17 On the Harry Potter debate: A Catholic perspective today

Blurb for this episode

After many requests, here’s a special episode addressing the suitability of Harry Potter for Christians. This episode addresses (i) how Christians should relate with alleged occult and magic content in fiction (ii) debunking unhelpful rumours about Harry Potter (iii) the place of spiritual discernment when engaging with any secular content (iv) some practical considerations for parents regarding children’s literature.

Full transcript of this episode


Rather than immediately diving into the story or themes of Harry Potter, this article aims to firstly explore the concerns some Christians have with Harry Potter itself. Since its release, not a few voices have suggested the story normalises alleged occult and pagan practices in the form of a popular children’s story. Among this group would be school principals, parents and even former Vatican exorcists! If this is your current position and you’ve thus far avoided the Harry Potter books, this article is for you. Or if you have seen or read Harry Potter and enjoy them, and want to know how to talk about these very real issues with those concerned about Harry Potter, this article is for you too! Also, just before we dig in, you may be interested to know that the content of this article has largely been informed by a survey I did of 25 respected church leaders, including parents, priests and primary school teachers. They comprised of some completely opposed to Harry Potter, some who were neutral to it, and others still who love it. Of course, my own voice will be in the mix here, but I wanted to let you know that much prayer and preparation has gone into this article.

The fact that Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon is without a doubt. Almost every one of my friends in the early 2000s have read the seven books or at least seen some of the movies. It is clear that something about the story has universal appeal, regardless of culture, given the fact Harry Potter is not just a western phenomenon, but truly global. This fact alone deserves attention from a Catholic standpoint, for we should at least be asking ‘what universal desires and hopes has HP tapped into? Where might the Gospel meet these same desires – or more importantly, where has the Gospel failed to meet these desires? Further, the word catholic means ‘of the whole’, and for Catholics, art, beauty and story have historically been a means of encountering God too. However, rightfully or not, since the first few books were released, Christians alarmed with the alleged occult content have dominated any cultural conversation around Harry Potter. The effect of this is that such voices have created a particular lens in which most Christians now engage with the themes. This article is about recognising this lens, but then, to expand it. Content wise, I will:

  1. Begin by discussing how Christians can discern the magic and the occult content in secular stories in general. 
  2. I will then explore some rumours and myths about Harry Potter and its author J.K. Rowling, so as to divide fact from fiction. 
  3. I will then move into a segment which discusses the important topic of spiritual discernment, presenting it as the forgotten tool for us Christians to use in order to know whether any content is suitable for our consumption, Harry Potter or otherwise. This in my opinion is the most important section of this article. 
  4. Finally, based on the survey, I will share a few considerations for parents, to help them discern for their children the suitability of secular movies/books with ‘magical’ content. 

How Christians engage with magic and the occult in our secular stories 

The occult is of course real. If we take occult practices to mean the contact with, interest or worship of spiritual forces and agents other than God and his angels, every Christian must renounce this hands down. The scriptures clearly teach that occult practices are a direct violation against God, and not least the first commandment. Further, we know that the Enemy the devil is the Angel of Light and works by seduction. He is intelligent, and weaves lies with half truths. Hence, if ever anything occult is normalised or presented as desirable in our fiction or movies or games, it should be condemned by the church. However, I will at this point posit that the most popular book in the world that contains explicit details of the occult, is actually the Bible. In it we have accounts of Israelite kings consulting with the dead, preachers practicing witchcraft and even astrologers following a star to find the Messiah. Okay I’m being a little cheeky here, but the point I am making needs to be made. Just because a book/movie/story contains elements of the occult doesn’t automatically rule out the piece of work morally. For if we follow this logic, we would also rule out the Bible, along with the works of many Desert Fathers and saints who speak plainly of the devil, possessions etc. 

