Did Joseph Ratzinger condemn the Harry Potter novels before he became Pope?
In my book Values of Harry Potter, I write on page 10: “Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger warned Catholics to beware the books’ ‘subtle seductions,’ according to Catholic News Service.” My source is a January 15, 2008, story by Cindy Wooden titled, “Writers in Vatican newspaper debate lessons of Harry Potter novels.”
In my article published just yesterday by eSkeptic, “Religion in Harry Potter,” I use a different source to make the same point. I write, “Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said the books threaten to ‘corrupt the Christian faith’…” For this I use a January 16, 2008, article by Katherine Phan of Christianity Today, “Vatican slams Harry Potter as ‘wrong kind of hero.'”
However, in his 2008 book How Harry Cast His Spell — which I also cite in my eSkeptic piece — John Granger claims the story about Ratzinger is false (see pages 266-67). Is it true that “Pope Benedict XVI has condemned Harry Potter,” Granger asks? He writes that LifeSiteNews “started this absurd Skeeter effect that won’t go away.” (Rita Skeeter is the corrupt and deeply dishonest journalist in the Potter series.) To Granger, claims that Ratzinger “commented on [the Potter novels] critically” is “laughable.”
Granger writes, “[A]n article in the Catholic News Service the week the LifeSiteNews post was made… denied the Pope had taken a position on the matter.” Granger continues, “The Harry Potter books… have not been opposed, condemned, or criticized by any agency or person of authority in the Vatican… The Pope certainly hasn’t spoken on the subject. … The Pope doesn’t oppose Harry Potter.”
However, while Granger accuses LifeSiteNews of bogus Rita Skeeter-like journalism, in fact it is Granger who is distorting the record.
The LifeSiteNews article of July 13, 2005, “Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels” (which was apparently updated at some point) includes a translated transcript of Ratzinger’s letter. (Granger suggests the letter may have been written by “a page in [Ratzinger’s] office,” but regardless the note carries Ratzinger’s name.)
The web page makes available a scanned copy of the letter. It is written on the letterhead of “Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger” and dated March 7, 2003. While English translations may vary, the letter clearly talks about the possible “subtle seduction” (“subtile Verführengen”) of the novels. The letter also talks about corrupting the soul (“das Christentum in der Seele zersetzen”).
Is Granger correct that another article “denied the Pope had taken a position on the matter?” No.
It turns out that Cindy Wooden also wrote the July 14, 2005, article forCatholic News Service, “New attention given to 2003 Cardinal Ratzinger letter on Harry Potter.” Here is what Wooden writes:
In the cardinal’s letter, excerpted on [recipient Gabriele] Kuby’s Web site and published widely since late June, he praised the author’s attempt to ‘enlighten people about Harry Potter’ and the possible ‘subtle seductions’ that can distort children’s thinking before they mature in the Christian faith.
Contrary to Granger’s suggestion, the article does not deny that Ratzinger took a position on the Potter novels. Instead, Wooden writes:
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.
Granger seems to be playing something of a game here. He says “the Pope” has not taken a position on the Potter novels, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ratzinger in fact took a critical position, before he became Pope. And that remains the interesting point.