Harry Potter: Keeping the Debate Alive

To talk to some Catholics, one would think that the Harry Potter debates are over and that a winner (Harry Potter) has been decisively declared. And to read some online articles, one would think that those who choose to opt out of this particular pop fantasy series are fun-sapping idiots... or at least remarkably close. The purpose of this post is to declare that the debate is alive and well... and that it ought to be. 

I've never written about the Harry Potter phenomena on the blog before, largely because I didn't need to. Opposing viewpoints have been well represented and my voice wasn't (and really still isn't) needed. But I write today because I see that there has been a large Catholic cultural shift over the last 20 years (gaining more speed in the last three or so) and I want to draw some attention to it. I admit disappointment, not so much that people disagree with my particular opinion, but at the widespread idea that Catholic parents ought to unflinchingly embrace trending occult pop fiction simply because it's popular among a large percentage of Catholics. It is alarming to see opposing ideas rejected out of hand with a heavy dose of ad hominem. (You know, because only stupid uptight people restrict their kids' reading like that).  I'm disappointed in that kind of community "dialogue" and I'm hoping for something better.

So what would I like to see?

The ideal Catholic culture is one in which we would all be indifferent to the world of Harry Potter. Not emotionally invested in its promotion. Not emotionally invested in its demise. Just completely detached as we should be to all things of the world. 

That indifference should be reflected in the ideal Catholic dialogue and should follow correct discernment. Good discernment does not cling to preferences but lays them before the foot of the cross saying: "Jesus, this is nothing to me. I let it go. I expect nothing to come of it. My goal is simply You." If careful discernment returns the object of desire to a person's life, it would then be received with the same spirit of detachment; I am grateful to have it but I can still do without. I could lose it again without losing peace. If it is never returned, then the soul remains fixed on Christ. There is no loss. There is no entangled ego. There should be no other investment of energy other than the pursuit of truth... And a faithful and purposeful response to that truth. 

What we find in the case of Harry Potter (or similarly hotly debated cultural pastimes) is that true dialogue has often been shouted down. The desire does not seem to be truth but rather the thing itself.  Secular/pagan fantasy genre proponents too often hold the untenable position that there is no danger posed to any Catholic youth through participation. That it is innocent fun and a great good to the community at large. This is clearly an erroneous position as it disregards what we know to be true about human nature, the psychology of youth, American culture, the real dangers of the occult, and the facts of this particular situation. On the other side, there is the obviously false position that serious harm will absolutely come to all Catholic youth who partake. Neither position is true, although one is more inherently dangerous than the other.

Harry Potter was first released in 1997, the same year that my first child was born. My motherhood was formed during the years when hot debates were first happening on the internet (dial-up, of course) and Catholic mothers demanded meetings with the school board and asked that Catholic schools remove Harry Potter from libraries... and Catholic schools clung to them tenaciously because of their entanglement with the thoroughly secular Scholastic Books which had/has the monopoly on direct sales and marketing to school kids. I had the great privilege of listening to and participating in the debate among intelligent, faithful, dynamic Catholics. It was healthy and invigorating and yes, sometimes got pretty heated, after which we all hugged or shook hands and went home in peace. I learned a tremendous amount about the impact of literature on the human person and had the opportunity to thoughtfully engage decisions regarding the direction of the intellectual life of our family.

My husband and I considered the arguments of both positions and decided that Harry Potter would not have a place in our home. After 18 years, we have not found a compelling reason to change that position. There are two primary reasons for this:

1) Any benefits of the books do not outweigh the spiritual dangers and moral flaws. 

2) It is not good literature (in the true sense, not the "fun" sense). If the Harry Potter books had not reached the level of popularity that they had (in particularly, finding favor with the ubiquitous and anti-Christian business called Scholastic Books), we never would have noticed them nor considered them for our home. 

“Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.”
— Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Vatican Exorcist (2006)

So what are the spiritual risks? To put it simply... an engaging, youth oriented, pagan fantasy series that glorifies magic is likely to provide a gateway to the occult for some kids. No parent should be shamed or bullied into foregoing serious discernment over those risks. I have had enough personal experience with the occult to have a healthy fear of the dangers. Spiritual warfare is real and frightening. When I first read from the Harry Potter books, I did not find them captivating, I found them alarming. It was quite clear to me how children (even well-formed Catholic kids) could easily be drawn to the dangerous elements. I know it because I lived it and it formed me. It was a high price to pay for the knowledge I bring to Harry Potter discernment. I have also noticed that many of those who oppose Harry Potter are also those who have lived through occult experiences. The risky side of occult "fun" is perhaps a bit too close to reality for them... and as such, not so fun. As Toni Collins puts it: "Of the commentators I read who loved the Harry Potter books, virtually none of them had ever experienced the occult. To them this was a delightful fantasy in the same genre as J.R.R. Tolken and C.S. Lewis. In contrast, almost every commentator I read who had experience with the occult found the books disturbing."  

Those who have lived side by side with demonic influence know one important truth about toying with occult spiritualism: The demonic can manifest and enter children and homes even if you're Christian and even if you think it's all in "fun." And if someone claims that Harry Potter doesn't contain strong elements of real occult practices, then they either do not know much about the occult or about Harry Potter. 

“studies conducted by the Barna research group revealed a twelve percent increase in occult activities among Christian students in the U.S.A. after reading the Potter series, and which the students themselves attributed to the books.”
— Michael O'Brien, Catholic author

 I know you wouldn't choose Harry Potter for your kids if you thought it was dangerous. I'm not judging your motivations and I trust that a loving, Christian home is a strong defense against any dangerous or immoral influence. But I freely share my serious concerns when asked (and sometimes when I'm not)... because I don't think there are many things more important to Catholic parents than the souls of their children. And to be frank, I'm tired of my family being made to feel like extremists for what is a healthy decision within the bounds of reasonable, loving parental authority and consistent with our call to live a Christ-centered life.

