00 7/26/2009 2:16 AM

Messori's article is by no means 'light' or trivial, but it is obvious why I am posting it in this thread.... I missed the item when it first came out in Corriere della Sera, but I picked it up from his website.

The Church, Harry Potter
and signs of 'searching'?

by Vittorio Messori

Translated from

July 18, 2009

In which, among other things, Messori dispels the myth that Cardinal Ratzinger denounced the Harry Potter books....

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, in a recent pastoral letter to his Archdiocese of Genoa, wrote: "Certain tendencies, even if not consistent with the faith - like occultism and superstition, Eastern philosophies, the search for exotic spiritualities, the various forms called 'New Age' - are, in their own way, signs of searching."

And L'Osservatore Romano published a bylined article which gives a cautiously positive (or at least, not negative) review of the sixth Harry Potter movie which is being shown these days.

The media, as we know, are always in search of links among disparate news reports in order to present supposed 'new tendencies' or improbable 'unprecedented perspectives' and build misleading reports out of these.

It has happened this time, by linking a quotation extrapolated from the precise-speaking president of the Italian bishops' conference to the latest cinematic adventures of the fictional British 'wizard'.

The hypothesis they wish to advance is this: "There's a new openness in the Church towards the supernatural", meaning an 'openness' that is alien to its Tradition.

Let us be clear about something. There were rumors in the past about a supposed negative judgment by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about Harry Potter. A judgment which - it was shown later - was not his, but that of a co-worker, which was then exploited by a German writer [who had written a book against the Harry Potter phenomenon].

In fact, as an article in La Civilta Cattolica later explained, and as the item in L'Osservatore also does, any a priori crusade against the Potter saga is unjustified.

Because although it does not have any explicit references to Christianity, Christian values are constantly reaffirmed by its basic premise which sees the forces of Good placed in difficulty by - but eventually triumphant over - the forces of Evil. These fine sentiments are all over the work and are never mocked.

As for magic, even the moviegoer or the reader knows the story is nothing but a fable, which does not lack irony. The comic sidelights are positive and contribute to demythify the events and relieve tension.

There is no 'Vatican' absolution in this case, because there was never a 'condemnation', except by some traditionalists who always think in terms of 'anti-Christian conspiracies', and see Harry Potter as a lethal occult weapon against religion.

These are the same people who will listen to an audiotape backwards to look for blasphemous messages, or who look everywhere for any hidden '666', the 'number of the Beast' according to the Apocalypse; or who try to divine subliminal diabolical signs in advertisements.

The Church generally leaves them alone with their suspicions but does not participate in them, obviously.

So there is nothing new, even in the words of Cardinal Bagnasco, tough and impenitent disciple of the great Cardinal Giuseppe Siri (who is increasingly being rediscovered with admiration in Church circles).

A colleague of his, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, likes to say that "the opposite of faith is not reason but superstition".

And G. K. Chesterton's aphorism is often quoted that "the trouble with man today is not that he does not believe in anything, but that he believes in everything".

Perhaps it is something new, as Bagnasco points out, that the decline of Christianity has been accompanied in the West by a luxuriance of seers, witches, gurus, soothsayers, astrologers, esotericists, shamans? And is it an original thought to say that all this, 'in their own ways', constitute a sign of seeking something?

This is not the Church 'opening up' as someone has suggested, but rather, simply taking note of what is happening. Without surprise, but with some disappointment. Because abandonment of what the Church and the cardinal consider the right path brings the seeker down paths which lead nowhere. But even in this, the Church attitude has nothing of fanaticism.

Authentic Christianity of the non-sectarian kind is always inclusive, never exclusive, according to the word of Jesus ("I have come not to destroy but to fulfill') and the exhortation of St. Paul ("After examining everything, hold onto what is good").

Thus, for example, the present acceptability of some Oriental (meditative) techniques in many places for spiritual exercise.

If the advice still holds today to refrain from astrology, for example, it is given out of prudence and not because of a priori rejection, since after all, there were astrologers in the papal court in the past, and the prince of theologians himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, believed in the influence of the stars and conciliated this with free will.

It cannot be otherwise since the so-called Three Magi were almost certainly Chaldean astronomers who 'read' about the arrival of the Jewish messiah through scrutinizing the stars.

The exhortation to stay away from occultism is not because it is always deception and trickery but because it can sometimes be a real danger.

Not a few saints have experienced what it is to have to defend themselves from dark happenings, about which the institutional Church itself, though prudent and showing dutiful skepticism initially, has had to recognize the devil's work.

In short, we can say with Ernst Renan, "Alas, the truth is always sad", and the sadness of truth in this case is in the fact that there is absolutely nothing new - nor anything in common - between the words of the Archbishop of Genoa and those of the L'Osservatore writer who reviewed the Harry Potter movie.

