The Roman Catholic Church's Index

By Cera Schachter

Precursors to the Creation of the Index
Lifespan of the Index
Repercussions of not Following the Index
Demise of the Index
Work Cited

Lifespan of the Index

The lifespan of the Index was around 400 years. The Index began with the Inquisition under Pope Paul IV. Pope Paul IV feared what was happening with books so he “…authorized the first list of banned books in 1557” (Haight and Grannis 1978, p.105). It is important to note that the “Index should not be confused with the Index Librorum Expurgatorius, a projected catalogue, never published, of works allowed to be read after the deletion or amendment of specified passages” (Craig 1963, p.18). Although both were used as tools for censorship the focus of this paper remains on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Once the Index was published people were forbidden to be in posession of any of the books listed on it. The Church said, “no layman may read or possess any of [the books on the list] without special permission granted only for single books and in urgent cases” (Craig 1963, p.18). By 1571 the Congregation of the Index was created by Pius V. The Congregation was “…made up of certain cardinals selected by the Pope and was charged with the work of continuing the series of Indexes and of shaping the regulations for the prohibition and supervision of books” (Putnam 1906, v.1 p.131). The reason for the creation of the Congregation was given by the Pope saying:

    ‘In order to put a stop to the circulation of pernicious opinions, and as far as practicable to bring certainty and protection to the faithful, it is our desire to bring the Index of prohibited books into a condition of completeness, so that Christians may be able to know what books it is safe for them to read and what they must avoid, and that there may be in this matter no occasion for doubt or question… Therefore we give to you or to the majority of your body, full authority and powers to take action in regard to the examination and the classification of books, and to secure for aid in such work the service of learned men, ecclesiastics and laymen, who have knowledge of theology and of the canons; and to permit or to prohibit the use of books so examined, all authority given by my predecessors to their bodies or individuals for the carrying on of the work’ (Putnam 1906, v.1 p.132).

The Church and the Congregation had the best of intentions when creating the Index. The Index was there to help the people to prevent them from getting too close to Satan’s ways as well as to prevent heresy. In practice, the Index turned out to censor books that differed from the way the Church believed a person should live their life. Now that we know how the Index was started it is important to look at what types of books made it on the list.

There needed to be rules or guidelines as to how certain books would be chosen to be on the Index. Books that were listed on the Index had to be considered obscene in some way. “The term ‘obscene’ covers those matters whether real or imaginative which arouse the lower passions. However, a publication is not to be judged obscene simply if it offends against a local convention of propriety…[rather] the obscenity must be explicit. It must be made directly and be prominent. The latter term is currently defined as dominating in a large section of the text, for example, a whole chapter” (Burke 1952, p. 23). Although this was one of the guidelines, more stringent rules started appearing to help determine more easily what books should be placed in the Index.

Books became separated into classes based on the topics they were about. These were listed in Canon 1399 and were separated into 12 separate groups. The 12 groups were separated into 3 main categories. They were religious books without Catholic censorship, books against faith and books against morals. Within the area of books without Catholic censorship there were five areas. These were editions of the bible created by a non-Catholic source as well as notes and commentaries published without the permission of the Catholic Church (1399:1 and 1399:5), books dealing with new forms of devotion or new prophecies or apparitions (1399:5), approved books of the Church that have been altered so that they no longer agree with the Church’s view (1399:10), “books which spread a knowledge of spurious indulgences” (1399:11), and any picture of God or the Virgin Mary which are not following the decrees of the Church (1399:12) (Burke 1952, p. 26). Within the area of books against faith there were four areas which included “books of any writers defending or championing heresy or schism, or attempting in any way to undermine the foundations of religion” (1399:2), books which attack good morals and religion (1399:3), “books of any non-Catholic writers which professedly treat of religion, unless it is certain they contain nothing contrary to the Catholic religion” (1399:4), and “books which: a) Attack or pour ridicule on any Catholic dogma; b) Defend errors condemned by the Holy See; c) Tend to diminish the fervor of worship; d) Seek to undermine ecclesiastical discipline; e) Have the avowed aim of insulting the ecclesiastical hierarchy or the clerical or religious state” (1399:6) (Burke 1952, p.26-7). Lastly, there were books against morals which included books that teach divination, fortune telling or magic (1399:7), “books which represent that Masonic and other similar sects are useful and not detrimental to the Church and to the State”, and books which defend obscene matters or which defend dueling, suicide or divorce (1399:8-9) (Burke 1952, p. 27). The Church became quite stringent with rules as time went on. When the Index first started, all that was listed were obscene books and then it grew to a list of 12 groups of books that were prohibited by the Catholic Church. The big question became whether or not people actually listened to the Church and chose to not read the books.

This paper was originally written in December 2006 as part of the course requirements for LIS 586: History of the Book.
It has been updated and converted to a web document to meet the requirements of LIS 600: Capping Exercise.
Created by Cera Schachter on February 27,2007.