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The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (English: List of Prohibited Books) was a list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church. A first version (the Pauline Index) was promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1559, and a revised and somewhat relaxed form (the Tridentine Index) was authorized at the Council of Trent. The promulgation of the Index marked the "turning-point in the freedom of enquiry" in the Catholic world. The final (20th) edition appeared in 1948, and it was formally abolished on 14 June 1966 by Pope Paul VI.
The avowed aim of the list was to protect the faith and morals of the faithful by preventing the reading of immoral books or works containing theological errors. Books thought to contain such errors included some scientific works by leading astronomers such as Johannes Kepler's Epitome astronomiae Copernicianae, which was on the Index from 1621 to 1835. The various editions of the Index also contained the rules of the Church relating to the reading, selling and pre-emptive censorship of books, including translations of the Bible into the "common tongues".
Canon law still recommends that works concerning sacred Scripture, theology, canon law, church history, and any writings which specially concern religion or good morals, be submitted to the judgment of the local Ordinary. The local Ordinary consults someone whom he considers competent to give a judgment and, if that person gives the nihil obstat ("nothing forbids") the local Ordinary grants the imprimatur ("let it be printed"). Members of religious institutes require the imprimi potest (it can be printed) of their major superior to publish books on matters of religion or morals.
Some of the scientific works that were on early editions of the Index (e.g. on heliocentrism) have long been routinely taught at Catholic universities worldwide. Giordano Bruno, whose entire works were placed on the Index on 8 February 1600 was burned alive at the stake (albeit after being turned over to the secular authorities for teaching the heresy of pantheism, not for heliocentrism or other scientific views). In 2002, a retired Roman Catholic bishop gave his personal approval to the writings of Maria Valtorta, which had been on the Index (though never in a printed edition) and which have still not been given official Church approval. Mary Faustina Kowalska, whose writings were likewise forbidden, was canonized in 2000, and Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, one of whose works was on the Index, was beatified in 2007. The developments since the abolition of the Index signify "the loss of relevance of the Index in the 21st century."
The historical context in which the Index appeared involved the early restrictions on printing in Europe. The refinement of moveable type and the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 changed the nature of book publishing, and the mechanism by which information could be disseminated to the public. Books, once rare and kept carefully in a small number of libraries, could be mass-produced and widely disseminated.
In the 16th century, in most European countries both the church and governments attempted to regulate and control printing, which allowed for rapid and widespread circulation of ideas and information. While governments and church encouraged printing in many ways, which allowed the dissemination of Bibles and government information, works of dissent and criticism could also circulate rapidly. As a consequence, governments established controls over printers across Europe, requiring them to have official licenses to trade and produce books.
The early versions of the Index began to appear from 1529 to 1571. In the same time frame, in 1557 the English Crown aimed to stem the flow of dissent by chartering the Stationers' Company. The right to print was restricted to two universities and to the 21 existing printers in the city of London, which had between them 53 printing presses.
The French crown also repressed printing, and printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546. The 1551 Edict of Châteaubriant comprehensively summarized censorship positions to date, and included provisions for unpacking and inspecting all books brought into France. The 1557 Edict of Compiègne applied the death penalty to heretics and resulted in the burning of a noblewoman at the stake. Printers were viewed as radical and rebellious, with 800 authors, printers and book dealers being incarcerated in the Bastille before it was stormed in 1789. At times, the prohibitions of church and state followed each other, e.g. René Descartes was placed on the Index in the 1660s and the French government prohibited the teaching of Cartesianism in schools in the 1670s.
The 1710 introduction of Statute of Anne in England (and later copyright laws in France) eased this situation. However, historian Eckhard Höffner claims that copyright laws and their restrictions acted as a barrier to progress in those countries for over a century, since British publishers could print valuable knowledge in limited quantities for the sake of profit; while the German economy prospered in the same time frame since there were no restrictions.
The first list of the kind was not published in Rome, but in Catholic Netherlands (1529), Venice (1543) and Paris (1551, under the terms of the Edict of Châteaubriant) followed this example. By mid-century, in the tense atmosphere of wars of religion in Germany and France, both Protestant and Catholic authorities reasoned that only control of the press, including a catalog of prohibited works, coordinated by ecclesial and governmental authorities could prevent the spread of heresy.
