So Many Books, So Little Time! My Personal “Index of Forbidden Books”

A banned writer (Jean-Paul Sartre) and his liberator (Pope Paul VI) share a June 21 birthday

(photo: Register Files)

Fifty years ago last week, on June 14, 1966, Pope Paul VI abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the List of Forbidden Books. An Instruction published at the time in L'Osservatore Romano explained that while the Index maintained its moral force—in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality—it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical law with the associated penalties.

That must have been good news indeed for French existentialist philosopher and critic Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre's collective works were included on the Index in 1948, during the papacy of Pius XII. True, Sartre's metaphysical worldview was already required reading for college sophomores in Philosophy 101. When the ban on reading his work was lifted in 1966, Sartre had thousands of new Catholic readers who were left to make their own decisions about his leftist pragmatism, his sympathy for the French communist party, his embrace of individual freedom over law, of atheism over revelation.

But Pope Paul VI, in eliminating the Index during a reconfiguration of the Vatican's Holy Office into the newly organized Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did not intend that Catholics should henceforth consider the banned texts acceptable reading, without constraint. Rather, he expected that the reader would understand the Church's response to the hefty ideas contained therein.

The two—Jean-Paul Sartre (the banned writer) and Pope Paul IV (his liberator)—share a common birthday on June 21, and so have found their way into my thoughts today.

The Index: Protecting Faith and Morals Since 1546

The Index dated back to the Council of Trent, where the Council Fathers sought to protect the faith and morals of the Catholic population by preventing the reading of heretical and immoral books.

Even before that, at the Fifth Lateran Council and earlier, in the ninth century, the Church attempted to ban books which were considered inappropriate reading. And restrictions on the public's right to read have been imposed, not only by the Catholic Church, but by the Puritans in the original American Colonies.

I remember first learning about the Index at my mother's knee. In hushed tones she spoke of a neighbor, a woman who scorned the Church's guidance and dared to read the banned books. At the same time, she raised an eyebrow at the thought that some might ignore the Catholic Legion of Decency's "C" (Condemned) rating for films or its secular equivalent, the Hayes Code.

Was the Index a Good Thing?

Whether one believes today that abolishing the Index was a good idea or not depends, I suppose in part, on one's relationship with books: An avid reader who savors the printed word, who loves the personal challenge of discerning truth from falsehood, might raise an eyebrow at the thought that someone else—even Holy Mother Church—might censor his reading material. On the other hand, a busy mother might appreciate the Church's guidance in selecting classics with a strong moral message for her family's reading time. A good book, she might posit, offers the double-benefit of entertaining her children while helping her in leading them toward goodness and light.

Catholic blogger Simcha Fisher, writing from the perspective of a defender of personal freedom, seems to think the Index was a bad thing. Last week at Aleteia, Simcha wrote:

"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."

But David Mills, former executive editor of First Things and current editorial director of Ethika Politika, offered a different perspective in the Catholic Herald, insisting that "We shouldn't be ashamed of the Index." Mills opined that the very idea of book censorship sounds funny to us—raised, as we are, believing in the open marketplace of ideas and with the feeling that ideas may be good or bad but they're not really agents in the world. According to Mills,

"...the idea of an index only sounds funny to us because we don’t think of ideas as dangerous. We recognise physical infections but not intellectual ones.... In that, the advantage goes to the men who invented the Index and kept it going. They took ideas seriously. They thought some ideas would poison you just like nicotine-filled smoke and that some people who might innocently indulge should be protected from poisoning themselves."

But while Simcha (and many modern Americans) may worry that censorship is a dangerous course in our free nation, the truth is that censorship exists everywhere—and that frequently, those most determined to limit ideas are those on the left. Censorship is at play when people would ban the name of God in a public meeting, obliterate the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall, prevent schoolchildren from being exposed to the Bible in the classroom. Christian parents, in a case of right-triggered censorship, may applaud the removal of the lesbian-themed "Heather Has Two Mommies" from the elementary school library, while at the same time celebrating as a victory for free speech the inclusion of a prayer by the valedictorian at a commencement ceremony.

The heretical priest Martin Luther, whose rejection of Catholic teaching triggered the Protestant Reformation, engaged in censorship of ideas which he found incompatible with his personal worldview. Besides his inclusion into the Scriptures of the phrase “faith alone,” Luther reportedly burned St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae—his seminal survey of things social and moral and theological—as well as his other works on the nature of God and the world.

Imposing My Own Index

 Perhaps you're like me: Despite my best efforts to cull unwanted books from my shelves, there are two, perhaps three thousand titles—classics, thoughtful treatises and contemporary novels—still calling to me from their home on my library wall. In my lifetime, I will never find the time to read every book on my “To Read” list.

That sober reality is what fuels my self-imposition of a type of “Index” at my house. American rocker Frank Zappa is credited with the maxim “So Many Books, So Little Time”; and that's exactly the predicament in which I find myself. The superfluousness of great books requires a keen eye and a discerning spirit: Will spending hours on this topic, as reported by this author, be of benefit? Will my life be somehow changed, my spirit be lifted, my faith be enriched because I read this particular book and not another?

Using the yardstick of timeless truth, a novel described as “darkly comic” will probably not make it onto my reading table. The joy of reading comes in the twist of a phrase, but also in encountering new ideas and realizing the primal truths which they contain. If murder is committed, the villain must realize his sin or the victim must be exonerated and received into heavenly glory. If nonfiction, the treatise must be well organized and—this is most important!—worthy of reflection. I'm with Zappa: There is so little time.