Defending the Index Librorum Prohibitorum

We have often mentioned one of the most famous anti-science episodes in Western history, the Galileo affair. As you know, Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition and charged with heresy for publishing a book describing evidence for — gasp! — the solar system. That was clearly contrary to scripture, so it couldn’t be tolerated.

After being threatened with torture, Galileo confessed his heresy (see Recantation of Galileo. June 22, 1633). His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was banned and placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and he was kept under house arrest for the remaining seven years of his life. According to Wikipedia’s list of authors and works listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, more than a century after it was banned, a censored version of Galileo’s book was permitted in 1741, and almost another century passed until the entire book was finally removed from the Index — in 1835.

The Church eventually came around to accepting the solar system, and also evolution (see Science and the Vatican), so despite their history, we’ve had no reason to criticize them. But we found a disturbing article today in the Catholic Herald, published in London. It doesn’t appear to be an official Vatican publication, but it was established in 1888, and we assume it’s influential.

The article we’re talking about is We shouldn’t be ashamed of the Index. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

It’s like the movement against smoking. The authorities decide that they must keep people from smoking for their own good. Many would ban it if they could, but they can’t, so they require scary warnings on packages, don’t let anyone smoke in public places, prevent sales to minors, restrict advertising and raise the price with really high taxes. The point is to save smokers from themselves. That’s one of our parallels to the Index of Prohibited Books, abolished 50 years ago this month by the newly renamed Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

No, it’s not like the movement against smoking. Not even close. Nevertheless, the bad analogy continues:

But the idea of an index only sounds funny to us because we don’t think of ideas as dangerous. We recognise physical infections but not intellectual ones. In that, the advantage goes to the men who invented the Index and kept it going. They took ideas seriously. They thought some ideas would poison you just like nicotine-filled smoke and that some people who might innocently indulge should be protected from poisoning themselves.

It wasn’t quite that benevolent. Those who created the Index wanted to preserve their power over the minds of men. Let’s read on:

It still sounds funny to us, banning books, because we don’t think of them as dangerous – except that we do. Some years ago the American libertarian Charles Murray and a Harvard psychologist named Richard Herrnstein published a long, studies-filled book called The Bell Curve, which argued that the races differed in intelligence, and it was duly attacked by those on the Right as well as the Left.


In mainstream American discussion, it’s on an informal index, but one no less effective for being so. An academic who endorsed the book would ruin his chances of getting a job at almost any university in America.

Another bad analogy. The article continues:

The Index of Prohibited Books was created at the Council of Trent, after the invention of mass printing and the spread of literacy made the matter of a book’s influence a live one. It addressed only books affecting faith and morals, although as the Church was working out its relation to the new science, works by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were added (and later removed).

Uh huh, but it took two centuries for Galileo’s book to be completely removed. Here’s more:

Two more things should be said about the Index, beside the fact that it expresses a normal human action which modern secular people take. First, it was the mechanism that was abolished, not the teaching that the Church should judge particular books and that Catholics should take care in what they read.

Oh, yeah, there was the “mechanism” of the Index itself — a mere technicality. But no one would object if a religious denomination maintains a list of books it recommends, and those it believes should be avoided. It was that — ahem! — mechanism of a literal prohibition that we find so offensive. Here’s the other thing the Catholic Herald thinks should be said about the Index:

Second, there’s one important distinction to be made. The Church wasn’t protecting her people from dangerous ideas but from dangerous errors. … Truths are like axes and hammers, tools that can be turned into weapons. The Church trusts people with the truth, though sometimes it comes with “This does not mean that …” warnings. With errors, it sets off the alarm.

So there you are, dear reader. We’re told that the Index wasn’t really a bad idea. Nothing to be ashamed of. Okay, what next? Will the Catholic Herald run a piece making the same claim for the Inquisition?

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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13 responses to “Defending the Index Librorum Prohibitorum

  1. I’d think they’d be ashamed to admit it ever existed, much less try to defend it. Do they have any idea as to how stupid they actually sound? To defend fallacious doctorine on the basis biblical verse and then, four-hundred years later, say how important it was to do that is the height of idiocy.

  2. Yep, suppressing science is always a good idea you know to keep people from hurting themselves. Nothing like having micro managers in one’s life. As to dangerous errors who better than the church to make that determination.