The first Roman Index was printed in 1557 under the direction of Pope Paul IV (1555–1559), but then withdrawn for unclear reasons. In 1559, a new index was finally published, banning the entire works of some 550 authors in addition to the individual proscribed titles: "The Pauline Index felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writing." The work of the censors was considered too severe and met with much opposition even in Catholic intellectual circles; after the Council of Trent had authorised a revised list prepared under Pope Pius IV, the so-called Tridentine Index was promulgated in 1564; it remained the basis of all later lists until Pope Leo XIII, in 1897, published his Index Leonianus.
The blacklisting of some Protestant scholars even when writing on subjects a modern reader would consider outside the realm of dogma meant that, unless they obtained a dispensation, obedient Catholic thinkers were denied access to the botanist Conrad Gesner's Historiae animalium or the botanical works of Otto Brunfels, those of the medical scholar Janus Cornarius, to Christoph Hegendorff or Johann Oldendorp on the theory of law, Protestant geographers and cosmographers like Jacob Ziegler or Sebastian Münster, as well as anything by Protestant theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin or Philipp Melancthon. Among the more counter-intuitive inclusions was the Libri Carolini, a theological work from the 9th century court of Charlemagne, which had only survived in a manuscript in the Vatican Library, before being printed in the 16th century.
In 1571 a special congregation was created, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, which had the specific task to investigate those writings that were denounced in Rome as being not exempt of errors, to update the list of Pope Pius IV regularly and also to make lists of required corrections in case a writing was not to be condemned absolutely but only in need of correction; it was then listed with a mitigating clause (e.g., donec corrigatur (forbidden until corrected) or donec expurgetur (forbidden until purged)).
This sometimes resulted in very long lists of corrections, published in the Index Expurgatorius. Prohibitions made by other congregations (mostly the Holy Office) were simply passed on to the Congregation of the Index, where the final decrees were drafted and made public, after approval of the Pope (who always had the possibility to condemn an author personally—only a few examples, such as Lamennais and Hermes).
The Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church later became the Holy Office, and since 1965 has been called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation of the Index was merged with the Holy Office in 1917, by the Motu Proprio "Alloquentes Proxime" of Pope Benedict XV; the rules on the reading of books were again reelaborated in the new Codex Iuris Canonici. From 1917 on, the Holy Office (again) took care of the Index.
The Index was regularly updated until the 1948 edition. This 20th edition contained 4,000 titles censored for various reasons: heresy, moral deficiency, sexual explicitness, and so on. That some atheists, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, were not included was due to the general (Tridentine) rule that heretical works (i.e., works that contradict Catholic dogma) are ipso facto forbidden. Some important works are absent simply because nobody bothered to denounce them. Many actions of the congregations were of a definite political content.
On 7 December 1965, Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio "Integrae servandae" that re-constituted the Holy Office as the "Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." The Index was not listed as being a part of the newly constituted Congregation's competence, leading to questioning whether it still was. This question was put to Cardinal Ottaviani—Pro-Prefect of the Congregation—who responded in the negative. The Cardinal also indicated in his response that there was going to be a change in the Index soon.
A notification of 14 June 1966 from the Congregation, which was published on the 15 June 1966 issue of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, announced that, while the Index maintained its moral force, in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality, it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties.
The Index was not simply a reactive work. Roman Catholic authors had the opportunity to defend their writings and could prepare a new edition with the necessary corrections or deletions, either to avoid or to limit a ban. Pre-publication censorship was encouraged.
The effects of the Index were at times felt throughout much of the Roman Catholic world. From Quebec to Poland it was, for many years, very difficult to find copies of banned works, especially outside of major cities. It had little effect, outside Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland or Bohemia, in countries where the great majority of the population were not members of the Catholic Church. Isaac Newton used the work of Kepler, then on the Index, as the foundation for his theory of universal gravitation, which in turn significantly influenced the formation of modern physics.
On 14 June 1966, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to inquiries it had received regarding the continued moral obligation concerning books that had been listed in the Index. The response spoke of the books as examples of books dangerous to faith and morals, all of which, not just those once included in the Index, should be avoided regardless of the absence of any written law against them. The Index, it said, retains its moral force "inasmuch as" (quatenus) it teaches the conscience of Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of writings that can endanger faith and morals, but it (the Index of Forbidden Books) no longer has the force of ecclesiastical law with the associated censures.
The congregation thus placed on the conscience of the individual Christian the responsibility to avoid all writings dangerous to faith and morals, while at the same time abolishing the previously existing ecclesiastical law and the relative censures, without thereby declaring that the books that had once been listed in the various editions of the Index of Prohibited Books had become free of error and danger.
