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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Harry Potter & the Occult

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A person recently asked me the question,  “Are the Harry Potter books a dangerous introduction to the occult and demon possession?”  The inquiry was a response to a news topic.  A Catholic school in Tennessee reportedly has removed the popular Harry Potter book series from its library because they “risk conjuring evil spirits.”

How might I answer?  I would not routinely presume to second-guess the prudential decision of another Catholic pastor. When the Harry Potter books were removed from the school library, Rev. Dan Reehil, the pastor of St. Edward School in Nashville stated:

“These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

It may be that he knows something that I do not. Have there been any exposed cases of possession due to reading children’s books? I really cannot say. It has not been my experience.  Reasoning along these lines, I have warned against the use of Ouija boards for incidents that are clearly documented.

Rebecca Hammel, the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, stated that the Catholic Church does not have an official position on the Harry Potter books. I think this would be a sufficient answer to the question posed here. Admittedly, as someone who cringes against censorship, I do have my own “personal” opinions about the matter.

The universal catechism does not address the Harry Potter books directly, but it does speak about sorcery or the occult:

[CCC 2116]  All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

[CCC 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. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.

Does such exclude fiction?  If not then Doctor Who television shows and books as well as the Back to the Future films would also be prohibited as there is certainly “a desire for power over time, history, . . . .”  I am well aware that there is a doctrinal issue with time-traveling as it puts into question the delineation of divine providence.  Exorcists have warned us that psychics might be performing their paranormal feats by means of a demonic presence; however, one of the exorcists of Rome related that he sometimes employs sensitives to help discern the presence of demons or suffering souls.  The boundary line is also blurred in the lives of certain saints like Fr. John Vianney who often argued with the devil and could read souls.  Some of the events and manifestations around Padre Pio are downright terrifying.  While many are drawn in faith to the sites of Marian apparitions; it must be related that there are some simply attracted to sensational spectacles.  They want secret messages, weeping statues and miraculous signs from heaven.  All this is mentioned so as to emphasize that it is not the supernatural as such that is condemned; rather, it is any source or intervention outside of Jesus and the communion of the saints.

The Vatican has criticized the Harry Potter books although the final movie in the series based upon them was praised by its authorized newspaper reviewers. If the books truly pose a danger of enticing children into witchcraft and the occult; then I would agree with a Church censure. However, the question must be asked, do these books and stories really pose such a threat? It seems to me that if the Church feels that Harry Potter is “the wrong kind of hero” then we should do more to promote good literature that appeals to the youth with proper characters for emulation. I am also an advocate of parents and children reading together and discussing what is read. Might we be able to baptize the books, sharing what we find problematical and talking about those moral themes that help build good character? As a child I was a fan of horror comics, fairytales with all sorts of magic, and television shows like Dark Shadows, The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Monsters, The Twilight Zone, and the animated Sabrina the Teenaged Witch. Nevertheless, I learned my catechism, knew what was real and what was not, and eventually became a fairly conservative (i.e. orthodox) Catholic priest.

The Greek term for sorcery in the New Testament was “pharmakeia,” from which we derive the English word “pharmacy.” This folk science mixed with superstition often had to do with potions or so-called magical drugs. The practitioners provided abortifacient concoctions that caused miscarriages. The biblical prohibition against sorcery, while viewed as an offense to the power and providence of God, was also a condemnation of abortion or the murder of children.

I cannot say how many outright Satanists there may be in the world today. I suspect the most egregious witnesses to such a twisted religion are really soured Christians who delight in blasphemy.  It strikes me as a kind of sickness of the soul.  Many who identify themselves as such are actually atheists who delight in tormenting the sensibilities of Christians and Jews.  Others have embraced the label of Satanism due to a rejection of charity or self-sacrifice as espoused by the Gospel.  Theirs would be a philosophy of selfishness.   Groups of this type are distinct from the Wiccans or neo-pagans.  Often connected to radical feminism, they speak of finding the goddess.  In truth they may worship a deity of their own fancy or no god at all.  All this makes their religion hard to define.  Modern witches and their craft reflect a naturalistic type of faith. Their worldview is immanent and pantheistic.  They would seek to employ the so-called cosmic energies in the world around us.

While they attempt to exploit a pedigree that goes back to pre-Christian times (as with the druids), in truth modern witchcraft probably only goes back to the 1940’s.  It is argued that Gerald Gardner was inspired by the masonic secret rituals in his reimaging of witchcraft.  What is the interpretation given to all this by Christianity?  If you call upon any spirit other than God then you are likely summoning demons.