Those in search of 'sensational developments' must search for these in other things.

I will use this opportunity to put known facts on the record about the cardinal and Harry Potter, once and for all.

I do not doubt at all that Messori, a punctilious journalist and writer, has the appropriate sources for what he says above about the matter.

For my part, I can only refer to facts available online which I will summarize here. The basis for the 'myth' that Cardinal Ratzinger denounced the Harry Potter books - which no one believes he had read, nor is there any reason to believe he has - are two letters he wrote in 2003 to a German woman, Gabriele Kuby, who had written a book against the Potter books and sent a copy to the cardinal.

In March 2003, the cardinal wrote a letter - which apparently did not get sent till May 2003 according to the second letter which is merely an apology that his reply to her somehow got lost in a pile of routine mail and was not sent promptly - in which, according to the best translation I can make, he says:

Many thanks for your friendly letter of February 20 and for the informative book that you sent with it. It is good that, with respect to Harry Potter, you can clarify that there are subtle seductions which imperceptibly - but precisely in this way - work deeply to undermine Christianity in the soul before it has properly matured.

I recommend that you write directly to Mr. Peter Fleetwood (Pontifical Council for Culture, Piazza S. Calisto 16, 1-00153 Rome) and send your book to him.

Kuby publicized these letters after the cardinal became Pope, and understandably got scant attention except from Catholics who disapprove of Harry Potter. [I have not had time to check out how her book has sold, since she promptly used the cardinal's letter as a publicity blurb.]

The letters did attract some attention a few months later when the sixth Harry Potter book came out. CNS summarized the case in this report

New attention given to 2003
Ratzinger letter on Harry Potter

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY, July 14, 2005 (CNS) -- With the sixth volume of the adventures of Harry Potter, the teen wizard, about to be released, new attention was being given to a 2003 letter from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Although the Vatican press office July 14 said it would have no comment on the letter since Pope Benedict XVI and his secretary were on vacation in the northern Italian Alps, a former Vatican official said Harry Potter books must be read as children's literature, not theology.

Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, wrote to Gabriele Kuby to acknowledge receipt of her book, Harry Potter: Gut oder Boese (Harry Potter: Good or Bad?), which expresses her concern that children can become fascinated with the occult through reading the series.

In the cardinal's letter, excerpted on Kuby's Web site and published widely since late June, he praised the author's attempt to "enlighten people about Harry Potter" [an incorrect translation of "dass Sie in Sachen Harry Potter sufklaeren', in which the sense of 'aufklaeren' is 'clarify' not 'enlighten' and it is used as an intransitive verb, not with a direct object 'people'] and the possible "subtle seductions" that can distort children's thinking before they mature in the Christian faith.

Cardinal Ratzinger did not say if he had read any of the Harry Potter books.

In connection with the July 16 release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the letter to Kuby received new attention.

In the letter, Cardinal Ratzinger further suggested that Kuby send a copy of her book to Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, then an official at the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Msgr. Fleetwood told Catholic News Service July 14 that he received a copy of the book in 2003 and wrote Kuby a four-page letter explaining where he thought she may have misunderstood or read too much into the books. He said he never heard back from her.

The monsignor, now an official of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, said the primary focus of parents and teachers he has spoken with about the books is how enthusiastic children are about reading them.

On a moral level, he said, the books "pit good against evil, and good always wins."

"The people who complain about Harry Potter are the same people who complain about priests, bishops and catechists watering down church teaching about the devil and evil," he said.

In J.K. Rowling's books, he said, "Harry is the only one not afraid to name Voldemort -- whom the others all refer to as 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.' Because he names evil, he is not afraid of it, but can confront it".

Msgr. Fleetwood said 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 books willingly.

A fuller account of how the cardinal's letter has been used and even exploited can be found on

I stand by my translation of the cardinal's letter. My own first impression when I first read it was that 1) it sounded like a polite letter which nonetheless points out the possible pitfalls for children in books like Harry Potter, and 2) it was probably written by an assistant who answers routine solicitations, and then routinely signed by the cardinal because, after all, it expressed an unexceptionable caveat (that even an HP fan like me considers not only reasonable but also necessary for parents who have young children reading HP).

No one can think the Prefect of the CDF would have had the time or the inclination to read a Harry Potter book, though he could not have been unaware of what it was all about, because it was such a cultural phenomenon and he reads the papers daily.

Finally, even assuming he himself wrote the letter quoted above, he was not denouncing the Harry Potter books outright (he could not possibly do so if he had not read them himself) but warning against the insidious workings of, in effect, all books that can undermine a young mind's attachment/development/interest in the Christian faith before it has taken root.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 7/26/2009 4:54 AM]