Okay, so there’s a very basic foundation we can hopefully all agree on. Let’s nuance it a little more. We should then ask: how is the alleged occult elements presented in the work? Is it presented as good or evil, desirable or undesirable? Clearly in the Bible, the occult is presented as morally sinful, opposite to God’s spirit and his truth. So the Bible’s okay in that regard! Regarding the Harry Potter question though, you may be interested to know that in our topic’s context, two other great works of Christian fiction also raised alarm bells when they were first published – C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Narnia has an abundance of magic and ghouls and demons and curses, let alone quasi-racist depictions of the bad guys and bloody violence such as beheadings. And then in LOTR, you have enchantments and incantations and a demonically infested ring that seeks to corrupt anyone who wears it. Yet, you’ll hardly find a single credible Christian today condemning these books. What made the difference? Certainly the knowledge that both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are both strong, passionate Christians has helped their cause. But how do these famous stories measure up to the modern Harry Potter? Well, I’m going to suggest one important feature that came through in my survey. People are not fans of Harry Potter because of its magic and wizardry and spells, any more than people are fans of the LOTR because of Elven magic and Sauron’s infested ring. Wizardry is certainly not the chief reason I enjoyed Harry Potter. Rather, I enjoyed the stories as a 14 y.o. for what they stirred up within me: a desire to exhibit the same virtues as the heroes. I was inspired to be brave like Harry, to be a friend like Ron, loyal like Sirius, to be prudent like Dumbledore and selfless like Snape. I pondered the mystery of how a parent’s self sacrificing love for their infant could disarm Evil incarnate. The stories are also filled with relatable characters, journeying through the same emotional dramas I as a young person was experiencing! But … you may be interested to know that of the people who had read Harry Potter in that survey, pretty much all of them, wrote as their chief reason for liking the stories, some variation of a) ‘I like Harry Potter because it demonstrates how love conquers evil, and how love is the strongest spell of all’ (b) and ‘that there is a clear difference between good and evil, and that while its often not obvious, we must all choose which side to stand on.’ Given such a quasi-Christian moral framework, what has Harry Potter got working against it? 

Debunking unhelpful rumours about Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling 

Rumour 1: “J.K. Rowling is a witch”

There is this rumour that author J.K. Rowling is a witch herself and once practiced wicca. But this rumour is so farfetched that even trolling through many apparent sources on the internet have revealed only scanty speculation – and only from people who already had an issue with the stories. On the contrary, Rowling herself has professed numerous times she is a Christian, and was the only practicing Christian growing up in her family to attend the local Church of Scotland. She even baptised her own daughter Jessica. Unlike authors J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Rowling didn’t reveal her Christian faith initially, but she also explains why, saying that if people knew she was Christian, they would probably guess the grand finale of the saga, in which Harry Potter pretty much does a Jesus Christ, offers himself as a living sacrifice, dies and resurrects – at a place cleverly chosen to be King’s Cross station (referring to Christ the King’s cross). This is why she only revealed she was Christian on the release of book 7. Sure like all of us, she struggles with some components of the faith, but this is far from concluding she is a witch incarnate! When asked if she were a Christian by the Vancouver Times she said “Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about, then I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.” If Rowling were a secret witch would she really write a book in which love conquers evil, in which Christian virtues are upheld, in which functional nuclear families are promoted and a sacramental worldview is celebrated? Would the big bad evil really be called Voldemort meaning “he who flees death”, while Harry, the hero of the story, embraces it like Christ? Perhaps some perspective is needed regarding the author JK Rowling.  

Rumour 2: “The spells in Harry Potter are based on real incantations”

Another rumour about Harry Potter is that the spells are real incantations taken from real occult manuals – this question came up in the survey a number of times. I do believe one unfortunate thing Harry Potter has against it is the word ‘witchcraft’ in the name of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I believe if Rowling had chosen another word for Hogwarts like ‘school of enchantments’, or even ‘school of magic’, it would have been less of a trigger word. Having said that, let’s look at this rumour that real spells being used in Harry Potter. This is again simply not true, almost humorously not true. Rowling and any linguist worth their salt can trace the words of the spells used by her as a play on English and Latin words such as the spell Lumos which is a play on the Latin word ‘lumen’ which means light.  Expelliarmus, a spell to disarm your opponent’s wand, comes from combining the English words ‘expel’ and ‘arms’, and Wingardium Leviosa, a spell which makes things float, comes from combining the English word ‘wing’, the Latin words ‘arduus’, meaning steep, and ‘levi’, which means to lift! Other popular spells like Riddikulus, Stupify and Confundo are so obvious in their play on English words they are just plain fun. Ah, but what about the dark unspeakable curses, the ones that only the evil guys mutter, of which Rowling tells us there are only three? Well, Crucio – is simply Latin for ‘Torture’, Avada Kedava – is a play on Abracadabra which itself comes from Aramaic meaning ‘let the thing be destroyed’ and Imperius simply means ‘I govern’. If these words or double-words bear any resemblance to serious real life incantations, I believe it is purely incidental, and not intentional. Add to the fact most of the words are made up anyway! However, you may still be asking at this point: would a popular story that features spells, in itself, encourage a child’s interest in the real life occult? A good question, and I promise I’ll address it later.  