Just as Christianity has its sacramentals like holy water, holy salt, the rosary, etc. so too do they.   We are familiar from scary movies where fortune tellers use crystal balls, read tarot cards and cast spells.  While it is used in psychiatry, witchcraft also employs hypnosis and sensational forms of faith-healing.  Much of the superstition is merely to exploit the gullible.  Connected to the current fascination with the paranormal, these poor people and their so-called psychics deceive others and themselves.

Many of the practitioners of witchcraft like the late Aleister Crowley accented the philosophy of selfishness and defined magic as real but as natural and not supernatural.  He and his disciples thought they could manipulate reality or creation by acts of will. I suspect he would be offended by the magic of Harry Potter and regard it as rather silly and contrived.  Condemnations toward the belief system of Satanists or Wiccans or Neo-Pagans would not seem to really apply to the magic in Harry Potter.  It literally is the witch on the broomstick parody.

We would no longer condemn conjuring tricks like slide-of-hand, but would question an appeal to invisible powers or spirits. The fundamentalist might equate all magic with devil worship. According to this mindset, there is no good magic, only the bad that sometimes masquerades as good.  If it is not God then the danger is we might be appealing to the demonic. The most impressionable might imagine that magic is a mysterious power untapped by most humans. A skeptic by inclination, I would view much of this as empty superstition or trickery to fool others. This would still make sorcery a sin as it becomes an occult religion and false worship.

While I would assume in truth that all sorcery is from the evil one, I am not convinced that J.K. Rowling’s witchcraft is anything more than a fanciful literary device to motivate and to drive her various storylines. Is it really witchcraft that is proposed as a positive ideal? While it is employed by both sides in the books, it seems the gravity is upon themes like family, friendship, loyalty, goodness, and mercy.

The author, herself, is a member of the Church of Scotland. She is honest about her struggles in faith and how she desperately wants to believe in life after death. Granted her Christianity may not be as mature as C.S. Lewis or Tolkien or George MacDonald, but it should not be dismissed. Indeed, it is reflective of the agnosticism that infects so much of contemporary Christianity. She is a woman of her times. Toward the end of the Harry Potter book series, she makes a few explicit references to Christianity— in particular about the themes of life beyond the grave and resurrection.

The Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh is purportedly the inspiration for the Godric’s Hollow graveyard. Harry and Hermione find his parents’ grave. It is Christmas Eve. This inscription is written on the tombstone: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Let us look at the larger context (1 Corinthians 13:20-28) from which the verse is taken:

“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (KJV)

We are given to understand that the character Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, is the source. Note that he does not cite books of magic but turns to the Bible. He gives gravity to the Scriptures with his inscriptions.

The book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows also has the following inscription on the tombstone of Ariana Dumbledore: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21 or Luke 12:34). Here’s the full passage, Matthew 6:19-24:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (KJV)

J.K. Rowling has confessed (in 2007) that these two verses “epitomize” or sum up the entire series. Admittedly, Harry Potter (probably like many readers) seems not to understand what the verses really mean. Did Dumbledore understand, that Christ would defeat all enemies, the last being death?

The scene is poignant in the film. The church in the background is called St. Clementine in a video game; but it is otherwise revealed as St. Jerome. There is a large image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus over the entry door.

As an aside, St. Jerome as a learned man of his time, was challenged for his study of a Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyanna who was a contemporary of Christ. His life paralleled the Lord somewhat in that he had disciples and also apparently performed miracles. He contributed to the development of reasoned arguments. The purported paranormal elements had him branded by early churchmen as a sorcerer in league with demons. But he proved to be nothing to worry about as his following quickly disappeared with no school or church as a legacy. It is likely too far-fetched to imagine a deliberate connection here by J.K. Rowling in reference to the charges of the occult leveled against her. I suspect it is simply a case of a curious and unfathomable synchronicity.

While sorcery is condemned by Scripture and the Church, there are many fantasy books that portray magic as good and evil. Indeed, one might argue that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Tolkien’s stories about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings portray magic as such, even if as a metaphor for other things that we regard as real like the sacraments and the Eucharist. The news story comes from a Catholic school deep in the Bible belt where even these books by notable Christian authors might come under negative scrutiny and prohibition, too.

Indeed, it might be argued that Tolkien’s Sméagol is to Sam and Frodo what Tom Riddle is to Ron and Harry. The battle is essentially between good and evil. Harry has been marked by Voldermort and he could easily be corrupted by the same hate and anger. However, his friends, especially Ron, keep him rooted in goodness. Frodo is tempted as was the Gollum. Notice the name change in both stories. If it were not for Sam’s friendship, he would likely have destroyed himself like the pathetic Gollum. Arguable Tolkien has given us a masterpiece while there are more than a few literary critics who criticize the level of Rowling’s composition, even if she does present a good action yarn. But that may be beside the point.

