A Brief History

The Catholic Index of Forbidden Books was definitively compiled Church-wide starting around 1600 and semi-regularly published in Latin (and sometimes in translation) over, approximately, the next three hundred and fifty years. Its process was regulated in accordance with various canons (religious laws) regulating the Church’s official policies on printed literature, which I will explain a little later. Before they were consolidated into one master Index, various subsets of the Church such as the Universities of Paris and Louvain and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions had independently published their own indices of forbidden books throughout the sixteenth century. Finally, after almost four hundred years, as a result of the reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Index and its official mechanisms were officially decommissioned in 1966.

The Catholic Church — “not a static organism except in doctrine” (Lee 1958: 2) — is obviously at its heart a religious institution. But it is also a polity. It even has and is its own sovereign nation-state in the form of tiny (0.17 square-mile) Vatican City (also known as the Holy See), a current non-member observer state in the United Nations General Assembly since 1964. And while Catholics can be found in most nations of the world, it wasn’t always the case that the Catholic Church and a given national government were by any means separate. In fact, during the Index’s apex of influence, around 1700, states such as Spain, France, and the various kingdoms and principalities of Italy (including, of course, the full theocracy of the Papal States) were inextricably tied to the Vatican and its ecclesiastical rulings. Therefore, the institutionalized power of the Index over the literate societies of the era cannot be overstated. It was extremely important for the individuals within Catholic-majority states to be perceived as orthodox in their adherence to and practice of the predominant religion. And while literacy was by no means universal during this period, the Index and other decrees of the Vatican were well-organized attempts to control individual behaviors and actions in a world increasingly awash with alternate viewpoints and conflicting ideas. Throughout the centuries since Johann Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1450, literacy rose dramatically with the heightened availability of books, undermining the authority of not only the Catholic Church but autocracies worldwide.

In a 1952 primer, Father Redmond A. Burke, then director of libraries at DePaul University in Chicago, emphasized that the Index “[was] not and was never designed to be a complete catalogue of forbidden literature…[it] is merely a list of condemned books by the Holy See in response to specific requests submitted by persons throughout the world” (46). This might be an understatement. The distinction between outright condemnation and general disapproval is a nuanced one with many implications for the policies that ultimately had (and may still have) an impact on the Church and, in turn, on the behavior and attitudes of many millions of devout Catholics and their affiliated institutions. But in essence, we can understand the Index to be an attempt to reconcile doctrine with the complexities of everyday life in a literate society. So while the Church could never effectively litigate in a concrete sense based on one’s writing or reading a work on the Index, the mark of disapproval could affect individuals’ reputations, especially if they wished to consider themselves Catholics in good standing.

The historian Sachiko Kusukawa comments that “censorship did not suddenly begin with the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. Lists of forbidden books could be traced throughout history to the early Christian times” (1999). Certain unauthorized religious works as well as unvetted books of the Bible that were deemed by the early Church as either contrary to dogma or historically incorrect, known as anathema and apocrypha, respectively, were regularly condemned and burned. It was not until 1469, however, that Pope Innocent VIII called for all books to be censored by local Church authorities (i.e., “ordinaries,” usually bishops) (Marthaler et al. 2003: 390). It is not a coincidence, of course, that the emergence of this formalized censorship coincides almost exactly with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press less than twenty years earlier. The spread of Protestantism after 1517, bolstered by the speed and ease of publication that the movable-type press system facilitated, would prove a major catalyst for the augmenting and hardening of Church policy on censorship as well. Maria Luisa Ambrosini adds, “The Index…was not a new policy, but the updating and implementing of an old one to meet the new danger of Protestantism” (1969: 239). From around this time, then, and even up until the present day in the case of official and some semi-official documents published by the Vatican, the proper protocols and permissions were required for a book to be considered free of doctrinal and moral error in the view of the Church.

The “first general decree of supervisory censorship” was not universally accepted by the Church until May 4, 1515. This was a product of the Fifth Lateran Council under the pontificate of Leo X, which “formed a complete and developed book legislation which remained in force for the next three hundred years” (Burke 1952: 7). In 1559, under Pius IV, the Roman Office of the Inquisition published a first edition of what would later become the Index, though there was much here that was still disputed (Lee 1958: 5). From the proceedings of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) emerged the new Index of Rome in 1564. The governing body of this project, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, was soon after established in 1571 “to handle all matters concerning the Church control of literature” (Burke 1952: 7). As mentioned above, by about 1600 the Index as we know it was fully formed as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. While the mid-eighteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the process undergo some significant and long-lasting reforms, the Congregation of the Index was not drastically altered in its functions or title until it was re-merged with the Congregation of the Holy Office (the successor to the Roman Office of the Inquisition mentioned above) in 1917. This date also coincides with the publication of a revised edition of the Code of Canon Law, the second to most recent next to 1983’s.