2117 “All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church

I'm not concerned about what people think of my parenting choices, but I grieve over what I see as a pronounced and unfortunate trend to fight to win instead of to seek truth... And to make aggressive definitive statements (expressed more strongly than just personal opinions) about a work of pagan occult fiction. I don't think Catholic kids are the winner in that scenario. It has been many years since I have seen truly excellent dialogue about Harry Potter floating around the internet. Perhaps it is because younger adult Catholics think that the issue as been decided... and that only a few fanatics still espouse the idea that a popular fantasy series could possibly have a negative impact on anyone. So I bring it up again, because not all of you have had the benefit of the best arguments against that position. And many seem to believe that this sort of debate is ridiculous or undesirable. I couldn't disagree more. 

It should never be our own opinion which becomes the end goal of debate. Debate among Christians should always be oriented toward pursuit of truth. If it is your goal in writing to smack down families like mine who have made a careful, studied, prayerful decision, consistent with the Church's teaching related to our role as Catholic parents... or even to defend your own decisions... then you write and argue for the wrong reasons. You also betray a deep ignorance of priorities in Christian charity. If Harry Potter is important to you to a degree that you must attack those who have concerns, then it is too important to you. 

I'm not writing this to make anyone wrong (that is not within my personal power anyway). I'm writing because the conversation is still relevant and its flame needs a little fanning. It should not be allowed to die as long as Harry Potter remains a cultural force. If you allow Harry Potter in your home, you should be constantly discerning its place there. Life does change. Cultural context does change. Understanding does change. Children have different and changing sensitivities and weaknesses. Even within one family, one child may be secure and another more susceptible to negative influence. Charity demands the kind of care and courtesy that never stops assessing those changing and personal elements and visiting the question again and again. It also demands humility... and acknowledgment of the weaknesses of our positions even while we hold them. 

“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 (2003)

The truth is that the Harry Potter series can and does act as a gateway to the occult for some children... even Christian children. It is also true that it won't affect all children that way. Although a parent knows a child and his or her general personalities and sensitivities, there are regions of their autonomous souls which we can not access. We cannot enter into the interior life of the child where imagination and and the spiritual life are engaged. We must aggressively evaluate the influences in our home through the lens of Christian truth so that each child can develop their interior disposition in safety. The overall debate is really not about us or our preferences... but a seeking of truth for the greatest good of our children and the glory of God. Whether or not we think there are some good elements included in Harry Potter does not reduce our obligation to make sure that souls in formation are protected from the dangerous elements.

Although Harry Potter won't draw most kids into the occult, it seems clear that it does desensitize many families and has lowered their guard against occult dangers. I see it when Catholic parents allow their kids to dress up like Harry Potter characters and permit them to pretend to cast spells. Maybe if they really knew the hellish end of witchcraft and the swiftness with which the demonic responds to an open door (even opened in ignorance), they would not think such imitation is cute or harmless. I saw it recently in the comment box of a popular pro-Harry article. The commenter described how her homeschool Latin class was enhanced by creating a book of spells, both copying Rowling's and the student's own spells. I sat in horrified wonder at the naivete with which some approach the dark arts. And all I can say is I am confident in their good intentions and that they don't know where it can lead... or else they wouldn't tinker. They certainly wouldn't let their kids tinker. 

My kids have access to thousands of books in our home, including works of fantasy such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. There is almost no similarity between Narnia and Harry Potter since Narnia is very clearly and intentionally Christian allegory (even Rowling rejects comparisons). But between Tolkien and Rowling? The similarities are only superficial. 

“The Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision.” - J.R.R. Tolkien

I could write an entire series on the substantive differences between the Tolkien's work and Rowling's since they are plentiful. My husband and I do not dismiss out of hand the element of magic in Lord of the Rings, but examine each work on its own merit; its content, authorship, and context. You might say that we have an affinity for the written word. But among our copious volumes, you will not find Harry Potter. The series never made the cut as we made literature choices for our household.

My kids will survive. They might even thrive. And I hope they can grow up without continuing to be ridiculed by other Christians for not reading literature which has NO actual bearing on health, happiness, intelligence, or salvation. 

Finally, it is not my aim here to make you agree with me... simply to reignite some healthy and important conversation within Catholic homes. My husband and I still spend hours debating these important topics and probably awakened the neighborhood as we walked the street and passionately discussed these very subjects last night. As long as we live, we will never be done discerning.  It may feel a little uncomfortable to have the heat of real truth-seeking action warming us... but if approached with charity and a Christ focus, only good will come of it.

Comments of all respectful kinds are welcome below. Name-calling is not. I am not attacking you, I am discussing ideas... so I would also appreciate a discussion of ideas and not people. And please, if you are inclined to comment, make sure that you have read (not skimmed) my post. That simple effort would save a boatload of strife in comboxes everywhere. It would also benefit the conversation tremendously if you took advantage of the links included at the bottom for a fuller understanding of an anti-Potter position. Also, I know very little about the movies and they don't factor into this discussion at all. If your only experience is with the film version of any works discussed, then there may be obstacles to understanding between us. 


For more detailed reading on some of the issues surrounding the Harry Potter series, see below. I have not linked very many because the ones I have included are rather long! It is a good representation of what is out there and a solid jumping off point. I did not include any specifically "pro" Harry Potter positions because those are currently incredibly easy to find (one might say "trending") while the opposing position is not. But I do feel that these authors and speakers give a fair treatment to the relevant topics. 

Posted on November 10, 2015 and filed under Culture, culture, Family Life, homeschooling, parenting.