, especially on blogspots and other media that are defending Potter and trying to neutralize what Benedict XVI said about the books before his election to the papacy. There’s plenty of misinformation flying around, even from doctrinally orthodox Catholic sources. It’s a real mess, but perhaps the controversy is challenging people to consider the questions involved from a wider and deeper (one might say cosmic) perspective. If you happen to read commentary proclaiming that Cardinal Ratzinger never wrote those letters, please don’t believe it. He did indeed personally write the strong and unnuanced critique of the Potter series. A later letter from the cardinal “gladly” gives permission to Gabriele Kuby to publicize his earlier letter. The English and German copies (signed) are available on:

www.LifeSiteNews.com and on www.gabriele-kuby.de.

Several Catholic commentators such as Gabriele Kuby, Matthew Arnold, Vivian Dudro, Steve Wood, Johnette Bencovic, John-Henry Westen, Dr. Marie Peeters-Ney and Dr. Philip Ney, each in their respective apostolates, have offered well-grounded criticisms about the defects of the Potter books and films. This will continue. Though we are presently voicing the minority position on the matter, I believe that in time the situation will change as more and more people begin to think twice about what is actually being communicated through the books. As Cardinal Ratzinger said, they are “subtle seductions.”

Our arguments are being made on the basis of principles and ideas, not as attacks against persons. Gabriele Kuby, myself, and others are receiving a considerable amount of  “hate-mail” from people who simply do not see the whole context of this cultural tsunami. By and large, I think the authors of such letters are not people of ill will, but rather are somewhat naïve. Let us pray always for them, and avoid the temptation to fratricidal fights that serve no good and surely must please our adversary the devil. We have ideas to offer, points to make, and these will continue to be made in love and truth, and with continued prayers for our opponents in this controversy.

In conclusion, here are some pertinent insights from the Capuchin friar Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Papal Household, commenting on the parable of the weeds and the good seed, from this past Sunday’s Gospel.

“To us also the patience of the owner of the field is indicated as a model. We must wait for the harvest, but not like those servants who could hardly be restrained, gripping the sickle, as if anxious to see the faces of the wicked on Judgment Day. Instead, we must wait as men who make their own God’s desire that  ‘all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4).

“A call to humility and mercy, therefore, is what is gleaned from the parable of the seeds and the weeds. There is only one field from which it is licit and necessary to pull out the weeds immediately, and it is from one’s own heart!”

Thank you again, in Christ our victorious savior,

Michael O’Brien

“The battle belongs to God!”  (said David when facing Goliath)

“We shall steer safely through every storm so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God.”   — St. Francis de Sales

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July 20th, 2005, Feast of the Prophet Elijah

Some further thoughts, following a number of media debates and interviews:

In the present controversy over the Harry Potter series of novels, we must keep in mind that our once-Christian civilization is sliding swiftly into an almost universal condition of paganism. It is not like the classical pagan age of old, nor the more sinister world of cultic paganism that preceded and to some extent followed Greece and Rome. Though our times are infected with manifestations of both, the nature of the new paganism is different in significant aspects. It seeks to assimilate Christian “values” into its own supposedly larger view of time and eternity. Yet it remains in essence Gnostic.

The early Gnostics were a seemingly diverse group of cultists—most of them dualists, some pantheists, and even a number of “Christian Gnostics” (a contradiction in terms). Common to all of them was the belief that acquiring secret knowledge and powers was the key to salvation. They believed that orthodox Christianity was merely a myth, and that Christ was no more than our version of the hero-myth that can be found in the lore of many ancient peoples. The real meaning of the Gospels, they proposed, was to be learned only within the  inner sanctums of the elect, the “knowers” who were the elite of Gnosticism. The early Church Fathers battled against these aberrations and heresies with great determination during the first and second centuries after Christ’s Incarnation. So corrosive was the influence of these cults that it demanded extraordinary efforts on the part of the Fathers. As a result, the Gnostic influence gradually declined until by the end of the third century A.D. it had ceased to be a major threat, though it survived and continued to have influence (for example, ensnaring in the fourth century the young Augustine of Hippo before his conversion to the Catholic Church). It later manifested itself in medieval alchemy, freemasonry and its offshoots, and the occult movements which mushroomed up in the 19th century and proliferated in the 20th.

