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 second-grader 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."