  3. “Protecting People” Is it possible the people that felt the need for protection might be members of the clergy? They may have wanted to avoid swimming in the sewers of apologetics.

  4. michaelfugate

    That is some full-on stupid. I notice the author is the former Executive Editor of the journal First Things and the editor of Touchstone Magazine; if you didn’t already wonder about the intelligence level of conservative Christian thought.

  5. I could understand protecting (suppressing) the idea of say nuclear fusion. But heliocentrism is not exactly a weapon waiting to happen.

  6. No, it’s not like the movement against smoking.

    I’d say that there was likely to be a strong connection between the dangers of disagreeing with the Vatican and the dangers of smoking.

    With errors, it sets off the alarm.

    This is the bit where I actually understand what he’s talking about. The heliocentric affair was more to do with political ass-covering than with matters of “error”; but in other areas the Vatican was definitely concerned that some of its flock might have their chances of eternal life jeopardized by “errors” that were offenses in the eyes of God. Such thinking is nutzoidal in today’s terms (and it’s bizarre Mills is promoting it), but back then it seemed perfectly reasonable.

    When I first got a publishing job in the late 1960s the firm I joined, Frederick Muller, was quite proud of the fact that a novel it had published a few years earlier had been placed on the Index. The novel’s title was Flames of Desire.

    “Hot stuff?” I said to my boss Tony when he told me this.

    “Sort of,” he said. “It’s about an arsonist.”

  7. As a science-loving, evolution-accepting Catholic, I find this article deeply embarrassing, and I assure you, it does not reflect official church teaching. Whoever wrote this is probably pining for the good old days when the Inquisition’s chief weapons were–wait for it–fear, surprise, and fanatical devotion to the pope.

  8. Dave Luckett

    The basic idea being promoted here – that ideas are toxic – isn’t all that wrong. Ideas can be toxic. Homosexuality is an abomination and homosexual acts capital crimes is an idea. All property should be held in common is an idea. Those are toxic ideas. In fact, any idea taken far enough and applied rigidly enough, becomes toxic.

    How do you control the toxicity of ideas? Not by suppressing them. In the first place, that’s impossible. In the second place, it only increases their toxicity.

    No, you control toxic ideas by displaying them. By hauling them out into the light and making them apparent. By debating them in public, by bringing evidence and testing that evidence so that anyone who wants can see for themselves. By publishing, not by banning.

    Prohibiting books so that the ideas therein can be hidden is itself a stupid, counterproductive act, rooted in fear and authoritarianism. It always was. Authoritarian churches are not the only institutions prone to foolish acts like that – but they are very prone to it. On the whole, it’s an improvement that they now lack the power to enforce it. One gains the impression that the writer of this article thinks that is cause for regret.

    Well, he’s wrong.

  9. The Church wasn’t protecting her people from dangerous ideas but from dangerous errors. … Truths are like axes and hammers, tools that can be turned into weapons. The Church trusts people with the truth, though sometimes it comes with “This does not mean that …” warnings. With errors, it sets off the alarm.

    And who gets to decide what counts as an “error” from which people must be “protected”?

    The Catholic Church trusts people with the truth as the Vatican sees it, period. Creationists trust people with the truth as they think the Bible inerrantly tells it, period. There’s not that much difference, except that Rome’s hard-liners dream of restoring a past in which their beliefs ruled supreme (at least in the West), while creationists . . . er, there really isn’t that much difference.

  10. Well, fair enough, but wasn’t Georges LeMaitre of Big Bang fame the Vatican astronomer? Neither he nor Ken Miller has been censored by the church.

  11. Lemaitre was a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and also was at Cambridge and MIT, and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science. He actually had influence on Pope Pius XII.
    But around the turn of the 20th century, John Zahm, a Cathoic priest at University of Notre Dame, wrote in support of evolution until he narrowly avoided trouble from the Vatican (his book attracted their attention when it appeared in an Italian translation).

  12. “The Bell Curve” isn’t banned, it’s just a crap book with poor statistical methodology a researcher used to drum up evidence to support an assertion they already believed. It was criticized for its methodologies before it was actually published, and had to be published as a book rather than a paper because it didn’t pass peer review.

  13. @Jill Smith – Careful there, don’t make me bring out the comfy chair!