Does the Church Still Ban Books?

By Schlumpf, Heidi | U.S. Catholic, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Does the Church Still Ban Books?


Schlumpf, Heidi, U.S. Catholic


What do Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, John Milton, and Galileo have in common? Required reading for university freshmen? Maybe. These esteemed writers, philosophers, and scientists also all had works banned by the Catholic Church on its infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum or Index of Prohibited Books. Although formally abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI, over nearly four centuries church leaders flagged more than 4,000 works as damaging to the faith or morals of Catholics and threatened excommunication for reading, publishing, selling, or even possessing them.

Such suppression seems archaic in the 21st century, but the original purpose of the Index was to safeguard the faith and morals of Catholics and to offer assistance to ordinary Christians in determining what was detrimental.

The first Roman Index, issued in 1559 by Pope Paul IV and revised a few years later by the Council of Trent, banned books deemed heretical, superstitious, and immoral or obscene, as well as entire classes of books, such as non-Catholic translations of the New Testament. Later the Talmud and other Jewish texts were added.

Canon law still recommends that Catholic works concerning scripture, theology, church history, or morality be submitted to the local ordinary for a nihil obstat ("nothing forbids") and imprimatur ("let it be printed") before publication, although in practice only a minority of books religion texts, prayer books, or other official collections--go through that process. …

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