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Vatican official has kind word for Harry Potter’s magical world

Since the first Harry Potter novel appeared in 1997, the series has won a massive popular following. The four titles have sold 116 million copies worldwide and been translated into 47 languages. The two movies have made an eye-popping combined total of $577,184,733 at the box office.

The series, about a group of intrepid young wizards and their adventures, has also earned a small but dogged league of critics on the Christian right who fault the books and movies for promoting a positive view of magic.

That’s the reason, for example, Pastor Jack Brock staged a “holy bonfire” in December 2001 at the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo in southern New Mexico to torch the books.

“These books encourage our youth to learn more about witches, warlocks and sorcerers, and those things are an abomination to God and to me,” said Brock, 74. “Harry Potter books are going to destroy the lives of many young people.”

Such reactions have not been confined to evangelical Protestants. In Memphis, Tenn., two Catholic schools said in 2001 they were keeping Harry Potter books off shelves because of their witchcraft content. Canadian Catholic Michael O’Brien, author of A Landcape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, argues the Potter series “has the potential of lowering a child’s guard to the actual occult activity in the world around us, which is everywhere and growing.”

In Mexico, the Catholic newspaper Desde la Fe warned in November 2001 that in the Potter series “the rationality of science is replaced by a certain Gnosticism reachable only by the ‘initiates,’ in keeping with ‘New Age’ currents.”

In this context, the endorsement of the Harry Potter series by a Vatican official seems especially significant.

During a Feb. 2 news conference for a document on the New Age movement, NCR asked Vatican officials to weigh in on the controversy surrounding Harry Potter. Fr. Peter Fleetwood, an Englishman who is a former official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, responded.

“No one in this room grew up without images of magicians, witches, spirits and angels,” Fleetwood said. “These are not bad things, and I certainly don’t think Harry Potter is flying some kind of anti-Christian banner.

“As far as I can tell, the chief concern of the author is to help children to understand the conflict between good and evil. This seems very clear.

“The author, J.K. Rowling, is a Christian. She may not be practicing in the way a priest might like, but she is a Christian by conviction in her way of living and in her writing. I don’t see the least problem in the Harry Potter films,” Fleetwood said.

A slightly more guarded perspective came from Teresa Osório Gonçalves, a laywoman who heads a working group for sects and new religious movements in the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

“We can’t ignore the promotion of magic in contemporary culture,” she said. “It is an element of the New Age.” Yet Gonçalves also shrank from a negative verdict on Harry Potter.

“It takes equilibrium to judge these things,” she said. “We must assess their fruits among the young people. The family also makes a great difference in what kind of influence a book or movie may have, what effect images of darkness and of monsters produce.”

The positive Vatican assessment was not the first kind word from Catholic officialdom on Harry Potter. The U.S. bishops’ review of the first film was equally enthusiastic.

“Parents concerned about the film’s sorcery elements should know that it is unlikely to pose any threat to Catholic beliefs,” the bishops’ reviewer wrote. “ Harry Potter is so obviously innocuous fantasy that its fiction is easily distinguishable from real life. Harry uses his ‘magical powers’ for good to fight evil.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003