Taking a look at the 'Index of Prohibited Books'
Friday, Nov. 10, 2017
During the Pastoral Congress at the Skaggs Catholic Center in September, I participated in a session that met in the school library. On exhibit were two tables of books that had been banned over the years by various churches, school districts and governmental bodies. A yellow “Police Line, Do Not Cross” tape was wrapped around the whole thing. The only title I can remember was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but most of the others were also works of classic status. I thought, “That librarian is a genius! What better way to get kids reading great books than by telling them they can’t?” During my own rebellious youth, a prohibition like that would have been catnip.
It all got me thinking about our own church’s unfortunate experiment with censorship, the infamous Index of Prohibited Books. Created in the 1550s by Pope Paul IV, the Index was part of the Counter-reformation’s effort to steer Catholics away from the myriad of Protestant publications being cranked out by the newly invented printing press, as well as other literature deemed to be heretical. It was the same kind of inclination to purify the Church that the Inquisition represented.
The Index continued to be maintained for the next 400 years until another Paul, Pope Paul VI, abolished it in 1966. Through its various editions during that period, the list continually changed, as the Church, for example, reconciled itself to new scientific ideas like the heliocentrism of Copernicus and Galileo and removed their writings from the list. Others, however, were added: During the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the works of some of the philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau made the list.
The Diocese of Salt Lake City Archives has the 1930 edition of the Index once owned by Bishop Duane G. Hunt, as well as a 1925 booklet explaining the Index, which was once owned by Msgr. James Claffey. Taken together, they offer a fascinating glimpse into one aspect of the Church as it once was.
Thumbing through the Index, my first impression is how far I have to go into its 563 pages before I find any author or title that I even recognize. Most of the forbidden writings seem to be obscure theological essays published in Latin (obscure, at least, to one like myself untrained in theology). There are very few titles indeed that one could expect to pull off the shelf at Barnes & Noble today. And there are some oddities: Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia, which anticipated the evolutionary theory of his grandson Charles, is on the list, but none of Charles’s much more famous – and provocative – writings.
How did a book get placed on the list? Throughout most of its history, the Congregation of the Index examined suspect works and made recommendations to the pope, though the pope of course could act on his own. Presumably, books were removed by means of a similar process of re-examination.
And what was the penalty for reading a forbidden book? For purposes of scholarship, a prospective reader could always apply to his bishop for a dispensation; for all others, the reading of a substantial part of a condemned book was a mortal sin.
Censorship of any kind is generally abhorrent to modern democratic societies, and we can applaud Paul VI’s abolition of the Index. Although the titles on the 1930 edition, with few exceptions, would not have cut into my own reading list very seriously, getting rid of the Index removes one more stick that critics of the Church have used to attack us, and helps move the Church into the modern world.
Gary Topping is the Diocese of Salt Lake City archivist.