One reviewer postulated that the Harry Potter saga promoted the old heresy of Gnosticism, particularly in reference to secret truths, power and ultimate salvation. Really?  Are we not projecting what is really not there?  I must admit that I saw little theological depth in J.K. Rowling’s writings.

It is a fantasy story told by a woman who claims to be a Christian but not one who seeks to endow her story with many overtly Christian elements.  We might equate something of our battle with powers and principalities; but it is the world of fanciful creatures, flying brooms and dragons. In a sense, she has given us modern fairy stories.

While another critic saw the derisive criticism of the “muggles” or normal humans as “diabolical” I simply saw it as an imaginative way to detail the division we know among people in the modern world. There is serious ethnic and religious division. People are looked down upon and even being killed by other people for being different. The world of Harry Potter mirrors the real world and its bigotries; indeed, she presents the corrupted face of Voldermort to stand for the evil that we confront daily in the many faces and souls distorted by hatred, anger and selfishness.

We live in a culture of death. We are surrounded by the lovers of death. How else could we explain New York politicians clapping and rejoicing over the legalization of terminating children who are nine-months old in the womb and ready to be born? J.K. Rowling is apparently blind to this connection as she supports legalized abortion; could it be that along with many of our own Catholics, she has been figuratively seduced by her own “death eaters”? How does death come into the world?  It is the result of the fall and the temptation of Satan.  Obviously she draws upon ancient Hebrew mythology regarding the devil as a serpent in the garden when she characterizes her villain as associated with an enormous snake (Nagini who also has a name change, Maledictus). How is death defeated?  Christ makes himself our sin-offering and redeems us with his Cross.  Harry is a Christ-figure.  He must be willing to sacrifice himself.  He must also be willing to die.  Of course, he does not stay dead.  He is also not alone.  Harry faces Voldemort.  His classmate Neville slices off the head of the snake.  It must be said that the theme of sacrifice is essential in the Potter universe.  We see it with both Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, as well.  We must note it at the very beginning with Harry’s parents who died so that their child might live.  (This is a theme that young people might find benefit in a guided reflection.)

As believers we appreciate that ours is a God who is both independent of his creation and yet he sustains it.  We are stewards of creation but not the masters of God.  In contrast to this, a realm of magic usually implies an immanence where the divine is either associated with the physical world or where the world itself is divinized.  I suspect this is where the more thoughtful might be somewhat critical of Rowling. The worlds imagined by Lewis and Tolkien always make room for a transcendence that Rowling only hints at. Rowling is not well versed in Christian theology and philosophy. Her world is much more chaotic and lacks order. Must we fault her for what most secular authors today would utterly dismiss?  The magic of Harry Potter is employed much as science and invention is presented to us in the real world. Do we not sometimes treat our tablets and portable phones and the internet as a scientific kind of magic? People even live out much of the lives in virtual gaming worlds. My fear in the latter is whether we are abandoning the real for that which is only make-believe.

As a Christian what I brought to the story was that Harry Potter was fighting against a variant of Satanism. In truth, one could not use sorcery because one should not battle evil with evil. But I think there is a crucial disconnect between the magic that Christians would condemn and the make-believe antics portrayed in the books and on the cinematic screen. It is no more real than the Marvel and DC superheroes with their fantastic powers.

I suppose I would ask young Christian readers a series of questions.  We would examine the themes of goodness, evil, sacrifice, love, justice, death, redemption, mercy, etc.  We would also seek to make a leap from fiction to reality.  How would we fight against evil?  Who or what are our enemies in the world today?  What are our weapons?  We could then talk about, not spells, but the power of prayer. We could open the newspapers and give the real devils of our times the names they now go by. We could invoke, not fanciful spirits or the occult, but Christ with his communion of the saints and the holy angels. And then, we would seek to be heroes and heroines in the real world with apostolates that seek to make a difference for the oppressed, the poor, the hurting and the unwanted unborn. While there is no denying the malicious efforts of our ancient enemy, the devil; we would also appreciate that many of our battles are with a secular modernity imbued with selfishness and not so much with a juvenile attention to magic.  When it comes to the Harry Potter series, and much else in our culture, we would do what people of faith have done for two thousand years— we would seek to understand and to transform that which is in the world for the purposes of Christ.