Harry’s spell: Catholics split over books’ in­flu­ence on kids

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Pete Vere

The re­cent re­lease of “Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows,” the sev­enth and con­clud­ing book of the best-sell­ing se­ries, prompted a de­bate among Catholics about the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of the se­ries as chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Is Harry Pot­ter a fic­tional story of good ver­sus evil, a long-winded fairy tale of sorts? Or is the se­ries a sub­tle gate­way to the oc­cult, a plot by au­thor J.K. Rowl­ing to turn chil­dren into lit­tle witches and wiz­ards?

Faith­ful Catholics come down on each side of the de­bate. At stake, they say, is their chil­dren’s moral and in­tel­lec­tual for­ma­tion.

One Catholic who strug­gled with the is­sue is Nancy Car­pen­tier Brown, an au­thor, a cat­e­chist and the home-school­ing mother of two. She re­sisted Harry Pot­ter’s spell for a long time, con­cerned that the books glo­rify the oc­cult and touch upon dark pow­ers un­suit­able for chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. She re­fused to al­low her daugh­ter to read the books and warned other home-school­ing par­ents about the dan­gers of Harry Pot­ter.

Then one day, she dis­cov­ered that an­other Catholic mother from her home-school­ing cir­cle con­sid­ered the books to be good chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. She sat down to read Harry Pot­ter her­self and in­stantly fell in love with Harry, Ron and Hermione. She pub­lished a book about the ex­pe­ri­ence, “The Mys­tery of Harry Pot­ter: A Catholic Fam­ily Guide,” which be­came one of the hottest sell­ers in Catholic cir­cles.

“The magic is a sur­face-level thing,” Mrs. Brown says. “There are spells, dragons, elves and other fan­tas­tic crea­tures. It’s just like the magic in fairy tales. From Cin­derella’s fairy god­mother to Jack’s magic beans, all our clas­sic lit­er­a­ture has el­e­ments of magic. But you can­not learn any spells or any oc­cult rit­u­als read­ing Harry Pot­ter.”

What im­pressed Mrs. Brown about the se­ries is the clear de­mar­ca­tion be­tween good and evil. “Chil­dren are en­cour­aged to act coura­geously and stand up for what’s right,” Mrs. Brown says.

Nev­er­the­less, Mrs. Brown feels that the deaths and evil char­ac­ters can over­whelm younger chil­dren. She rec­om­mends that par­ents read the books be­fore giv­ing them to their chil­dren or, as a sec­ond op­tion, read them with their chil­dren.

The Rev. Lou Val­lone of Pitts­burgh is a pas­tor of two parishes, a pro­fes­sor of canon law at Duquesne Univer­sity and a life­long fan of the fan­tasy genre.

“The magic is al­le­gory,” Fa­ther Val­lone says. “Ev­ery­thing Rowl­ing has in there is con­sis­tent with the fan­tasy genre, but she deals with good and evil. Th­ese are themes be­long­ing to Catholi­cism, Chris­tian­ity and all reli­gions. The way she treats it is con­sis­tent with the Catholic faith.”

The priest said J.R.R. Tolkien’s use of magic in “Lord of the Rings” pro­voked lit­tle con­tro­versy. Tolkien was also a trans­la­tor of the Jerusalem Bi­ble.

Fa­ther Val­lone said a sec­ond­grader who had read the books and who was pre­par­ing for First Holy Com­mu­nion told him that “priests are the real wiz­ards be­cause we re­ally do change some­thing into some­thing else: bread and wine into Je­sus.”

The Rev. Rod­ney E. Thibault, the Dio­cese of Fall River tri­bunal judge and parochial vicar, is an en­thu­si­as­tic fan of the Harry Pot­ter se­ries.

“I have a very young parish — 3,000 fam­i­lies,” Fa­ther Thibault says. “Parish­ioners were ask­ing me ques­tions be­cause they were con­fused where the church stood on the Harry Pot­ter is­sue. They were won­der­ing whether the books were detri­men­tal to their son or daugh­ter’s faith for­ma­tion.”

The oc­cult presents real dan­gers to the Catholic faith, Fa­ther Thibault says, es­pe­cially among the young. “It as­serts the in­di­vid­ual or na­ture as God, rather than Christ.”

Nev­er­the­less, Fa­ther Thibault con­cluded that Harry Pot­ter was not about real witch­craft. “It’s a tool to help us un­der­stand greater truths,” he says. “Harry teaches us [. . . ] how to be good friends, trust­wor­thy and de­velop char­ac­ter. He gets us think­ing about moral is­sues.”

He also notes that the United States Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) deems the movies based upon the books as suit­able view­ing for adults and ado­les­cents.

Not ev­ery Catholic com­men­ta­tor is con­vinced that Harry Pot­ter is sim­ple fan­tasy. Canada’s Michael O’Brien, the au­thor of the Fa­ther Eli­jah se­ries of Catholic fiction, says the books con­di­tion chil­dren to equate the oc­cult with sym­bols of good­ness and re­place Chris­tian sym­bols with those of sor­cery and witch­craft.

“Cru­cial to any un­der­stand­ing of the con­tro­versy is that sym­bols have power,” Mr. O’Brien says. “They ex­er­cise a power over the sub­con­scious largely, es­pe­cially in the young reader whose con­scious­ness and con­science is in a state of for­ma­tion. If we de­stroy sym­bols, we de­stroy con­cepts. If we cor­rupt sym­bols, we cor­rupt con­cepts.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Harry Pot­ter fans waited out­side a book­store for the first op­por­tu­nity to pur­chase “Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows,” the sev­enth and last book in the se­ries au­thored by J.K. Rowl­ing. Catholic opin­ion is di­vided be­tween those who re­vere the books as fairy tale and those who black­list them as pro­mot­ing witch­craft.

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