In a letter of 31 January 1985 to Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, regarding the book Poem of the Man God, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then Prefect of the Congregation, who later became Pope Benedict XVI), referred to the 1966 notification of the Congregation as follows: "After the dissolution of the Index, when some people thought the printing and distribution of the work was permitted, people were reminded again in L'Osservatore Romano (15 June 1966) that, as was published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1966), the Index retains its moral force despite its dissolution. A decision against distributing and recommending a work, which has not been condemned lightly, may be reversed, but only after profound changes that neutralize the harm which such a publication could bring forth among the ordinary faithful."
In the course of centuries, editions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum saw deletions as well as additions of content. Thus writings by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati were placed on the Index in 1849 but were removed by 1855, and Pope John Paul II mentioned Rosmini's work as a significant example of "a process of philosophical enquiry which was enriched by engaging the data of faith". The 1758 edition of the Index removed the general prohibition of works advocating heliocentrism as a fact rather than a hypothesis. Indeed, many of the books, both theological and scientific, that were once on the Index have for centuries been routinely taught at most universities (including Catholic universities) in the world.
Some of the ideas that were part of the charges of heresy (along with many other purely religious ones) against Giordano Bruno, who in 1600 was burned alive at the stake in Campo de' Fiori in Rome, now form some of the foundations of modern cosmology, and of theories such as that of parallel universes.
The Poem of the Man God by Maria Valtorta was forbidden by the Holy Office under Pope John XXIII in 1959, a condemnation upheld in Cardinal Ratzinger's above-mentioned 1985 letter, almost two decades after the abolition of the Index; but in 2001 Catholic Bishop Roman Danylak, by then a canon of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and no longer in charge of an eparchy, granted, in his own words, "a letter of commendation, a Nihil Obstat, Imprimatur and a testimonial to this website of a Catholic monk on the writings of Maria Valtorta" (the website in question being one with the title "— A Contemporary Mystic — acclaimed one of the greatest: Maria Valtorta and her masterwork: The Poem of the Man-God" and in another letter stated that The Poem of the Man-God is, with the other writings of Valtorta, "in perfect consonance with the canonical Gospels, with the traditions and magisterium of the Catholic Church".
With the changing standards by which items are judged as immoral and with books being produced in some countries at a rate of one every few minutes, the maintenance of any kind of Index would have proven almost impossible, in any case.
As its title implies, the Index only dealt with the censorship of printed matter and did not deal with objectionable material in media such as film. As the motion picture industry started to gather momentum in the United States in the 1930s, the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed by American bishops. Its aim was to both warn Catholics about objectionable movies and to impose a form of self-censorship on the movie industry.
The Index included a number of authors and intellectuals whose works are widely read today in most leading universities and are now considered as the foundations of science, e.g. Kepler's New Astronomy, his Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, and his World Harmony were quickly placed on the Index after their publication. Other noteworthy intellectuals and religious figures on the Index include Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Hugo Grotius, and Saint Faustina Kowalska. Charles Darwin's works were notably never included, although a number of works that reconciled evolutionary theory and Catholic theology in ways unacceptable to the Church were included. These have recently been described as works ".. considered as the foundations of science and literature."
In many cases, an author's "opera omnia" (all his works) were forbidden. Most of these were inserted in the Index at a time when the Index itself stated that the prohibition of someone's "opera omnia" (all his works) did not cover works whose contents did not concern religion and were not forbidden by the general rules of the Index, but this explanation was omitted in the 1929 edition, an omission that was officially interpreted in 1940 as meaning that thenceforth "opera omnia" covered all the author's works without exception.
In one case, a book was added to the Index by the Holy Office during the reign of one Pope after it had reportedly received verbal papal approval from the previous Pope. The book Poem of the Man God received praise from Pope Pius XII's confessor (Augustin Bea), and was presented to Pius XII during a special audience in 1948 in which he reportedly approved it, and the Servite priests present signed an affidavit to that effect. Ten years later, however, the book was added to the Index.
Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf was never put on the Index, even though Hitler was the target of the Papal Bull Mit Brennender Sorge while the works of other less famous authors, including at least one saint (St. Faustina Kowalska), were. Cardinal Ottaviani remarked in an April 1966 interview with L'Osservatore della Domenica that there was too much contemporary literature and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could not keep up with it.
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