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?
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