A Gnostic revival proceeds apace in our times. As overt mind-control cults appear to be in decline in the Western nations there is a parallel explosion of grass-roots occult activity, ensnaring the young especially through vehicles of culture. In a highly attractive fictional form, the Potter series exalts witchcraft and sorcery, secret knowledge and powers. It must be assessed not only by its internal elements but also in the context of the times. With hundreds of millions of readers, it is playing a significant role in a massive shift of consciousness, a lowering of spiritual guard, a glamorizing and normalizing of what is profoundly disordered and dangerous in the real world. Though the books contain some positive  “values”  these are mixed with contradictory messages that can lead the reader away from the path of genuine salvation, especially young readers who are in a state of formation in consciousness and conscience.

It is time to awaken our faculties of spiritual discernment. It is time for a new dimension of moral courage. Moreover, it is time to remember our past. The Roman persecutions filled heaven with martyrs and the earth with conversions. The Gnostics filled the earth with apostates and cultists. We may or may not face overt persecutions in the Western nations in times to come, but without doubt we are now facing a Gnostic invasion that is unprecedented in scope and power.

Subtle seductions are the most damaging of all assaults against truth. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has written that the Harry Potter novels are “subtle seductions.” At the least this should prompt us to pause and take a deeper look at what is being communicated through them. There are numerous articles about the issue on this website, and I encourage you to consider the points they make.

Michael D. O’Brien

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July 23, 2005

Really, this will be the last!

In a number of messages to the studio, and in some “blog” sites and magazines, it is now being said that the Harry Potter series could not possibly be a Gnostic work, because the ancient Gnostics were dualists, and because the characters in the books are full of fun and love life, therefore they do not reinforce the dualist belief that matter is evil. Therefore they are not Gnostics, and therefore the series is not Gnostic.

Before nodding in agreement with this argument, we should take a few deep breaths and pause. While it is true that the Potter series does not promote the ancient Gnostic cults according to their strict academic definitions, neither do the Potter books reinforce the Christian belief that all of creation is good, made holy by our Father in Heaven, and that it is to be transformed in Christ.

Of course works of fiction are not compelled to express or overtly reinforce the Christian truth of the restoration of all things in Christ. The present controversy among Christians over these books has to do with the potential in them for reinforcing and fostering the growth of the gnostic mind. It is highly unlikely that in our times there will be a widespread resurgence of classical Gnosticism, but one sees everywhere in the West the rapid growth of gnostic consciousness, thinking, attitudes, choices, and resulting spiritual damage.

Commentators have suggested that the Church Fathers were sympathetic to Gnosticism, and that some of them were “Christian Gnostics.” They point to Clement of Alexandria, an early Father who was for the most part orthodox in belief and in living, but who had a speculative side to his nature, loved to draw upon religious insights from various non-Christian sources, spoke of the “Perfect”  (as did the actual Gnostics) when he referred to those who were advancing in the spiritual life as Christians. Much of his work has been lost, but we know that he was influential on Origen, and that some of Clement’s writings were later rejected by other Church Fathers. In contradistinction to Clement, we should place St. Ireneaus and his vigorous writings against the Gnostics and the heresies of the times.

In the modern age one must be careful about scholarly source material, where it is coming from, its degree of interpretation, selectivity, omissions—in other words, its basic subjectivity. There is presently a lot of wildly differing opinion and revisionist history flying about in the atmosphere—often impressively articulate in its factual errors. In The Catholic Encyclopedia you will find a reliable article describing the historical and theological-cosmological  parameters of Gnosticism. The encyclopedia is available with full text on a number of internet sites. Here is just one of the sites, with a link to the article on Gnosticism:


The original published edition of this article (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, Volume 6, pages 592-602) offers an extensive list of scholarly reference books on Gnosticism, works on which the author based his research. The online version of the article omits these references, probably because most were in non-English languages.

From the article it becomes clear that pre-Christian “gnostic” cults were generally pantheistic, and that during the first centuries of the Christian era Gnosticism generally moved from pantheism towards dualism, but unlike the strictly dualist Manicheans, for example, the Gnostic sects were for the most part pantheist-idealists with dualist elements or leanings. It is not historically accurate to say that the Gnostics were strictly and universally dualist. By the same token it would be inaccurate to speak of a “Pantheistic Gnosticism.”  More to the point, it would be grossly false to speak of a “Christian Gnosticism.” 

As the new springtime of hope continues to grow, as the new evangelization begun by Pope John Paul II now moves into a new and dynamic phase in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, we are called by Christ to be the “salt and light” in the world. This light will grow within us as we ask for the necessary graces and for holy wisdom, and avoid filling our minds with the intoxications of unholy “gnosis” in cultural forms. It is largely in culture that the battle for our children’s minds has been fought, and will continue to be fought.

Peace and all good in Christ victorious,

Michael O’Brien

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