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

Precursors to the Creation of the Index

The creation of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum started out from something good, that is the Church’s love for books. The Church knew how important books were and because of this helped with the “…painstaking manual production of books, the encouragement and aid in the development of printing, the preservation of biblical texts, the definition of liturgical texts, and the formation and guardianship of libraries” (Burke 1952, p.1). The Church has used books as a method of teaching the masses. “As is true in all teaching, the Church has had to extend a controlling hand. She exercises this control in two ways: requiring certain books be submitted for her examination and permission before publication (prior censorship), and prohibiting the publication, reading, retention, sale, or communication of bad books (prohibition of books)” (Burke 1952, p.1). This mentality had helped lead the Church in the direction of creating the Index. One of the earliest precursors to the Index “…may be said to have begun as early as 150, with an edict issued by the Council of Ephesus, in which the Acta Pauli (an unauthenticated history of the life of St. Paul) was condemned and prohibited” (Putnam 1906, v.1 p.1). The first policy written in regard to books appeared around 170 in the Muratorian Canon. This “…lists the authentic books comprising the New Testament and a group excluded from liturgical use” (Burke 1948, p.3).

From the beginning the Church influenced its followers by censoring certain books. As years went on the Church became more particular about which books were acceptable to read and which were not. “The first formal condemnation of a book…was at the Council of Nice in A.D. 325, which condemned Arius and his teachings as expressed in his book, Thalia ” (Burke 1952, p. 5). The Church’s power over the population grew, which led to stricter rules in regard to what was acceptable to read. “The first list of forbidden books was issued in the beginning of the fifth century. In A.D. 405, Innocent I sent to the Bishop of Toulouse the authentic books of the Bible and listed a number of apocryphal documents that were condemned” (Burke 1952, p. 5). The purpose of all this censorship was to protect the Church from heresy and to protect the integrity of what the Church was trying to teach the public. Some of the early Saints expressed their views very strongly in regard to what books were acceptable and what books were heretic. St. Isidore said that “…’to read books subversive of religion…is to offer incense to the devil” (John-Stevas 1962, p. 91). St. Augustine’s views were just as strong saying “’by means of immoral matter nice language is not acquired but by means of nice language immorality is learned. I do not accuse the language but the intoxicating wine of error that we drink from it’” (John-Stevas 1962, p. 91). From this point on, the Church took a stronger hold on published material and censored more books. The Gelasian Decree appeared around 496 and not only had a list of banned books but also had “…a catalogue of recommended works as well. The Decree is primarily concerned with public reading, yet it explicitly states that the condemned works are not to be used even for private study. This document expresses the basic aspect of ecclesiastical book legislation – the interest of the Church in promoting the reading of good books while, at the same time, forbidding the study of heretical works” (Burke 1952, p. 6). After the Gelasian Decree there was a break in the Church’s effort of banning books. “…[T]he dark ages supervened and reading was reduced to such a minimum level that it no longer presented any kind of threat” (John-Stevas 1962, p.92).

The huge change that led to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was the change in the way books were being produced. As the manufacturing of books increased the production of books, the Church could no longer condemn each individual book. “The deluge of printed works that swept across the Continent from Germany, Switzerland, England and the Netherlands rendered explicit condemnation of each forbidden book quite impractical” (Burke 1952, p. 6). To try and solve the new problem the Church came up with new methods to suppress heretical books. “In 1467 Innocent VIII decreed that all books must be submitted to the local Church authorities for examination and permission before being issued for general reading… The license to publish was to be printed in each book… A similar decree was issued by Leo X at the Fifth Lateran Council on May 4, 1515, and addressed to the entire world. It is the first general decree of supervisory censorship that was universally accepted” (Burke 1952 p. 6-7). Soon after this the Index was created. Although the exact reason for the creation of the Index is uncertain, one might wonder from the above evidence, as to whether or not the idea of the Index came from the mass produced books themselves. The Church could see how effective the mass production of books was on society, so it is possible that they decided to make their own mass produced book that could have the potential to reach every single person. The Index could have the potential to reach the same amount of people that other mass produced books have reached. This could have the potential to stop Catholics from reading these books since more Catholics would be learning about the immorality within the books that were listed on the Index. Now we will look at the lifespan of the Index.

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.