Pius Thicknesse = Pope Pius XII, “Hitler’s Pope”?

Does the takeover of the Ministry of Magic in the first chapters of Deathly Hallows include a passing swipe at the Catholic Church and the Vatican’s supposed complicity with Nazi Germany? I received a letter from a thoughtful reader who thinks this is a possibility. Let’s start with that letter and examine the evidence:

Hello John,

I’ve very much enjoyed following your work, although I’m not a signed-in blogger. A thought if you choose to respond to it. During Vold War II the Minister of Magic is Pius Thicknesse. Pius is a rather unusual name. Try this – Pius XII ” Hitler’s Pope.” Kind of fits – His Thickness(e) Pius XII. Anything linking to the number 12? Pius XII rather “thick” in not fully recognizing Hitler’s evil. I’ve followed the thread here on Deathly Hallows regarding Nazi Echoes but have not yet seen anything on this point.

My very best to you – keep up the excellent work.

Donn Allen

Before receiving this note I had read the name “Pius Thicknesse” as a throw-away swipe at politicians wearing religion on their sleeve and Culture Warriors who get sucked halo-deep into secular politics in the name of piety and do-gooding and holding-the-line against secular humanism.

But Pius may indeed be a specific reference to Pope Pius XII. This Pontiff was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church during WWII and the Cardinal who, before his elevation to the Papacy, negotiated one of the first treaties with Hitler’s Third Reich. Donn Allen’s suggestion merits some consideration, consequently, even if it gives the Catholic Unicorn Hunters and Harry Haters more grist for their mill. Though many of Ms. Rowling’s defenders biggest fans are Roman Catholic, we have little to no evidence that she has Catholic sympathies herself.

The little time I spend blog-hopping, it seems I wind up at Roman Catholic weBlogs that defend Harry Potter. Their opponents are the Star Chamber Catholics who see the boy wizard as the Herald of the Anti-Christ. Mark Shea’s Catholic and Enjoying It minces few words with the LifeSite crew; Sean Dailey’s Chestertonian fireworks at The Blue Boar Inn make Mark look moderate by comparison. I owe more debts to Sandra Miesel than I care to count for what she has shared with me about the history of witchcraft, fantasy literature and Puritanical critics she long ago tagged “Unicorn Hunters.” Regina Doman, from her 2005 essay on Harry Potter and Catholicism to her review of Deathly Hallows, has consistently shined the story-teller’s light into the blind-spots of my interpretations of the series. And did I mention Stratford Caldecott? Harry and Harry Hallowers like me do not lack Catholic friends, clearly, and friends of the first order. Harry Potter criticism from Roman Catholic readers is, as a rule, very good to excellent.

But back to the subject at hand. Does the name “Pius Thicknesse” in Deathly Hallows reflect Ms. Rowling’s belief that Pope Pius XII was, as several historians have asserted, “Hitler’s Pope”?

The speculative evidence for this remarkable idea can be summarized as follows:

(1) Much of the plot line of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows works as Harry’s resistance to Lord Voldemort paralleling Great Britain’s resistance to the Third Reich (see the HogPro thread on this subject if that parallel escaped you on first reading);

(2) “Pius Thicknesse,” Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, is placed under the Imperius Curse by Yaxley the Death Eater just prior to the opening of Deathly Hallows, which curse enables Voldemort to overthrow the Ministry of Magic soon after and to make puppet Pius his stand-in Minister of Magic; and

(3) It is commonly believed that Pope Pius XII, both as a Cardinal and as Pope, served Hitler’s interests more than that of the Catholic Church or those persecuted by the Nazis.

(4) The unusual name “Pius” for Voldemort’s duped and cursed Minister of Magic Pawn is a pointer to Pius XII, “Hitler’s Pope.”

Before we get into consideration of whether this was Ms. Rowling’s intention, I need to point out that this revisionist painting of Pius XII as a Nazi sympathizer is a disastrous and almost certainly calculated distortion of the historical record. Pius XII has been celebrated as one of the few world leaders of the time who did what was possible both to protect Jews in Nazi territories and to restrain zealot Croatian and Slovakian Catholics who worked in tandem with the SS to deport Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Gypsies to Nazi death camps. Hitler hated Pius XII because he understood this Pontiff was his political nemesis and spiritual antithesis. If Ms. Rowling is drawing a parallel, it is a very sad thing indeed.