Rumour 3: “The Catholic church is against Harry Potter”

One final objection against Harry Potter, often raised by Catholics. A few spokesmen within the church have spoken out against Harry Potter, most noticeably Fr Gabriel Amorth, who was once the Vatican’s chief exorcist. He said that “In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses.” That sounds pretty grim coming from someone who knows the seductive power of occult spirits! Well, how should we receive his words? Consider that Fr Gabriel is speaking with the lens of a Catholic exorcist – in which he is rightfully sensitive and explicit about of the workings of the Enemy. To this degree we should discern his authority on those grounds. But Fr Gabriel is not an authority on literature, culture or parenting. Remember the word Catholic means ‘of the whole.’ We must weigh up Fr Gabriel’s words along with other voices within the church, many of which have been in support of the books, not least Cardinal George Pell and Fr Peter Fleetwood, from the Vatican’s Council for culture. But which voice carries the most authority? Well all of them, to the degree their individual positions are relevant for your current spiritual growth. Because the thing is, there’s a good reason why the Catholic church still actually doesn’t have an official stance on Harry Potter, any more She has a stance on Marvel or Star Wars or video games. Because culture is contextual, and the morality of content is dependant on so many things like a person’s age, emotional sensitivity and cultural upbringing. Let’s not forget, the ultimate voice of authority the Christian is called to listen to is the Holy Spirit, who speaks within us. To actively discern the spiritual benefits of any content we consume is the task of each individual, and it is to this principal that we now turn. 

Discernment: how a Christian assesses the morality of a secular work   

I will posit upfront that if a child having read Harry Potter does develop an interest in the occult, and there is, in your judgment a direct causal link between Harry Potter and their interest in the occult, then the story is not for them. If there are scenes and imagery that disturb and frighten them, then this story is perhaps also not for them, at least currently. It is also clear that if in your prudential judgement, you feel that any book or story or song is pulling you away from the things of God and towards worldly vices like power, wealth, lust and wrath, than this is also grounds to discontinue. For St Ignatius of Loyola cautions us that the Bad Spirit is trying to seduce us away from God. You can recognise the Bad Spirit acting on you if you feel a decrease in the virtues of faith, hope and love and are drawn instead to things low and earthly. This however, has not at all been my experience of the Harry Potter stories, and from what I’ve gathered, not the experience of an overwhelming amount of readers. Let me put flesh on this: if having read the Harry Potter books, you feel more drawn towards the things of God, then this is a sign of the Good Spirit working. What do I mean by the things of God? Well just as Ignatius gave us a description of the Bad Spirit (see episode 11 for more details), he also gives us a description of Good Spirit. If in watching Harry Potter you feel in your soul an increase in faith, hope and love, then this is a sign of the Good Spirit working. If you feel that you want to grow in virtue – to be heroic, self-sacrificial, loyal and honest -then this is the Good Spirit working. Further, if you even feel a desire for the ‘virtuous’ magic in Harry Potter – things like the protective Patronus charm – perhaps this is also the Good Spirit working. For Christians should be drawn towards virtuous spiritual things; we should desire the power of the Holy Spirit, the intercession of the saints and the protection of our guardian angels! So let me ask, given the above descriptions, do you feel the Good Spirit or the Bad Spirit is predominantly at work in you when you read Harry Potter? Dear friends noticing the spirit at work in you is called discernment, and it is very important. Because discernment of spirits is also the key to knowing the morality of anything we do. Christians no longer subscribe to a sort of ‘Old Testament spirituality’ governed by external rules and laws. Rather we are chiefly people of the Holy Spirit, who imparts his law inside our hearts. And the Holy Spirit will lead everyone differently – even over the same content, so we must take the step of discernment seriously. But what about if you’re a parent, and can’t necessarily jump inside the skin of your child to know which ‘spirit’ is predominantly working? Glad you asked! 