Una M. Cadegan remarks, “By 1917 Roman Catholicism was into its fifth century of opposition to many elements constitutive of political and cultural modernity in the West, including the individualist orientation and anti-hierarchical critique advanced by Reformation Protestantism…” (2013: 3). Among Protestants, Catholicism’s purported trends towards corruption and repression had been openly criticized since the Saxon monk Martin Luther famously posted his soon-to-be-viral “95 Theses” — he literally mailed them to a colleague and likely never nailed them on the door of All Saint’s Cathedral in Wittenberg as the legend maintains — on October 31st, 1517. Though originally Luther was most specifically protesting the practice of selling indulgences, breaking down authoritarian power over all religious matters and individualizing devotion was his ultimate target. Centuries later, in 1840, the Anglican Joseph Mendham would write of “the damnatory and proscriptive provisions of Rome,” which “for her own heterodox and immortal literature, is one of the best weapons put in the hands of her opponents for its exposure and ultimate demolition” (xi). Even more recently, around 1930, as the publication of the then-latest edition of the Index continued to vex critics of Catholic autocracy, the British ex-priest and Catholic scholar Joseph McCabe framed his polemic in widely historical — and sarcastic — terms:

I do not mean that the Index has made no progress since the days when the Popes and cardinals and monks were so rudely disturbed in their prayers and amours by the Lutheran earthquake…The legendary wizard Merlin is no longer represented as an author from whose books we need to be protected by a sage authority. (1931: 5)

Despite these calls for its demise, the Index was published once more in 1948. The final condemnation of any work, Jean Steinmann’s La Vie de Jesus, was decreed as late as 1959 (Marthaler et al. 2003: 391).

The latest edition of the The New Catholic Encyclopedia gives a forthright summary of the Index’s demise: “[I]t was considered to be contrary to the teaching of Vatican II concerning freedom of inquiry” (Ibid.: 389-90). Thus, as the Church very consciously transitioned from its unapologetically authoritarian role of previous centuries, it has increasingly embraced a tone of reconciliation with the world at large and its multifarious ideas and perspectives, while nevertheless maintaining its claims to orthodoxy. This policy has generally been framed under the Vatican II-era watchword of “pastoralism” (McBrien et al. 1989: 62). Currently, Pope Francis, with his charismatic, outgoing persona and active Twitter accounts in multiple world languages, can be seen as particularly representative of this modernizing shift in the Church’s public policy towards one of benevolent guidance and support as opposed to the strict remonstrances of the past. Nevertheless, the Index lives on: Cardinal A. Ottaviani, Pro-Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, effectively hedged the Church’s bets on June 14, 1966 when he wrote, “…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. But, at the same time, it no longer has the force of ecclesiastical law with the attached censure” (xx).


The Process

As is the case of all policies of the Catholic Church, the Index was regulated by the Code of Canon Law. At the latest stage of the Index’s existence, the specific canons that regulated the censorship and prohibition of books fell under Volume II, Book Three (“Of Things”), Part Four, Title XXIII (“Of the Censorship and the Prohibition of Books”) of the 1917 Code. Specifically, the following fourteen canons under that title were of essence: 1385, 1386, 1391, and 1395-1405 (Woywod 1952, Vol. II:  141-152). An additional canon, 2318 (Vol. II, Book Five, Part Three, Title XI), dictated in no uncertain terms the punishment for any violation of the other fourteen canons: ipso facto excommunication from the Church (Ibid.: 514-516). This was equally reserved for any authors, publishers, distributors, sellers, readers, and even keepers of the titles listed on the Index – “those who defend, or knowingly and without the necessary permission read or keep these works or others prohibited by name in Apostolic decrees” (Index Librorum Prohibitorum 1930: xx). How these strict punishments were actually administered leaves much to the imagination and, again, is beyond the scope of this book.

