Fifty years ago today, Pope Paul VI abandoned the notorious Index of Prohibited Books — or, rather, he issued a notification that it “no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties.”
The Index was established to warn the faithful against books that could harm their faith or morals. Catholics were forbidden to read these books without permission, under pain of mortal sin. Twenty different versions of the Index were promulgated, the first in 1559 and the last in 1948, and they included works of science, philosophy, and mathematics, as well as fiction and certain translations of the Bible that were considered unreliable. A good many of the books that appeared on the Index are now considered foundational scholarly works, and are taught in Catholic schools.
When Pope Paul VI made the Index into a guide, rather than a prohibitive law, the titles on it were not suddenly declared blameless and worthy of reading. The Church simply told the laity that it was now their responsibility to figure out which books they should and should not read. Pope Paul VI said that the Index “remains morally binding, in light of the demands of natural law, in so far as it admonishes the conscience of Christians to be on guard for those writings that can endanger faith and morals.”
A few things you might not know about the Index:
–The Divine Mercy diaries of Sister Faustina were, at one point, placed on the Index (at least in part because there were some unreliable translations circulating), but were later taken off.
–Catholic authors were given the chance to correct, edit, or defend their works if they didn’t want their books to be on the list.
In France it was French officials who decided what books were banned and the Church’s Index was not recognized. Spain had its own Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which corresponded largely to the Church’s, but also included a list of books that were allowed once the forbidden part (sometimes a single sentence) was removed or “expurgated.”
In the Holy Roman Empire book censorship, which preceded publication of the Index, came under control of the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century, but had little effect, since the German princes within the empire set up their own systems.
Retroactive outrage over the Index is similar to when modern progressives are shocked, shocked at the brutality of the Israelites in the Old Testament — as if the Babylonians or Assyrians were tolerant and peaceable, and it was only those awful Ten Commandment types who got hung up on sex and religion and war. Maintaining an index of forbidden books was a fairly terrible idea, but it wasn’t nearly as shocking to contemporaneous people as it sounds to 21st-century readers.
One final thought: We love to guffaw at the cowering sheeple of the Church, so oppressed and fearful that they would let their intellects be hobbled with such brutal censorship. Imagine, letting someone tell you what you can and cannot read! Imagine, being so fearful of words on the page that you’d refuse to even lift the cover, for fear that what was written inside would taint or warp your moral standards and your intellect.
Imagine being too prejudiced and intellectually blinded to read Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness, or even something called I Dared to Call Him Father. Imagine passionately arguing that an entire class of writers should be rejected.
Nah, that would never happen. Nowadays, we think for ourselves! We’re open minded! We’re not afraid of books anymore.
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My take? The Index was a very bad thing, and it’s much more in keeping with a developed understanding of conscience for the faithful to make their own decisions about what to read.
At the same time, it would be a very good thing if the faithful had a clearer understanding that they do have a duty to make careful decisions about what to read.