I think, nonetheless, that the parallel between fictional and historical Pius-es is a possibility to be taken seriously, given the prevalence of this mistaken idea about Pius XII. I find it credible for three reasons:

(1) as mentioned, the name “Pius” is unusual enough to suggest it is a specific pointer like “Dolokhov” or “Lockhart” and the “Hitler’s Pope” book and theory received great circulation and attention, much more, unfortunately, than the refutation of same;

(2) the most esteemed and notable “critic” of the Harry Potter books in the eyes of the world has been Pope Benedict, whose letters written while Cardinal Ratzinger have been used by Culture Warrior Catholics to make him their Harry Hating hand-puppet; and

(3) Ms. Rowling is not a Roman Catholic, and, like other English fantasy writers of note, she may harbor anti-papist beliefs as a Scottish Protestant.

Was Ms. Rowling upset by the newspaper headlines “Pope Opposes Harry Potter” that were everywhere the week before Half-Blood Prince was published? The Vatican didn’t waste any of its spiritual or political capital of the time in saying the newly elected Pope did not oppose or take any position on the books. Could this have been taken by Ms. Rowling as a tacit endorsement from Rome of Catholic Potter Baiting?

A search of her interviews at the invaluable Accio Quote treasury reveals only one mention of the Pope, believe it or not, in the last ten years. It came in the January, 2006, issue of The Tatler:

The Pope allegedly condemned the books for their heretical magic: “I can remember reading about it and thinking surely there are more important things for him to worry about than my books – world peace, war in the Middle East…”

That disappointment with the Pope’s supposed disapproval, which could be read as her disbelief in the possibility, is a pretty thin reed on which to build an argument for a Pius parallel. If we are assuming that she believes Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer only because of the prevalence of this misconception, I guess we have to allow that she might also have believed the headlines announcing the current Pope was no fan of hers. The Pope’s membership in the Hitler Youth as a young man, widely celebrated by his critics, might have made the synapse jumps necessary for her to create a Pope Pius XII/Bendict XVI resonant character that is a Death Eater collaborator, albeit as a puppet under the Imperius Curse.

Still, this is too much of a stretch for me to take seriously. One more piece to the “puzzle” is the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis, according to some critics, indulges in a subtle (?) attack in story form on the faith of Catholics. Shift the Ape drapes a Lion’s skin over a jackass and presents the donkey-Aslan as the real thing to witless believers. From the Wikipedia entry for Shift the Ape:

A. N. Wilson and John Goldthwaite[2] both suggest that Shift is intended as a type of the Catholic Church, in keeping with the traditional Protestant identification of the Pope with Antichrist. This identification is based on Shift’s claim that Aslan cannot be bothered with speaking to a lot of animals and that he, Shift, is hereafter Aslan’s sole mouthpiece. Similarly John J. Miller, writing for National Review, says: “I find it hard to see the ape Shift in The Last Battle, for example, as anything other than a satire of Roman Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular.” (Miller 2005) (GrenfellHunt 2005).

However, in Lewis’ other writings it is made clear that he had no special animus against Roman Catholicism[3] but detested theocracy in whatever form it might take.[4] In his Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century[5] he endorses Milton’s view that Elizabethan Presbyterianism was just as guilty as Roman Catholicism of interposing a priestly mediator between man and God: for example, in their belief that the Bible should never be read out in churches but only “opened through preaching”. The ape’s claim that Aslan (God) is not bound by human standards of good and evil is also a Puritan rather than a Catholic trait.[6]

Oddly enough, the Ape named Shift doesn’t strike me as the Pope; I’ve always thought Puzzle the Donkey standing in for Aslan or as the Vicar of Christ in Narnia’s latter-days is the Pontiff cardboard cut-out. Those who foolishly believe in the faux-Lion despite all appearances and evidence, who lament that it was “as if the sun rose one day, and it was a black sun,” are the Belfast born and bred Protestant’s representatives of Catholics who trust more in Pope and Magisterium than in Christ. The Ape seems more the spirit of the age, namely, Darwinian naturalism, that speaks through the Donkey-Aslan.

