You Must Not Read This!

        Younger readers may never have heard of the Index of Forbidden Books. (1)   But those of us who lived before the Second Vatican Council will remember what it meant when someone said, "That book is on the Index." Any book on the Index was dangerous and forbidden to a good Catholic.

        Yet most Catholics, including the clergy, have never seen a  copy of the famous (infamous to some) Index of Forbidden Books. It was with perseverance that I was  able to procure and study the 1938 edition of this work. In the course of over 500 pages several thousand forbidden books are listed in detail.  The text is in Latin with an Italian introduction by Cardinal Merry del Val first written in 1929.  It is published by the Vatican. (2)

        One of the reasons why we do not hear about the Index of Forbidden Books today is that its publication came to a rather inglorious end in 1966 when Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Sacred Congregation of the Faith, declared that there would be no further editions of the Index. (The latest edition was in 1948.)  Yet Catholics are not so easily off the hook as far as the books on the Index are concerned.  The New Catholic Encyclopedia  admonishes that,  "This does not mean, however, that whatever has been contained on the Index is now automatically permitted reading for all Catholics." (page 435)

        What kind of dangers lurked beneath the pages of these forbidden books?  After all, the banning of books in our liberal tradition of freedom of expression and investigation seems quite undemocratic and runs counter to  values we Americans hold dear. For centuries, however, the church as "custodian of divine revelation" felt bound in duty to protect the faithful from everything that would endanger faith or morals.

Historical overview.

        As early as the Council of Nicea (325 AD) the writings of the heretic Arius were condemned. By the fifth century lists of books both recommended and condemned were promulgated by the church.  By the 15 th century, with the onset of printing, books were already proliferating throughout Europe.  The writings of Wycliff, Jan Hus, Calvin and other reformers were condemned.

        In 1546 the Council of Trent addressed the problem of the printed word head on. Books on religious subjects would henceforth need an "imprimatur" (In Latin, "It may be printed"). In 1559 the first Roman Index of Forbidden Books was issued by Pope Paul IV. It was later revised in 1564.

        Subsequent revisions of the Index occurred in 1596, 1664, 1753, and 1757. Following the First Vatican Council there was a further revision by Pope Leo XIII in 1900.  Under Pope Benedict XV there was a complete revision of the Code of Canon  Law of the church in 1917 that laid down extensive rules for the publishing and reading of books. The last edition of the Index dates from 1948. Some works were added even after this date.

        Here is a general overview of what one can find in the Index of Forbidden Books.

        - Theological works  (the greatest number of works fall into this category)
        - Philosophical works, including economics, the political and social sciences
        - Historical works
        - Literary works: novels and romances
        - Certain travelogues
        - A few works in the above categories by women authors
        - A handful  by Protestant or Jewish writers

        In some cases the complete works of an author  are condemned. (3)    Here are some examples of authors whose total output is condemned:

        Author                                             Year condemned

        René Descartes                                          1663
        Thomas Hobbes                                         1703
        François Voltaire                                        1804
        David Hume                                               1827
        Emile Zola                                                  1898
        Maurice Maeterlinck                                   1914
        Anatole France                                           1922
        Jean-Paul Sartre                                         1948
        Alberto Moravia                                         1952
        André Gide                                                 1922

        In other instances only selected works of an author are condemned.

        Here are a few theological works that are condemned:

       Jansenius    -     "Augustinus"                      1654
       Antoine Arnauld  (father and son)                1655 (20 works)
       The Book of Common Prayer                     1714
       Alfred Loisy - six works                              1932
       Abbé Lamennais - seven works including his translation of  the New
                the New Testament with commentary.
        James Duggan                 1898          "Steps Toward Reunion"
                (a work on ecumenism)
        Princess Carolyn-Elizabeth Sayn-Wittgenstein - two of her 24-volume "Causes Intérieuresde la Faiblesse Extérieure de l'Eglise en 1870."  (Ironically the mistress of Franz Liszt had the last word in spite of this condemnation:  she is buried in the German Cemetery within the very walls of the Vatican itself. (Cimiterio Teutonica)
        Luisa Piccareta - three works concerning her "revelations"  (1938)

