Michael Patrick O’Brien: Catholics should celebrate, not ban, Harry Potter

(Matt Dunham | AP file photo) A first edition copy of the first Harry Potter book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone."

A recent news headline reported that a priest at a Catholic elementary in Nashville, Tennessee has banned J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books from the school library. This ban not only is bad literary judgment, but it also pointlessly attacks books full of wonderful Catholic and Christian themes and values.

A Catholic criticizing the “magical” elements of the Harry Potter books is a bit like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Catholic priest Andrew Greeley explains in “The Catholic Imagination” that, “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.”

Yes, the Harry Potter books are full of enchanting moments, but so is my life as a Catholic. I have celebrated mystical apparitions and supernatural acts at places like Guadalupe, Fatima and Lourdes. I’ve crossed myself with holy water to ward off evil and worn a St. Michael medal to channel archangelic power and grace.

Moreover, a Catholic priest has put two candles under my chin and invoked St. Blaise to preemptively protect me from throat diseases. My mother, wife and daughter were anointed with Catholic holy oil during times of illness. I have lit candles after Mass to pray for deceased or sick family members or friends.

The same good vs. evil dichotomy that pervades Catholic teaching is the life blood of the Harry Potter stories. Harry, as the “chosen one,” willingly sacrifices his life to save others and then transcends his own death to defeat the darkness of Lord Voldemort. That sure sounds like an Easter story to me.

Reminiscent of Catholic saints and martyrs, Harry’s parents, godfather, owl, mentor and his apparent nemesis (who really is an undercover ally) sacrifice themselves to help others. Even the magical house elf named Dobby fatally puts himself in harm’s way for Harry. Catholic schools taught me about John’s Gospel, which says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

What saved the infant Jesus when Herod wanted to kill him? It was an angel’s mysterious message to Joseph in a dream and Joseph’s loving response — promptly moving mother and child to Egypt. Similar “magic” or “enchantment” saved the infant Harry Potter when Voldemort tried to kill him. It was not some kind of occult incantation, but rather his mother Lily Potter’s deep love for him. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Ironically, the parochial school now implementing the Harry Potter book ban is named after St. Edward, someone who was at least mystical, if not outright magical, himself. Edward was a Catholic English king to whom many miracles were attributed. He had visions of future events and the best ways to respond. He also healed the sick, even after his death.

Thus, I must respectfully dissent from the good Nashville priest’s well-intentioned but mistaken judgment that the Harry Potter books will harm or injure any Catholic youth. I read the books with my children while they attended Catholic school. We discussed the books and put them in context as fiction, allegory and fantasy, just like we did with “The Lord of the Rings and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

All three children now are functioning, kind and productive adults. Reading the Harry Potter books did not make them dabble in the occult, but did help make them better Christians and better persons.

The Catholic Church has bigger threats to deal with than The Boy Who Lived. In fact, given that many of its problems today come from within, not from without, the church might learn a valuable lesson from a line in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Michael Patrick O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is writing a book about growing up with the monks at the old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, Utah. He blogs at http://theboymonk.com/ .