Or so I thought the several times I have read this book aloud to my children. Quite a few notable Catholics (and Orthodox Christians, and Methodists, and others…) have wanted to baptize Lewis and say he was something he was not. Tolkien, once Lewis’ good friend, however, thought the Belfast boy remained an Irish Protestant to the end and always suspected his “Ulster-ior motives.” Admiring Lewis’ genius shouldn’t mean overlooking what he was or pretending Anglo-Catholic equates to Catholic.

So what?

Americans, I think, as a tribe are inclined to think “denominational differences” are silly matters. While the rest of the world take specific points of theological principle as life and death concerns, we are relatively ecumenical and dismiss the spiritually ardent as “fundamentalists” and “bible-thumpers.” The Public Square in the US is by no means a religion-free zone but we become uncomfortable quickly if the State/Church divide myth is not acknowledged as the de facto and de jure Social Gospel.

We may misunderstand, consequently, works of literature, art, or music created by artists with profoundly different beliefs. Lewis was deeply influenced by Catholic writers and artists, living and dead, and counted many Catholics among his friends and correspondents. He remained, however, a Protestant and anti-papist to his death. The boy was taken out of Belfast but a part of the Belfast street divisions between Protestants and Catholics never left the man.

And Ms. Rowling? I think it is possible, however lamentable, that Pius Thicknesse is a pointer to Pope Pius XII (“Hitler’s Pope”) and even to Pope Benedict XVI because of his brief membership in the Hitler Youth. The woman is a member of the Episcopal Church of Scotland (Anglican Communion) rather than the Roman Catholic Church and she is a postmodern Christian at that; there is a gulf, I suspect, separating her and the once Cardinal Ratzinger’s church that is broader and deeper than between chummy American Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. There is some resemblance between Pius Thicknesse, cursed Minister puppet of Lord Voldemort, and Puzzle the Donkey, the Ape’s mouthpiece.

The parallel is possible but I rush to add, while the possibility cannot be eliminated short of a denial from the author, I do not think this connection is probable. My objection to the theory springs from Occam’s Razor, which as a law of succinctness can be stated as “we should not assert that for which we do not have some proof” or just “the simpler and more obvious, the better.” The parallel between the historical and fictional Pius-es is a very involved theory. Any simpler theory would be preferable.

And there is a simpler theory. “Pius Thicknesse” as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement can be interpreted as something of a thick-headed, Dudley Dooright, Law-and-Order character whose public piety or pious persona is a function of his not being especially bright. This sort of a figure is a natural for the Voldemort puppet and Nazi collaborator, witting or unwitting.

Or Pius Thicknesse could be a caricature of the “Religious Right” and how Ms. Rowling feels about this conservative religio-political force in the UK and the US. Remember Aunt Marge! I doubt Ms. Rowling has many warm feelings for her Christian critics who use Harry as a litmus strip to test for orthodoxy in “family values.”

Both of these theories are as credible and much simpler than the point-to-point allegory suggested by my HogPro correspondent. I think, consequently, we are obliged to note that, while it is possible that Ms. Rowling is taking a swipe at the Papacy, past and present, with her choice of names for the Minister of Magic in Deathly Hallows, it is rather unlikely. Because prejudice is one of the primary evils of the Harry Potter novels, assuming Ms. Rowling shares the historic disdain of Scottish Protestants for “Papists” seems an unnecessary stretch.

I ask for your comments and correction.


  1. Does the fact that Philip Thicknesse of the 18th century had a long career in the covert world of ciphers and codes (publishing a book on the subject in 1772) have anything to do with it.

    He being a Jesuit, in fact ?

    Must be sheer coincidence, of course.

  2. That’s the first “Thicknesse” historical source for the name that I find credible, but, as you say, it seems a stretch from your thumbnail description to the finale’s Thicknesse.

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