Pope should spell out views on Potter
FIVE is the total number of sentences Pope Benedict XVI has devoted to Harry Potter - well, only one, really, but more on that in a bit.
The sentences were written in 2003, while the pontiff was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. His opinion of JK Rowling's hero then attracted little attention, even though, at the time, he was head of the Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an institution known as the Universal Inquisition until 1908.
Since then, of course, much has changed, not the least of which is Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation to the Holy See. Now, with millions reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the Pope's two-year-old opinion is everywhere. What a shame, for it has generated far more heat than light.
In 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote two letters replying to Gabriele Kuby. She is an outspoken Catholic sociologist and author of the book, Harry Potter: Gut oder Bse (Harry Potter: Good or Evil), an attack on Ms Rowling's novels seeking to outline the spiritual and social dangers allegedly facing readers.
The first letter, dated March 7, 2003, and running to three sentences, thanked Ms Kuby for her "instructive book", apparently endorsed the claims made within it and suggested that she send a copy to Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, who at the time was an official at the Pontifical Council for Culture. During April, Msgr Fleetwood made headlines when some attributed his favourable assessment of the Potter books to John Paul II. Perhaps it was this, in addition to Ms Kuby's own request, that prompted a second, two-sentence letter to Ms Kuby, dated May 27, granting her permission to publicise the views of the first. Despite Ms Kuby's attempts, those views drew limited coverage at the time.
One possible reason for this lack of attention is that the then-cardinal had so little to say. Only one of his five sentences actually offers anything resembling an assessment of Harry Potter. Another possible reason is the sentence mires itself in confusion. The ambiguity exists in the German and the various English translations, including my own.
The first letter told Ms Kuby: "It is good that you enlighten us on matters relating to Harry Potter, for these are subtle temptations, which act imperceptibly and, for that reason, deeply, and subvert Christianity in the soul, before it can really grow properly."
To what, exactly, does the word "these" refer? Matters? If so, what matters? The Harry Potter books? The cultural phenomena surrounding them? Or a more general interest in magic and witchcraft? Unfortunately for those who might be interested in a reasoned response from the Vatican, what is being asserted is unclear.
The second letter compounded the obscurity of the first. It is difficult not to conclude that it is precisely the imprecision of this judgment that has led to headlines employing such words as "disapproval", "peril", "condemnation" and even "evil."
The Pope's "judgment" about Harry Potter is sad. It is sad because its disclosure calls unwarranted attention to the simplistic attacks of religious zealots, while denigrating the accomplishments of an author whose works has enriched the lives of millions of children. It is also sad because there is nothing to suggest that he read any of the Potter books - or Ms Kuby's, for that matter.
Echoing her books' views, she says on her website "Harry Potter is a global, long-term project" intent on destroying "inhibitions against magic and the occult". She claims the setting is "a... world of violence and horror, of cursing and bewitching, of racist ideology, of blood sacrifice, disgust and obsession". Ultimately, she says, "through the Potter books, faith in a loving God is systematically undermined, even destroyed, in many young people". In 2003, did Cardinal Ratzinger really find such claims from Ms Kuby "instructive" after carefully considering them? A return to his second letter might cast some doubt on that. It reads: "Somehow your letter was buried under a mass of name day, birthday, and Easter cards. Finally, this pile has been cleared, so that I can gladly permit you to quote my judgment about Harry Potter."
The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found a stack of greeting cards more important than countering a threat to Christianity?
If Pope Benedict believes the Harry Potter books are worth the Church's attention, he owes millions of readers a better explanation of why he chose to lend his support this attack. Five sentences? Again, what a shame.
Edmund Kern is chair of the department of history at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in the US and author of The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices, published by Prometheus Books. He will be speaking at the Harry Potter conference at Reading University which opens today
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