Books Banned by the Catholic Church


[Excerpted from Catholic History, which was published (or re-published) as part of The Catholic Miscellany, Murphy & McCarthy, New York, 1895.]

 

Since the dawn of civilization, the perception of the influence for good or evil exerted by books has induced the authorities of every strongly constituted State to control their circulation. Not to search for other instances, the speech which Livy puts in the mouth of consul Postumius (B. C. 186) shows the sternness of Roman thinking on the subject. Addressing the assembled people in forum, and about to denounce the foul Bacchic rites of which he had discovered the trace, "How often," he says, "in the time of our fathers and grandfathers, was the duty imposed on the magistrates of forbidding the practice of foreign rites; of driving away [foreign] priests and prophets from every corner of the city; of searching for and burning books of magic; of putting a stop to every system of sacrificing that was not according to the custom of Rome!" In Christian times the danger of bad books was recognized from the first. The converts at Ephesus (Acts xix. 19) voluntarily brought their magical books to St. Paul and cast them into the flames. One of the Apostolic Canons (lx.) orders the deposition of any one in the ranks of the clergy who should publish in the Church as holy, "the falsely inscribed books of the impious." The practice of the primitive Church in condemning and suppressing heretical or dangerous books was uniform. The erroneous writings of Origen were brought to the Roman Pontiff, Pontianus, to be condemned by him; Leo the Great by letter suppressed and prohibited the books of the Priscillianists. Descending to the middle ages, we find Leo IX in a synod at Vercelli (1050) condemning and ordering to be burnt the writings of Erigena and Berengarius on the Eucharist. The Council of Constance (1415) ordered all the books of John Huss to be publicly burnt at the council, and that all bishops should make diligent search for copies and burn them wherever found. Leo X. in the bull Exsurge, Domine (1520), condemned the earlier heretical writings of Luther. The invention of printing, and the extension of Facilities of communication between State and State, made it evident to the hierarchy that if the influence of books was to be kept under control, new methods must be adopted. When copies of books were slowly multiplied by the labor of scribes, it was sufficient to await their publication before examining them, and trust to being able, if they were to be suppressed, to call in, get hold of, and cancel the few copies in circulation. But when the printing press could turn out a thousand copies of a work in a few days, everything was changed. It then became necessary that the books should be examined before they were printed; censors were appointed, and a system of licensing came into force. "The first known instance of the regular appointment of a censor on books is in the mandate of Berthold, archbishop of Mentz, in 1486;" and a few years later, in 1501, "a bull of Alexander VI, reciting that many pernicious books had been printed in various parts of the world, and especially in the provinces of Mentz, Cologne, Treves, and Magdeburg, forbade all printers in these provinces to publish any book without the license of the archbishop or their officials."

In the movement of what is called the Reformation, a deluge of books containing doctrine more or less erroneous was poured over Europe, and it became evident that if booksellers were to know with certainty what they might sell, and the Christian faithful what they might read, it would not do to trust to an "imprimatur" on the title page, which might be forged, or come from Protestant censors; but that a list or catalogue of books condemned by the Church must be drawn up and published. The matter was taken up by the Council of Trent (sess. xviii.), which appointed a commission of some of its members to collect and examine the censures already issued, and consider and report on the steps which it was advisable to take about books generally. This commission compiled an Index of Prohibited Books accordingly; but the Council in its last session (1563), finding that from the multiplicity of details it was not desirable to frame any conciliar decision, remitted the whole matter to the Pope. In conformity with this reference St. Pius V, a few years later, erected the Sacred Congregation of the Index, with a Dominican friar for its secretary. Sixtus V confirmed and enlarged their powers.

"The Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books consists of a competent number of Cardinals, according to the good pleasure of the Pope, and has a secretary taken from the Order of Preachers, and a great number of theological and other professors who are called Consultors, the chief of whom is the Master of the Apostolic Palace [CURIA ROMANA], the primary and official Consultor of this Congregation."5

A Constitution of Benedict XIV (1753) gives minute instructions as to the principle and methods to be observed by the Congregation in its work of examining and judging books. Some idea of these principles may be gained from the following paragraph. "Let them know that they must judge of the various opinions and sentiments in any book that comes before them, with minds absolutely free from prejudice. Let them, therefore, dismiss patriotic leanings, family affections, the predilections of school, the esprit de corps of an institute; let them put away the zeal of party; let them simply keep before their eyes the decisions of Holy Church, and the common doctrine of Catholics, which is contained in the decrees of General Councils, the Constitutions of the Roman Pontiffs, and the consent of orthodox Fathers and Doctors; bearing this in mind, moreover, that there are not a few opinions which appear to one school, institute, or nation to be unquestionably certain, yet nevertheless are rejected and impugned, and their contradictories maintained, by other Catholics, without harm to faith and religion all this being with the knowledge and permission of the Apostolic See, which leaves every particular opinion of this kind in its own degree of probability."

Numerous editions of the Index have appeared from time to time. That issued under Benedict XIV (Rome, 1744) contains between nine and ten thousand entries of books and authors, alphabetically arranged; of these about one third are cross references. Prefixed to it are the ten rules sanctioned by the Council of Trent, of which the tenor is as follows. The first rule orders that all books condemned by Popes or General Councils before 1515 which were not contained in that index, should be reputed to be condemned in such sort as they were formerly condemned. The second rule prohibits all the works of heresiarchs, such as Luther and Calvin, and those works by heretical authors which treat of religion; their other works to be allowed after examination. The third and fourth rules relate to versions of the Scripture, and define the classes of persons to whom the reading of the Bible in the vulgar tongue maybe permitted. The fifth allows the circulation, after expurgation, of lexicons and other works of reference compiled by heretics. The sixth relates to books of controversy. The seventh orders that all obscene books be absolutely prohibited, except ancient books written by heathens, which were tolerated "propter sermonis elegantiam et proprietatem," but were not to be used in teaching boys. The eighth rule is upon methods of expurgation. The ninth prohibits books of magic and judicial astrology; but "theories and natural observations published for the sake of furthering navigation, agriculture, or the medical art, are permitted." The tenth relates to printing, introducing, having, and circulating books. Persons reading prohibited books incur excommunication forthwith (statim).

Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Cranmer, Jewel, etc., are named as in the first class i.e., as, heresiarchs. Among books of more or less note are named the Dialogo of Galileo, the Satire Menippée, the Anti-Coton, and the Augustinus of Jansenius. Among the English authors whose works are prohibited occur the names of James I. Barclay, Usher; bishops Sanderson, Bull, and Pearson; Cave and Hobbes; but not Hooker, nor Milton, nor Chillingworth, nor Bunyan, nor Swift.



 

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