        Here are some authors of works on philosophy, economics, political science, etc. who
        are condemned:

        Francis Bacon
        Henri Bergson - three works
        Auguste Comte
        Immanuel Kant - "Critique of Pure Reason"
        John Locke - "An Essay on Human Understanding"
        Blaise Pascal - "The Provinical Letters" and "Pensées" (only the edition with notes by Voltaire)
        Jean-Jacques Rousseau - "The Social Contract" and "Emile"
        Michel Montaigne - Essays
        Alphonse Lamartine - three works  (Yet the Catholic Encyclopedia notes of him that "no poet has sung of God with more Christian love than he in his earliest work... But at every period he loved to see the Creator through the transparent veil of the creature.")
        Justus Lipsius of Louvain - Christian humanist who converted to Lutheranism only to return to the church later in life. He once escaped condemnation of his work by accepting that torture could be a legitimate last resort to bring back heretics.
        John Stuart Mill - "Principles of Political Economy"
        Diderot and d'Alembert - French encyclopedists
        Charles Louis de Montesquieu - "The Spirit of the Laws" (a work that greatly influenced Jefferson, Hamilton and John Jay)
        Virginia Paganini - "Moral and Practical Guide for a Mother of the People" (1891)

 Certain historical works on the Index.

        Edward Gibbon - "History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire"
      Pierre Larousse -  17 volume "Grand  Dictionnaire Universel du 19ème Siècle"
        Charles Maurras - "Action Française"
        Dr. Auge-Louis Hesnard
        Daniel Defoe - "Political History of the Devil"
        Oliver Goldsmith -  "History of England"
        Rafaele Ciocci - "A Narrative of the Iniquities and Barbarities Practiced in Rome in the 19 th Century" (1845)
        Luigi Pianciani -  "Rome of the Popes" (1860)
        Mathilda Marchot - "Truth on the Condition at Loigny in the Diocese of Chartres" (1890)

Literary Works and Belles Lettres.

        Also included in this category are romances (4) especially those that are considered to be "sensual, libidinous or lascivious." (5)

        Heinrick Heine - works
        Gustave Flaubert - "Madame Bovary"
        Victor Hugo -  "Les Misérables" "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"
        Stendhal - all love stories
        Honoré Balzac - all love stories
        Amantine Lucille Aurore Dudevant (George Sand) - all love stories
        Alexandre Dumas (father and son) - all love stories
        Jean de Lafontaine - tales, fables, verses, etc.
        Gabriel Rosetti - four works

Voyages and travelogues.

        Lady Morgan Sydney -  "Italy - a Journal of a Residence in That Country Exhibiting a View of the State of Society, etc." 1822
        Charlotte Ann Waldie -  "Rome in the 19 th Century in a Series of Letters Written During a  Residence in Rome 1817-1818."
        Michael Hobart Seymour - "A Pilgrimage to Rome"  (1851)

        This brief survey of the Index of Forbidden Books gives pause for some thought.  Although some of these works may contain  poor theology or even "heresy" as it is defined, or some faulty history or even "naughty"  love stories,  one wonders if this method of protecting faith and morals was ever worth the effort. Most of the books condemned in the Index, and not mentioned here,  have long been forgotten. At the same time many of those works condemned are recognized today as masterpieces, great books, world-famous classics, especially the literary works. How many Catholics today who attend a production of "Les Mis" know that the book on which it is based was on the Index!  Aa for the Hunchback?  Alas, poor Quasimodo!

        Fortunately for the church a new spirit of openness occurred with the Second Vatican Council. Although there remain reactionary forces within the church, some in the highest positions, who would like to return to the days of censure and condemnation, please God, the fresh breath of the Spirit will prevail and blow such unhealthy anachronisms as the Index into the dustbin of history.


1. Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1938 edition)
2. Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis
3. "opera omnia"
4. "fabula amatoria"
5. "sensu alitati et libidini aut etiam lascivo" (Decree of the Holy Office. May 3, 1927)

Another source: Burke, Redmond A. Burke, C.S.C. Ph.D. What Is the Index? The Bruce
                         Publishing Company.  Milwaukee, 1952. This book has an extensive and
                         helpful bibliography.

Richard Cross