Three considerations for parents regarding fiction with magical elements 

First of all, it’s helpful to avoid snap judgments based on what you hear from others. Take heed of different opinions by all means, but unless a story directly violates the Scriptures, through, for example the glorification of violence, sex or human dysfunction, it shouldn’t simply be automatically thrown out. When it comes to books and movies aimed at a younger people, it may be very revealing to ask your child about their experience first. What are they drawn to? What does the books make them want to do? Whose their favourite character and why? These answers your children will gladly share with you, and will provide you with clues as to where their attraction to the works lie. Of course, reading and watching something like Harry Potter yourself will provide incredible data for parental discernment – or even better, watching them with your children, and discussing it after! This is an option that not too many parents take, unfortunately. Of course, having read an article like this, you could provide a lens in which they can enjoy the works (e.g. ‘pay attention to what role familial love has in Harry Potter’). This aside here are a three more considerations drawn from the survey to aid parents decide the suitability of a story containing magical elements: 

  1. Firstly is the magic a natural part of the fictional world, or something that is esoteric, to be sought after in secret for personal ends? If you feel a story is leaning more towards the latter, I argue that this may present a slightly higher risk for some children translating the story’s magic into real life experimentation. However, I do not think this to be the case in Harry Potter, for the setting is indeed naturally magical, and once the characters go through platform 9 ¾ magic is the DNA of the world. Hence the use of magic in the Harry Potter world context would be no different from a Jedi using his Force powers in a galaxy far, far away. The supernatural becomes part of the natural order, and the audience by instinct knows this! Also remember that to be authentically Christian is to be supernatural. For us to deny this dimension of our faith makes us more like the Muggles in Harry Potter – barely worth a mention in the grand story and impotent before the real powers of darkness at work in our midst.  
  2. The second consideration I would posit is something like this. There is a distinction between the use of magical powers (e.g. Queen Elsa in Disney’s Frozen), and the consulting and channelling of spirits. The strict Catholic ban on the occult is actually less about the ‘powers’ it appears to accrue, and more about something much more serious – idolatry, the engaging with spirits hostile to God. Hence, I would be more than a little concerned if a story or fairytale pivoted around a character contacting some dodgy spirit or seer in order to obtain even a noble end. But again, I don’t see this in Harry Potter, the magic Harry partakes in is part of the natural order of the fictional world, and by no means the channelling of some foreign spirit. 
  3. The third consideration I would posit is this: if dark magic is present in the story (e.g. curses and hexes), who uses them? Is such a feat celebrated in the story? What message would children walk away with? It is clear in Harry Potter that spells such as the three unforgivable curses are not celebrated and are clearly the weapons of Voldemort and his minions. Yet after his godfather Sirius was murdered point blank, Harry suddenly tries to perform a Crucio curse to stop Bellatrix Lestrange. But in this scene, Rowling is trying to illustrate the knife-edge volatility of Harry’s mission, rather than prove a compromise of his character. I feel Harry’s Crucio spell is not any more morally compromising than Frodo falling numerous times under the temptation of the Ring. Do we reduce Frodo’s character to his moment of weakness, and invalidate the entire work of The Lord of the Rings? Or do we, as mentioned earlier, try and see the story’s manifest evil in the context of the greater values and message of the story? Incidentally, Harry fails the Crucio curse because Bellatrix tells him he doesn’t have enough hatred. Go figure. Anyway, what is clear to me is that in Harry Potter, the weapon of choice against dark magic is not stronger dark magic, or even stronger light magic, but rather love, a willingness to lay down his life for others. And my opinion: you’ll be hard pressed to find another popular work of fiction today where a protagonist rises to these clear Christian virtues. 

In summary 

  1. Firstly, the realm of the occult is real, and it should be a concern if young people are drawn away from God by any work of fiction. However,  just because a story contains alleged occult elements doesn’t necessarily make it immoral, any more than the Bible should be considered immoral. The story’s context, intention and the overarching values needs to be considered. 
  2. Secondly, discussion on Harry Potter today should not be reduced to the whole ‘occult’ debate. As Christians, it is much more helpful to enquire about the desires and thoughts it stirs up within readers, and to see whether these are compatible with Christian values. 
  3. Thirdly, listen to the facts, rather than rumours, about Harry Potter. While Christians should weigh up to the opinions from church authorities, the greatest tool a mature Christian has is spiritual discernment. If after watching/reading Harry Potter a person feels drawn towards earthly or even evil things – this is a movement of the bad spirit and should be discontinued. If however, after reading Harry Potter, a person feels an increase in faith, hope and love, and the desire to aspire to greater virtue, then this is a movement of the GS, and should be encouraged. 
  4. Fourthly, I shared a number of ways for parents to help discern whether fiction with magical elements is appropriate for their children. I probably need to summarise those here, because they’re in the above section entitled “Three Considerations…” 

I hope this article has been helpful for you, and do please share this resource with others who may benefit from it. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on some of the issues raised today, because as you can gather, they extend beyond just Harry Potter! Thanks for staying with me on this longer than usual article, and I hope to hear from you soon!