Pre-16 On Harry Potter

by Jimmy Akin

in Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI, or B-16 as many have begun to affectionally call him, wrote a lot of things when he was still in his Pre-16 days as Cardinal Ratzinger.

Among them were two letters that have now surfaced in the English press and been EXPLOITED BY LIFESITENEWS to convey the impression that, in their words, "POPE BENEDICT OPPOSES HARRY POTTER NOVELS".

Now, before we go any further, let me issue THE BIG RED DISCLAIMER: I am not
a fan of the Harry Potter novels. In order to be able to comment
apologetically on the Harry Potter phenomenon, I read the first novel
and watched the first two movies. I was not at all impressed with them
as literature, and I recognize that they can have a harmful spiritual
effect on some readers, especially among the young. I also recognize
that they are not an apologia for paganism and that a reader who is
secure in his faith will not be magically turned into a neo-pagan by
reading them.

What is a Catholic to make of these letters? What weight do they have? Well, let’s look at them. Here is the complete text of two English translations as offered by LifeSite. They are written in response to Gabriele Kuby, the author of a German anti-Harry Potter book which she sent to Cardinal Ratzinger:

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger                              
Vatican City
March 7, 2003

Esteemed and dear Ms. Kuby!

Many thanks for your kind letter of February 20th and the
informative book which you sent me in the same mail.  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.

I would like to suggest that you write to Mr. Peter Fleedwood,
(Pontifical Council of Culture, Piazza S. Calisto 16, I00153 Rome)
directly and to send him your book.

Sincere Greetings and Blessings,

+ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Vatican City
May 27, 2003

Esteemed and dear Ms. Kuby,

Somehow your letter got buried in the large pile of name-day , birthday
and Easter mail.  Finally this pile is taken care of, so that I can
gladly allow you to refer to my judgment about Harry Potter.

Sincere Greetings and Blessings,

+ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

As you can see, the bodies of these letters are a grand total of five sentences long, only three of which have to do with the Harry Potter novels. The first is basically a thank you note for her book and the second allows her to refer to what he said in the first note.

The only thing that the cardinal said in regard to the Potter novels themselves was:

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.

You’ll note that there is a grammatical mistake in this sentence. We have a noun-pronoun agreement problem, because the apparent subject of "those" is "Harry Potter," but "Harry Potter" is singular, not plural as the word "those" would suggest. Although the German originals have been scanned and placed online (HERE and HERE–WARNING! Evil file format! [.pdf]), I don’t know German and can’t tell if the problem is there in the original. If it is, it suggests that the letter was dashed off hastily and is not the product of extensive reflection. If it isn’t then the translation is problematic and I don’t know what weight can be put on the details of wording in it. Either way, it’s reason for caution.

Another reason for caution is that there is no way to tell from this whether Cardinal Ratzinger had even read a Harry Potter novel. He may have skimmed Mrs. Kuby book (he refers to it as "informative"), he may have heard things about Harry Potter from others, but there is no indication that he has ever cracked the cover of one of the novels, much less read it from cover to cover so as to get an impression of the whole and how it might affect people.

As a result, we have no way of knowing that this is anything more than a comment made as part of a polite thank you note and expressing a general impression of the subject based on second-hand information. There is no indication that the Cardinal had any significant first-hand knowledge of Harry Potter.

This also fails to go beyond the status of a personal opinion expressed in personal (not professional) correspondence. It thus has no binding force for Catholics.

Also, note what the Cardinal didn’t say:

  1. He didn’t say that nobody can read Harry Potter.
  2. He didn’t say that people who are secure in their faith can’t read it.
  3. He didn’t say that young people of any particular age can’t read it if their parents read it with them to help them understand problematic bits.

Now, what about the statement in the second note that

I can
gladly allow you to refer to my judgment about Harry Potter.

LifeSiteNews made a lot out of the word judgment, even putting it in quotes for emphasis (and simultaneously misspelling it as "judgement"). This word serves their purposes well as it conveys an official impression (i.e., the Cardinal has issued a "judgment"!). But the word is notoriously problematic when translating across languages. Many languages have terms that can be rendered either "judgment" or "opinion" when translated into English. Here the latter may be preferable, as the Cardinal manifestly was not making a formal judgment on the matter. He was clearly expressing a personal opinon, as is evident from the fact that this was personal rather than official correspondence.

Also, we are missing an important fact: We don’t know the exact question that Mrs. Kuby asked him to prompt this response.

In his previous note he had suggested she send a copy of her book to Fr. Peter Fleedwood. One wishing to see in this a slap at pro-Potter forces might suppose that the Cardinal wanted one sent to Fr. Fleedwood to set him straight on the Potter matter, but it may mean no more than that he’s the Vatican’s guy who’s keeping tabs on the Potter phenomenon and Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t want him to be unaware of a new book dealing with the Potter phenomenon. There might even be in this a recognition that Fleedwood is the real "expert" on the Potter phenomenon and that Ratzinger hasn’t paid a great deal of attention to it. Since the Cardinal doesn’t say why he suggested that Fr. Fleedwood be sent a copy, we can only guess.

I mention the Fleedwood situation in particular because Mrs. Kuby may have simply asked the Cardinal something like "May I mention to Fr. Fleedwood the opinion you expressed in your previous note about Harry Potter?" If that’s the case then it casts a significantly different light on his giving her permission to refer to his opinion than the one conveyed in the LifeSite story.

In any event, the Cardinal–still over two years away from when he would (to his consternation) be elected pope–most certainly did not intend his permission to mean "Should I ever be elected pope, I would be very pleased to have you use what I said in my thank you note to create an international media frenzy that causes many people to believe that the pope has officially condemned Harry Potter."

Yet that’s exactly what LifeSite has done. Millions of people will see the headline "Pope Opposes Harry Potter" or "Pope Criticizes Harry Potter" or some variant and never read the story or they will read it but lack the skill at parsing such stories to see how misleadingly the matter is being framed. Millions of people scan the Drudge Report alone every day and read its headlines (like the one on this story) without ever clicking them. Their impression of many of its news stories is formed entirely by the headlines.

Some of the people seeing the LifeSite-inspired headlines on this subject will be non-Catholic fans of Harry Potter, and in their estimation the Catholic Church will have the Church’s credibility lowered one more notch.

Thanks, LifeSite.

"It is written, ‘The name of  God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’" (Romans 2:24).

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