July 24, 2009

Harry Potter and Catholicism: Shedding light on Catholic themes in Hogwarts

By Kamilla Benko

Harry Potter, the immensely popular book series by J.K. Rowling, continues to create opportunities for discussion about the Catholic faith.

In the past, the Vatican has been reluctant to endorse a series with witches and wizards as the main characters.

In 2003, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that there are subtle seductions in Harry Potter “which act unnoticed” and can “deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”

But with the recent release of the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano states that the latest movie installment clearly shows that good should overcome evil, “and that sometimes this requires costs and sacrifice.” (Related review: New Harry Potter movie is short on effects, yet charms with comedy)

The Vatican newspaper went on to say that, after watching the movie, the audience will remember “the values of friendship, altruism, loyalty and self-giving” rather than spells and sorcery.

After the publication of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Rowling acknowledged that she always intended her series to be a Christian allegory.

“To me, [the religious parallels have] always been obvious,” Rowling said in a 2007 interview. She said she refrained from referencing Christianity in order to conceal the ending to the series. (The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, focuses heavily on resurrection and life after death.)

However, there is still public debate on whether the Harry Potter series should be promoted for its Christian elements.

“I think the Harry Potter series leaves significant discernment for Catholic parents,” said Steven Greydanus, a film critic for the National Catholic Register and founder of DecentFilms.com, a Web site of film appreciation, information and criticism informed by Christian faith.

He said that parents have a right to be uncomfortable with the series. At the same time, he added that Catholics also have a right to like Harry Potter.

“Harry Potter represents a gray area,” Greydanus said. “Some Catholic children may read it and will be fine. Others may become overly fixated on the story and develop an interest [in] magic in the real world.”

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was written as a Catholic allegory, Greydanus said. He noted that parts of Harry Potter are compatible with Catholicism, too.

“Responsible parents can emphasis these points with their children,” he said.

Here is a short—and by no means complete—list that focuses on messages compatible with the Catholic faith in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The soul

The central plot of Half-Blood Prince revolves around horcruxes, objects that contain splintered pieces of the soul. By placing a fragment of the soul outside the body, a wizard is ensured that he will not die if attacked. But to create a horcrux, the wizard must split his soul by committing the supreme act of evil: murder.

This idea is horrific to Professor Horace Slughorn, who explains to a young Tom Riddle that “... the soul is supposed to remain intact and full. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature. … Killing rips the soul apart.”

While Catholics do not believe in horcruxes, the Church does believe that humans damage and distort their souls through sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that mortal sins “wound the soul most grievously” and split the person from his relationship with God (#1456).

“The presentation that murder disfigures the soul correlates with virtue ethics,” Greydanus said. “The idea that good deeds develop the soul while bad deeds corrupt is very compatible with the Church.”

The Church teaches that the relationship between man and God can only be reconciled if the person makes a confession and is truly sorry for his sin. In addition, he must not want to do that sin again in the future.

In the seventh Harry Potter book, it is revealed that a soul split into horcruxes can be healed only if the wizard feels remorse.

Free will

Nancy Carpentier Brown, author of The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide (Our Sunday Visitor, 2007), wrote that the emphasis on free will is one of the great messages of Harry Potter.

In the wizarding world, there are three curses that are unforgivable: a killing curse, a pain-inducing curse and a curse that allows a wizard to completely control another. It is unforgivable in the magical world to take away one’s free will.

This last point echoes the Church’s teaching that suppressing a person’s free will is an abomination to God. Free will is God’s gift to mankind that allows humans to seek him through their actions (CCC, #1730).

Throughout the series, Rowling emphasizes that humans are not born evil, but that they freely choose to do good or evil.

“[J.K. Rowling’s] understanding of free will in her stories is a very Catholic understanding,” said Brown in a Catholic Spotlight interview. “We have been given talents, abilities in our lives, and it’s how we use them that’s important. We may have the same talents … but some people are using them for good and some people are using them for evil, and that’s our choice.”

“Years ago,” Professor Albus Dumbledore says in the movie trailer, “I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices. He seemed a student like any other. His name was Tom Riddle. Today, the world knows him by another name: Voldemort.”

Note that Dumbledore gives Voldemort full responsibility for making wrong choices. Voldemort deliberately chooses to commit evil.

Free will, the catechism states, makes man responsible for his decisions.

Equality of human life

The Church firmly believes that all people should be treated with respect and dignity. Though humans are individuals, we all share the same nature and come from the same origin (CCC, #1934). We are equal.

In Harry Potter, some wizards believe in the superiority of “pure-bloods.” That is, they believe wizards with no family connection to the muggle world are better than those with muggle connections. (Muggle is the term used for people who have no magical ability.)

Lord Voldemort’s followers hunt out the “mudbloods” and vow to purify the magical community.

In Half-Blood Prince, Slughorn expresses surprise that a wizard with muggle parents could have talent. This angers Harry, and he quickly states that the most talented witch he knows grew up in a muggle household. The movie disapproves of those who do not accept the equality of mankind. †

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