Harry & the Vatican–che non è di pani[JAB]

In early January of this year, Harry Potter e i doni della morte the Italian language version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows went on sale in Italy.

In its January 14-15th issue, the newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, dedicated a full page to a Pro vs. Con debate on the merits of the Harry Potter series as a whole. I have not been able to locate an English translation of the articles, however for those of you fluent in Italian, reprints of the originals are available here.

And then the fireworks began.

HogPro yvaine was first to weigh in with this observation from Agence France-Presse. While this summary does note that two sides were presented in the debate, it spends most of its ink describing how “…the future Pope Benedict XVI…” condemned the series in 2003. (More on this subject later…)

Shortly thereafter, John Granger forwarded me a note from Norwegian HogPro, Odd Sverre Hove calling attention to this article from Australia (what a small world the internet has given us!) which presents considerably more of the pro side of the debate, but focuses its discussion of the con side around the statment:

“Under the headline “The Double Face of Harry Potter”, an expert in English literature, Edoardo Rialti, argues in L’Osservatore Romano that the Pope – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – was right to worry.”

In the meantime, Nick Pisa writing for SkyNews stated unequivocally that

“The Vatican has condemned fictional teen wizard Harry Potter, describing him as ”the wrong kind of hero” who led youngsters to an “unhealthy interest” in satanism.”

Nick was apparently so excited by the “con” article that he didn’t bother to even read the neighboring “pro” article.

So what’s to be made of all of this? Fortunately, not all of the press are Skeeter clones. Several other sources present a more balanced, or even pro-Harry reading of the articles.

The most balanced (well, balanced from a known Potterphile’s point of view) can be found here in The Blue Boar’s Blog. Sean P. Dailey, whose blog normally deals with things related to G.K. Chesterton, lays out the two sides as well as anyone I have read so far. He offers even further references and points out the completely opposing coverage styles supplied by The Catholic News Service on one hand, and The Catholic News Agency on the other.

In particular he supplies extensive further coverage of what was really involved in the exchange of correspondence between then Cardinal Ratzinger and Gabriele Kuby in which the future Pope supposedly condemned the Harry Potter series. If you don’t bother with any of the other links I urge to you to give this one a read. You may also enjoy noodling around some of the other topics Sean presents.

In the meanwhilst, I would like to get to the second part of my title–“che non è di pani”–literally “…it is not about the bread….” the quotation is from Matt: 16:11 as quoted in the Italian Riveduta Bible (1927). In the scripture Jesus is chastising his disciples because they thought his comments about the “…leaven of the Pharisees…” was somehow related to their failing to bring bread to feed the crowds. Jesus responds to them “How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?” (King James Version)

If you have scanned even a sampling of the above referenced stories you may, like me, have begun to wonder if any of our pundits actually read the source material they are commenting on? While seven full volumes of Harry Potter adventures may be too much to ask, could not the commentators at least have read the other half of the newspaper page they were addressing?

I think the answer is that almost none of the articles were really about the merits of Harry Potter, they were about characterizing the nature of the current Papacy. Some wish to paint the Pontiff as a restorer of the moral virtues of the past, some to paint him as an anthropomorphic throwback to an earlier era of the Church’s history, others seem unsure of how to portray him just yet. And so, they all extend speculations about his relationship with the post-modern phenomenon of the Harry Potter series as a way of “trying on suits” to see how well they seem to fit him, or how likely they are to convince others that this is the suit that he really wears.

In fact I think (and the reader would do well to remember that I am observing these events from the viewpoint of a life-long Protestant) that the articles themselves say a great deal about how Pope Benedict XVI wants to proceed into the future.

Firstly, the official Vatican Newspaper did not either accept or reject Harry. It presented the views of strong advocates on both sides of the issue and invited the reader to decide for himself. I can hardly imagine its doing the same with the issues of Abortion, Euthanasia or Contraception–issues upon which the Church and the current Pontiff both have strong views. Thus it seems to signal that the Pope is really not convinced that Harry Potter is an evil influence at all, indeed it is a clear signal to hold open debate on the subject.

Secondly, L’Osservatore Romano printed these articles being fully aware that an opinion related to this subject had been issued by Pope Benedict in a previous position. (However, see the Blue Boar Link above to discover what this opinion really was.) This would seem to signal that the Pope does not feel himself rigorously bound to defend all past statements he may have made. Rather, it implies to me that he is fully willing to consider present circumstances and how these may have changed since he previously spoke on a subject. Here, I hasten to note, I am referring to opinions expressed prior to his election as Pontiff, not to any subsequent official statements on Church Doctrine.

Thirdly, It seems to me the firestorm of reaction/counter-reaction and totally off-the-point speculations that were aroused by this pair of articles indicates what most Vatican observers probably already knew, that the current Pontiff is threading his way through a spiritual and political minefield such as few of his immediate predecessors have had to face. In that light, I suspect that even the publication of the original articles may have been more about setting tone, measuring reaction and discovering where sentiments lay than they were about any real concern over Harry Potter and his effect on future generations.

