A Note on the Index of Forbidden Books

This is the 50th anniversary of the death of the Index of Forbidden Books, the Catholic Church’s list of books banned for immorality or heresy. On June 14, 1966, the Index was officially put to rest. The first Index was published in 1559. In the course of over 400 years, more than 4,000 books were banned.


The Church did not take its censorship duties lightly, and poured considerable resources into it. Creating a staff to read the candidates for censorship was a major undertaking. But that was not all. If a censor judged that a book should be banned, his finding was reviewed by an independent judge. The process was later modified to add yet another judge if the second judge also condemned the book. Most important of all, after all these judges condemned the book, the pope himself had to review it and determine whether it should be banned. Every single book on the Index was put there by a pope. Since the censors could demand specific corrections rather than ban the book in its entirety, a conscientious reviewer had to read the entire book and evaluate its pros and cons. If you assume the pope made an honest job of it, he had to read an average of two books a week just for this minor part of his overall duties.

The Vatican took great care in creating the Index, which reflected the moral authority of the pope and of the Church. Since the Catholic Church asserts it is guided by the Holy Spirit –unlike other religious organizations – you would expect the Index to be a thoroughly admirable piece of work.

By their fruits ye shall know them (Matthew 7: 16-20)

Jesus warned about false prophets pretending to represent God. He told his flock to judge them by their fruit. A corrupt tree brings forth bad fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit. Bad trees will be cut down (by God) and cast into the fire. What kind of fruit was the Index?

Wikipedia has a brief article listing some of the banned books from the Index. It is surprisingly difficult to find a complete list, even though it was widely disseminated 50 years ago. The list of banned authors is almost a Who’s Who list of famous artists, scientists and philosophers. (If you didn't click through, authors include Dante, Copernicus, Kepler, Hobbes, Pascal, Descartes, Bacon, Montaigne, Milton, Spinoza, Maimonides, Locke, Berkely, Defoe, and Voltaire.) A large percentage of banned books are actually classics. None seem remotely deserving of censorship. The list is a travesty. If it is not completely wrong, it comes very close.

Consider the facts of the Index as it existed over four centuries and a great many popes. Consider too the enormous resources devoted to it that should more properly have gone to the poor. What are the odds it was guided by the Holy Spirit? What are the odds it was guided by the Great Deceiver?

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