Forget Harry Potter: Let’s Talk about Madame Bovary

Not a lot of fiction works were on the _Index of Forbidden Books_, but one that *was* on the list was Gustave Flaubert’s _Madame Bovary_. Another was Victor Hugo’s _Les Miserables_ (and I know a lot of Catholics, including a lot of Traditionalists, who think very highly of Les Miz). The books on the Index, such as the King James translation of the Bible (not, as Jack Chick types try to say, the Bible in general, just that one horribly biased translation), were not completely banned or forbidden by the Church. The Index just meant that those books could not be read without proper credentials or supervision.

Flannery O’Connor speaks somewhere of how the Church is far more generous in Her own limited censorship than the laity are, how a large percentage of Catholic laity seem to want a literature so closely censored as to be what Plato describes in _The Republic_: only good and wholesome stories about people who do only good and wholesome things. O’Connor argues that this is a kind of inverse pornography, and equally evil: where pornography distorts human nature to exaggerate and glorify evil, the kind of overly moral literature many people expect is such a falsely good picture of human nature that it will lead its readers to a view of life that is as delusional as that of the pornography addict. Authentic literature needs to depict both the flaws and the strengths of human nature, to show realistic actions with realistic consequences.

O’Connor regarded _Madame Bovary_ as her favorite novel, and no less an Evangelical than Phil Vischer regards it as a clear-cut fable about the wages of sin (so much so that he based a _VeggieTale_, _Madame Blueberry_, on it). Nevertheless, _Madame Bovary_ *was* on the Index, and its author, Gustave Flaubert, was definitely a libertine and a pervert. It makes a great example because, like the _Harry Potter_ books, it can go either way. If the Index still existed, Rowling’s books might very well be on it, but only because the point of the Index was to say, “Read these books with caution,” and I’m the first to admit Rowling’s books should be read with caution.

However, to say that it’s wrong for a Catholic to ever read these books, or to say that merely owning copies of them is going to get one’s home infested with demons, is to engage in a level of censorship that the Church Herself does not support, and did not even support *before* Vatican II (maybe under the Spanish Inquisition, yes, but to that end, see St. Teresa of Avila).

We can go back and forth on the merits-and-demerits debate, or about the chess game of “whose expert trumps whose”. It would be nice if Tom Howard would have come out with something one way or the other about the books. He’s retired now, and in poor health last I spoke with him, so I doubt he has the strength to mount any kind of significant critique, if he hasn’t yet read them. However, he would be the one person whose views on literature I respect enough to assent if he said, “These are clearly evil.” Somehow, though, I’d imagine he wouldn’he t.
A few years ago on his blog, Phil Vischer noted that many of those who criticize Harry Potter today would probably have denounced Lewis and Tolkein *if they were writing today* rather than having them handed down as “good Christian literature.” I asked Vischer if that meant he approved of the books, and I shared some of my wife’s observations about the under-emphasized Christian references in them. He said he was still generally inclined to be against them too (though those were interesting points), but that he disagreed with many of the arguments raised by the anti-HP crowd, since they really could just as easily apply to all fiction. Even more so, Mark Shea pointed out when I referenced Tom Howard in a recent discussion, that many of J. K. Rowling’s critics would probably be aghast at Charles Williams!

In related news, I’ve been quoted by Mark Shea on his blog, though not by name (he was quoting something I said on Facebook):
Mark:
“A Reader Observes:”
Me:

It strikes me that the same people who
a) criticize Harry Potter for “lying for a good cause” are generally the same people who praise Lila Rose for “lying for a good cause”.
b) criticize Harry Potter for his disobedience to authority are generally the same people who support Fr. Corapi’s disobedience to authority.
c) say that condemnations of Harry Potter by Fr. Amorth and Fr. Euteneuer are dogmatic because “they’re exorcists,” but if you tell the same people that Bishop Andrea Gemma, who used to teach Exorcism at Pontifical Gregorian, says Medjugorje is Satanic and a door to the occult, they’ll tell you he’s not an authority and he’s just an evil Satanist himself, trying to undermine the Church.

Mark: “Yes, it is striking the amount of gnat-straining and camel swallowing that goes on in accordance with the Ox Gore Principle. ”

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