In short, I don’t think any of this was “about the bread”. Harry may have been mentioned, but the conclusions the authors intended the readers to draw dealt with something altogether else.

In a concluding point, I think it a shame that all the fireworks here generated are concealing a vital and valid concern expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger back in 2003. The concern being that in our adult debating and analysis of Harry and many other subjects, we should not forget that the minds of children are not fully formed entities until well into their teens. That their ability to independently form valid moral opinions and judgments, while steadily developing, is not yet complete and fully ready for all issues and all questions until that time.

In so speaking, I am not, nor I think is the Vatican, recommending that parents withhold Harry from their younger children. I am recommending, and if it be not too great a stretch suggesting Pope Benedict might also recommend, that parents need pay careful attention to exactly how much rule breaking is going on in these stories. That they should be prepared to discuss with their children what the consequences of those rule breakings were. Rowling provides plenty of consequences, but children may not be ready to notice them on their own.

Also be prepared to address the fact that Harry and Friends do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, all the time, every time. Again, Rowling supplies consequences for these half-truths and evasions; but also again, children may not notice them without assistance.

I see the Pope’s underlying concern here being most accurately aimed not at the books, but rather at parents who might not live up to their responsibility to know what their children are reading. The responsibility to know, not just the title, but what the contents are, and to accept that it is their responsibility as parents to become actively involved in the complete experience of reading these books with their children. Here I would recommend any parent whose children are approaching Harry for the first time read any of John Granger’s fine books. (And I can do so without apology since I am not John Granger. He is on sabbatical for a couple of weeks!)

This then is my take on the furor. Lots of people are saying lots of things. All of them mention the words Harry and Potter, sometimes even in the same sentence. However little if any of what is said ends up being applicable in a discussion of Harry Potter and his literary merits.

In the end, I say: che non è di pani–it isn’t about the bread and che non è di Harry–it isn’t about Harry.

What say you, dear HogPros?


  1. Very interesting insights, JAB. As I am also a life-long protestant, albeit my best friends when I was a child were Catholic, I always take anything coming from the Pope with a big grain of salt. But I hadn’t really looked at it from that angle, that it’s not really so much about Harry but about how children perceive things. I have to wonder though, are the people saying all the things (on both sides) also aware that what they are mainly addressing is children rather than Harry? I do agree with you that it would be nice if they’d all bother to read at least one HP book before going on the attack and if not that, at least read what their counterparts are writing.

    But in the end you got to the point I’ve been trying to make for a long time. It is a parent’s responsibility to know what their own children are reading, watching, listening to. But it needs to be more than forbidding their child from knowing what’s out there in the world outside their door. If parents would only take the time to read along with their children, or watch some of the same TV shows or movies, or listen to music with them, and then discuss it, they’d find they have children who are smarter than the parents think. They’d also find that in doing so they have opened the doors of communication and that will carry over into all those other subjects that they should be discussing with their children–peer pressure, drugs, sex, and anything else that might come up. Parents who miss this chance have missed the chance to have the kind of influence they want in their child’s life.

    The nice thing about HP is that it very easily affords parents the opportunity to discuss many of these topics. And yes, I agree–starting with any of John’s books would be a great resource for parents.

    It is sad to me to see so many parents and children so busy with their separate lives that they don’t have that common experience that leads to great discussions, the kind which then lead to better understanding between parents and their children.

    One of the things I kept finding myself wanting to do in many of the HP books was to take Harry by the shoulders and shake him and say–“Talk to someone about what you are thinking and feeling, Harry. Tell an adult, any adult.” So many of his troubles could have been avoided (of course, the books wouldn’t have been as long or as interesting) if he had just shared what he was thinking. But being raised by the Dursleys, Harry had got the message early on that sharing was not allowed. That’s one of the examples that a parent could use, whether they like HP or not–when to tell adults what is going on and how to know which adults will be helpful (Sirius, Lupin, Dumbledore, Mr. Weasley, etc) and which ones won’t (Fudge, the Malfoys, Scrimgeour, and their ilk).

    So, yes, I think you are right; all the articles aren’t so much about Harry, and neither should the discussion be when parents get involved with their children. Make it personal, and the message the parents want their children to get will be more powerful and long-lasting than some vague admonition that HP isn’t appropriate because of whatever they think they don’t like.


  2. Thank you, JAB and Pat, for so eloquently presenting a more organized and comprehensive discussion of my own limited thoughts!

    Quite simply, the words *time*, *involved*, and *informed* came to the forefront of my mind as I read both of your posts…three of the most important terms I can think of that when combined to describe parenting, spell L*O*V*E on the deepest of levels.

