Figure 1. The twelve categories of Forbidden Books under Canon 1399 (Code of Canon Law Volume II, Book Three (“Of Things”), Part Four, Title XXIII, “Of the Censorship and the Prohibition of Books,” 1917; Woywod et al. 1952).

§1: Unauthorized translations of the Sacred Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate.

§2: Books including any heresy or schism attempting to destroy religious orthodoxy.

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals.

§4: Books by non-Catholics dealing in any way with religion (unless in total agreement with Catholic dogma).

§5: Books and booklets including mention of any new appearances [of saints or other divine spirits], revelations, visions, prophecies, and miracles, even under the pretext of private publication.

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way.

§7: Books engaged in any kind of superstition, fortune-telling, magic, spirit-conjuring, or other similar occult topics.

§8: Books which declare duels, suicide, or divorce as licit, or that deal with Freemasonry.

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

§10: Any later editions of liturgical books previously approved by the Holy See wherein content has been changed in a way not consistent with the authentic, approved edition.

§11: Books containing apocrypha.

§12: “Any images whatsoever of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, of the angels, or of the saints or other servants of God, which are not in harmony with the spirit and the Decrees of the Church.”

Figure 2. Chronological graph of number of books banned by the Index, 1600-1949 (Burke 1952: 52).

[image redacted due to copyright]

Figure 3. Two examples of permission forms necessary to officially read books prohibited by the Index (Ibid. 70-71).

[image redacted due to copyright]


Echoes of the Index

Considering the great preponderance of not only printed books but also all of the other forms of media already or yet-to-be disseminated since 1966 (or, more technically, since 1983, when a revised edition of the Code of Canon Law was last published), what, officially speaking or otherwise, are modern Catholics to do to keep abreast of the Church’s positions on the relative moral quality of any written or other media content? Is the Index an entirely obsolete document or does it live on in some way? What, specifically, does the current Code of Canon Law say about these issues?

After all of the documents of the Second Vatican Council were released to the world in 1966, Father Conrad De Vito summarized them in a small book for English-speaking Catholics. On the Decree on the Means of Social Communication (first promulgated on December 4, 1963), he remarked, “Catholics must promote good publications, and help in every way the apostolate of the press, produce and spread good literature, remove from circulation bad literature, and help in forming good public opinion in the matter” (1966: 20). This serves as a preview of the much less heavy-handed sentiments on these issues that were to be integrated into the new Code of Canon Law. Once the Vatican had finally succeeded in fully revising and publishing the latter by early 1983, the canons regulating literary and media censorship, 822 to 832, maintained some of the elements of the corresponding 1917 canons while also removing much of the more punitive language of that earlier edition. Most importantly, however, is the omission of the contents of the 1917 Code’s Canon 1399 and its twelve sections on “bad” classes of books. Instead, the new eleven canons dealing with “books in particular” can be summarized quite simply as follows: All published texts on religion or theology, particularly works on the Bible, should be Church-approved. Assumedly, the pre-publication process listed above still stands towards this end and the post-publication process has been abolished, ipso facto (of course), along with the Index itself.

Walsh offers a comprehensive review of the Catholic Church’s policies on censorship of newer media, particularly covering the phenomenon of the rise of motion pictures and their complex role in American society. By the 1920s there was a concerted effort among Catholic watchdog groups such as the Legion of Decency, the National Catholic Welfare Conference (and its newspaper The Bulletin), the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and others to censor films deemed inappropriate for Catholics. Their aims were also to “stimulate the studios to reform” (1996: 2, 11, 30-33). The Catholic News Service (CNS), founded in 1920 by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, “is the primary source of national and world news that appears in the U.S. Catholic press. It is also a leading source of news for Catholic print and broadcast media throughout the world” (2015). Today it is perhaps best known for its reviews of feature-length films.