In his foreword to the 1930 English-language translation of the Index’s 1900 edition, the general tone of the Vatican at that moment in history is elaborated by the secretary (also known as prefect) of the Congregation of the Holy Office. Undoubtedly responding to the onslaught of criticism that the Church faced in this arena, Prefect Cardinal Merry Del Val defended the ongoing need for censorship: “[It cannot be] affirmed…that the condemnation of evil books represents a violation of liberty, a war against the light of truth, and that the Index of Prohibited Books constitutes a permanent conspiracy against the progress of literature and science” (Ibid.: vi). He adds, in similarly abstruse terms, “Only those afflicted with that moral pestilence known as liberalism can look on the barriers erected by the legitimate authority against licence in the light of an attack on the free-will of the individual — as though man, inasmuch as he is master of his own actions, were thereby authorised always to do exactly what he wishes” (Ibid.: vii). A quick glance at the final 1948 edition of the Index shows that the patently reactionary sentiments of its author remain entirely unchanged after 18 years (v-xii).

Canon 1399 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law details the twelve categories of books that are forbidden. These categories range from unauthorized translations of the Sacred Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate (§1), to books by non-Catholics dealing in any way with religion (unless in total agreement with Catholic dogma) (§4), to books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way (§6), to “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” (§12) (Woywod 1951: Vol. II, 152). In total, these twelve canonical proscriptions were the basis of all decisions made regarding the status of any book reported as suspect. See APPENDIX, Figure 3 for a list of all twelve pertinent canons.

The processes of reviewing texts fell under two separate scenarios: 1.) books submitted by Catholic authors for approval before publication and 2.) books referred to the Church under suspicion of violating dogma in some way. The official permissions of Imprimi Potest (“it can be printed,” given by an ordinary (bishop) for books written by members of religious orders), Nihil Obstat (“nothing hindering,” given by a Church censor), and Imprimatur (“may it be printed,” by a cardinal) were to be placed at the front of any published work to be considered fully sanctioned by the Catholic Church as free of doctrinal or moral error.

In the first situation, that of pre-publication, any author wishing to receive approval on a work would first submit it to the local ordinary, usually the bishop of his or her diocese. Burke reviews this first process and cites canons 1384 (explanation of the rationale behind censorship), 1385 (the specification of which classes of works must be examined), and 1393 (the protocol of submitting unpublished works for review) as of particular essence (1952: 9-18). Diocesan examiners, also called censors of books (censores librorum), were the clergy or laymen responsible for performing examinations on behalf of a diocesan ordinary (Ibid.: 16). If a decision was made in the affirmative, the ordinary would then proffer his Imprimatur and the book could be published. Otherwise, errors must be corrected and the work re-submitted to the examination process. Or the work could be sent to an alternate ordinary as long as the prior refusal was also mentioned. Despite this due diligence, Burke includes the caveat that a “verdict of diocesan consent is not to be considered as infallible” (Ibid.: 18). As in all cases, the Vatican and specifically the Pope always had the authority to sustain or veto rulings.

As for published texts referred to the Church under suspicion of doctrinal or moral flaws, the mechanisms in place were no less articulated. These mechanisms also imply a much closer collaboration with Church representatives at the level of the Vatican. Canons 1395, 1397, and 1404 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law in particular legislated the protocols for determining whether a book should be condemned to the Index. If we continue to follow Father Burke’s assessment, there were a total of ten distinct steps leading up to a condemnation since the process was reformed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1752 (Cadegan 2013: 96-97).

A given book was first referred by a concerned cleric or laic (Catholic layperson) to his or her local bishop (ordinary). The ordinary then referred it to consultors (censors) under the cardinals of the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome. Two consultors of this “Preparation Congregation” were then assigned to study the work. It would then be forwarded on to a subject specialist in the work’s field, who would submit a printed report on his or her findings back to the Preparation Congregation, including lengthy extracts from the work in question. A discussion would then ensue among all the consultors of the Preparation Congregation based on this report, leading to a condemnation (with which a second subject-specialist must also agree). The facts of the case were then laid before the cardinals of the Congregation of the Holy Office; if he agreed, the Pope would decree the condemnation. The author of the condemned work would have the option to submit to the decree and make the necessary changes, but should he or she refuse, the decree would be published in an Acta Apostolicae Sedis and thus the work would be entered into the register of those to be included on the subsequent edition(s) of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Burke 1952: 19-42).

As in any hierarchical bureaucracy, so too did the Vatican operate under a well-documented (if highly confidential), codified, and collaborative system of checks and balances, all leading up to a published document, the Index itself (and its translations), the contents of which — at least in theory — were to be disseminated throughout the Catholic world in order to distinguish between “good” and “bad” types of reading.