Harry Potter and the Christian connection
The release this month of the final movie in the Harry Potter franchise has revived the inevitable debate about whether adventures of the young wizard encourage young viewers or readers of the JK Rowling story to experiment with the occult.
Invariably, the critics of the Potter series bring up an old correspondence in which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, appears to entertain misgivings presented to him in a letter.
There is no record of Cardinal Ratzinger actually having read the Potter books. In any case, the future pope redirected his correspondent to an official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who had read the books and took a benign view of them.
As we read this week, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano shares the positive view of the Potter franchise in two reviews of the latest film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. The reviewers see values in the Potter stories that are essentially Christian: the qualities of love, friendship, courage and self-sacrifice.
In its culmination, the Potter saga treats even more profound themes of penitence and death as Potter, who embodies righteousness, calls on the malevolent Voldemort “to mend his ways, repent for what he has done and recognise the primacy of love over everything so he will not be damned for eternity,” as one reviewer put it.
This should resonate profoundly with Catholics who place the possibility of salvation for all at the centre of their faith.
Rowling’s story presents a moral vision in which virtue triumphs over evil by the exercise of one’s own (not necessarily magical) powers to do good.
Potter critics do not dispute this, but argue that the Potter saga propagates witchcraft, with the potential to seduce readers to experiment with the occult and separate young Christians from God.
Many objections originate from people who have had experiences with occultism, either as practitioners, counsellors or exorcists. Their insights are valuable in assessing the nature of the wizardry of the Potter stories in relation to individuals prone to experiment with the occult.
But more is needed than suspicion and conjecture. The critics have produced no empirical evidence which might support their doubtless well-intentioned concerns.
Indeed, it is reasonable to presume that young individuals who are prone to dabbling in the occult draw their inspiration not from Ms Rowling’s fiction but from various New Age fads, abuses of astrology, and lack of proper adult guidance.
Only those who are detached from reality would understand the Potter story as an introduction to witchcraft. Harry Potter is a fantasy and can be dangerous only to those who have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality.
In any case, readers of the book and viewers of the films will readily appreciate that the wizardry serves as a narrative device. At least by the end of the series it becomes clear that the significance of the Potter tale resides not in magic spells but in a meditation on the perennial battle between good and evil. The climax in particular can be understood as an allegory on salvation—even if Rowling had no such theological intent.
The Potter series provides an excellent catechetical opportunity. It creates a premise for fruitful discussion with young people on subjects such as the occult and the dangers it presents, the battle between good and evil, the virtues of sacrifice and loyalty, the ways of redemption and so on.
The L’Osservatore reviewer condensed the final message of the Potter series in terms that Christians should welcome: “Power, success and an easy life do not bring the truest and deepest joys. For that we need friendship, self-giving, sacrifice and attachment to a truth that is not formed in man’s image.”