At present, the Catholic News Service classifies motion pictures as follows:

  • A-I: acceptable for general patronage;
  • A-II: acceptable for adults and adolescents;
  • A-III: for adults only;
  • A-IV: for adults only, with reservations (this indicates films that, while not morally offensive in themselves, are not for casual viewing because they require some analysis and explanation in order to avoid false impressions and interpretations);
  • L: for limited adult audiences only; films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling (replaced A-IV classification Nov. 1, 2003);
  • O: morally offensive.

Of the fifteen most recent films reviewed on the site (in May of 2015), two are rated A-I (1 rated G; 1 PG), four A-II (3 PG; 1 not rated), six A-III (3 PG; 1 R), zero for either A-IV or L, and three O (all rated R). We can see that there is a rough correspondence between the CNS ratings and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings, but it is by no means exact. All of the films rated O by the CNS contain at least some element of sexuality, although issues of general moral turpitude in a film’s plot seem to be the strongest hermeneutic, as seen in this recent review by Kurt Jensen of the film The D Train: “[It] is presumably intended to be a droll comedy about the pursuit of fame and the vagaries of sexual experimentation. What it amounts to instead is a consistently cynical, occasionally depraved exercise in strained humor” (2015). How this judgment compares to those of other, non-Catholic reviewers is obviously a matter of each one’s subjective tastes and personal and/or professional moral guidelines. But the CNS, as an entity ostensibly sanctioned by the Catholic Church itself, is clearly within its rights to decree definitively on matters of faith and morals for the practical application of Catholic moviegoers.

CNS does not provide any reviews of books.

In an article dated May 11, 1966, The Christian Century reported,

The practical problems of maintaining a centrally governed Index of Forbidden Books have been made insuperable by the sheer bulk of printed material in our time. In addition the Roman Catholic Church tried earnestly in Vatican Council II to come abreast of the modern world in an openness to all knowledge and in its recognition of the increasing maturity and sophistication of Roman Catholic laymen. Censorship will of course continue in a few of the church’s national episcopal conferences and, according to Cardinal Ottaviani, communist publications are automatically proscribed by canon law. This leaves Roman Catholics who want complete freedom to know much to rejoice about and much to hope for. (608-609).

In this year, 1966, the Congregation of the Holy Office was also renamed the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith (Marthaler et al. 2003: 391), which it remains to this day. While this marks a clear milestone of how the Church would proceed in matters of literary censorship, these new policies would not be written into the Code of Canon Law until its next edition was published almost 17 years later, on January 25th, 1983. These revisions had been called for prior to Vatican II in 1959 by Pope John XXIII. In his foreword to this latest edition — for the first time published simultaneously in English translation from the Latin — Pope John Paul II comments, “This mark of collegiality by which the process of this Code’s origin was prominently characterised, is entirely in harmony with the teaching authority and the nature of the Second Vatican Council” (xii). In this spirit of modern reform, it is of considerable note that the number of canons, in total, was reduced from the 2,414 of the 1917 edition to 1,752 in 1983, a decrease of more than 27%.

Whether the Catholic Church has acknowledged it directly or more circuitously via the watchword of “pastoralism,” it has at least partially caught up with the sweeping tide of egalitarian reform throughout the West over the last one-hundred years or so. Even such an ancient, conservative institution now agrees, it seems, through its administrative actions and legislation, that it is wiser to leave many of the finer details of practice up to its adherents themselves, including those related to what they should and should not read. As Kugelmann notes, “All kinds of gatekeepers say imprimi potest, it can be printed: publishers, governments, religious institutions, peer reviewers of professional journals. The work of the gatekeepers is censorship. Censors strive variously to maintain a truth, an orthodoxy, a morality, the boundaries of a profession” (2014: 74-75). The Church may likely never allow for its dogma to be compromised, especially in regards to controversial issues such as divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and the use of contraception. But in light of the the ever-expanding flood of information that defines much of modern life, it has learned to pick its battles and thus has shifted to a much more pragmatic role as spiritual guide and sanctuary to the estimated 1.2 billion people who, according to a 2013 study by the BBC, identify as Catholics.