  3. colorless.blue.ideas says

    Oh, Pat, I often had the same desire to shake some sense into Harry. But . . . as my beloved wife pointed out, that is so realistic, which is one reason the books are so believable. Yeah, sometimes the “continuity” is missing, or the “suspension of disbelief” gets to be a bit much, but the attitudes of the characters are so very realistic.

    On another tangent, the Italian title struck me as humorous. Although I’m far from fluent in Italian, we lived there for a couple of years, and can usually “get by” in the language. Harry Potter e i doni della morte translates literally as “Harry Potter and the gifts of [the] death”. The word “doni” [gifts] can also have the connotation of an offering (like what you put in the collection plate every Sunday), as well as the connotation of helping something (someone?) out: an assistance. I think the word aptly captures in part (but only in part) what Ms. Rowling meant by “Deathly Hallows”.

    There is another Italian aphorism, Traditore, tradutore, which roughly translates: a translator is a traitor. The idea is that it is impossible to adequately translate from one language to another, without betraying the sense of the original words.

    . . . i doni della morte. Ya gotta love it.

  4. [JAB]
    CBI or someone else with a wider knowledge of Italian than I have please confirm, but I believe “doni” can also mean “the act of giving a gift” or “the act of receiving a gift.” So “Harry Potter e i doni della morte” would be quite ambiguous as to who gave and who received the gift of death. Thus it could also be said that the Italian produces more of a sense of uncertain foreboding about Harry’s fate than “Deathly Hallows” did in English. Translation can be a two way street, sometimes the translated phrase can emphasize an aspect of something better than the original phrase was capable of doing.

  5. Arabella Figg says

    That was interesting, John. Harry both “received” the Hallows and “gave” the two lethal ones away, keeping only the one given to the “righteous” brother.

    Curious Black is in a righteous mood and giving Luscious Badboy narrow looks…

  6. Arabella Figg says

    Harry also gave his life and “received” it back.

    Flako wouldn’t give anything…

  7. colorless.blue.ideas says

    JAB, my Italian is not enough to get into the subtleties of /doni/ [gifts], but the word seems to very much fill the same space as the English word “gifts”. (It is cognate with the English “donate”.) I suppose that it might be extended to mean “the act of giving”, but it doesn’t “sound right” to use it for “the act of receiving”. But, again, I am no expert.

    BTW, the word is used in a common Italian table prayer which begins “Benedici, Signore, noi e questi tuoi doni . . . “ [Bless, Lord, us and these your gifts . . . ].

  8. [JAB] Thanks CBI, I was basing my speculation solely on comments I found on a web site (a site which I now can’t relocate, darn it) that mentioned the word was primarily used as a noun but could be used as a verb similarly to the English phrases “to gift” or “to be gifted”. I suspect we should not put too much credence in that line of speculation until we can find a real expert to clarify things.

  9. Perelandra says

    Forgive me if I’m telling readers what they already know. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger never read, evaluated, or condemned HP. He responded with a supportive letter to an anti-HP book written by a German woman, which to this day I assume is the totality of his knowledge about HP. The part that gets left out by the Harry haters is that Cardinal Ratzinger deputed an Englishman on his staff, Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, to read and evaluate the Rowling books. Msgr. Fleetwood took a positive stand on HP and sent a detailed refutation of the German woman’s attack to her. He received no reply and unfortunately, his letter has never been made public. Msgr. Fleetwood has, however, defended HP in the course of a press conference.

    The whole business about “the Pope hates Harry Potter” was busily spread by a Canadian website, LifeSiteNews, which is closely linked to Harry’s arch-foe, Michael O’Brien. This misinformation now flutters about like feathers from a down pillow ripped open and spread to the winds. We will never see the end of it.

    How I wish the real story could be communicated to J.K. Rowling! The Pope does not now nor did ever condemn her.

  10. colorless.blue.ideas says

    [JAB], the related verb is donare, and “doni” also means “you give” or “you are giving” (both you’s are singular). It also is the subjunctive singular form of the verb. (My Italian was never good enough to handle the subjunctive mood!)

    I found the following webpage to give a useful explanation:
    http://www.wordreference.com/iten/doni. It gives the example of dono della natura as “natural gift”. I guess by analogy doni della morte would then be “deathly gifts”.

    In searching, I also found a discussion from last summer, in a bilingual forum, which proposed other translations. The best seemed to be “Le reliquie della Morte” . . . oggetti creati dalla Morte e oggetto di una ricerca (quest)” (posted by “LupoVisconti”). [The Relics of Death . . . objects created by Death and object of a quest.]

    OK, this is a fun tangent, at least for me, but it’s time that I return to our regularly scheduled discussion. 🙂

  11. [JAB] And I likewise, CBI…but it has been fun. Thanks for the links. Hopefully John won’t chastise either of us too badly.

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