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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Censorship of Books

Censorship of Books

(Censura Librorum.)

Definition and division

In general, censorship of books is a supervision of the press in order to prevent any abuse of it. In this sense, every lawful authority, whose duty it is to protect its subjects from the ravages of a pernicious press, has the right of exercising censorship of books. This censorship is either ecclesiastical or civil, according as it is practiced by the spiritual or secular authority, and it may be exercised in two ways, viz.: before the printing or publishing of a work, by examining it (censura prævia); and after the printing or publishing, by repressing or prohibiting it (censura repressiva). This is the double meaning of the classical word censura, especially as used in the legislation of the Roman Church. Later on, however, particularly in civil law, censura denoted almost exclusively censura prævia. Wherever the abolition of censorship in past centuries is referred to, only the latter is meant.

The reverse of censorship is freedom of the press. In all civilized countries, however, that have abrogated the censura prævia, freedom of the press is by no means unlimited. Its abuse may, in the worst cases, be condemned and punished according to common law, and the old censorship has nearly everywhere been replaced by more severe press-laws. Although the censorship of books (in the wider sense) did not begin precisely with the invention and spread of the art of printing, yet in our definition of it, only productions of the press are spoken of. In the first place, censorship now, as well as in centuries past, is concerned exclusively with printed works; secondly, in the narrower sense (censura prævia), it has taken that definite form, which is expressed by "censorship of books," only after the invention of the printing press. When explaining, however, the historical development of censorship, we must begin with an earlier period, because we are here dealing with it as exercised by the Universal Church of Rome. From the beginning and at all times in principle, the Church adhered to the censorship, although in the course of time the application was modified according to conditions and circumstances. The censorship of books, as well as the press-law of states or of church-communities other than Catholic, can be mentioned here for the sake of comparison only.

Historical development

As soon as there were books or writing of any kind the spreading or reading of which was highly detrimental to the public, competent authorities were obliged to take measures against them. Long before the Christian era, therefore, we find that heathens as well as Jews had fixed regulations for the suppression of dangerous books and the prevention of corruptive reading. From numerous illustrations quoted by Zaccaria (pp. 248-256) it is evident that most of the writings condemned or destroyed offended against religion and morals. Everywhere the books declared dangerous were cast into the fire--the simplest and most natural execution of censorship. When at Ephesus, in consequence of St. Paul's preaching, the heathens were converted, they raised before the eyes of the Apostle of the Gentiles a pile in order to burn their numerous superstition books (Acts 19:19). No doubt, the new Christians moved by grace and the Apostolic word did so of their own accord; but all the more was their action approved by St. Paul himself, and it is recorded as an example worthy of imitation by the author of the Acts of the Apostles. From this burning of the books at Ephesus, as well as from the Second Epistle of St. Peter and the Epistles of St. Paul to Timothy and Titus, it clearly appears how the Apostles judged of pernicious books and how they wished them to be treated. In concert with the Apostle of the Gentiles (Titus 3:10). St. John most emphatically exhorted the first Christians to shun heretical teachers. To the disciples of the Apostles it was a matter of course to connect this warning not only with the persons of such teachers, but first and foremost with their doctrine and their writings. Thus, in the first Christian centuries, the so-called apocrypha above all other books appeared to the faithful as libri non recipiendi, books which were on no account to be used. The establishment of the Canon of Holy Writ was, therefore, at once an elimination and a censuring of the apocrypha. The two documents referring to this, both from the latter half of the second century, are the Muratorian Canon and the Apostolic Constitutions (see Hauler, Didascaliæ Apostolorum fragments, Leipzig, 1900, p. 4).

When the Church, after the era of persecution, was given greater liberty, a censorship of books appears more plainly. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicæa (325) condemned not only Arius personally, but also his book entitled "Thalia"; Constantine commanded that the writings of Arius and his friends should everywhere be delivered up to be burned; concealment of them was forbidden under pain of death. In the following centuries, when and wherever heresies sprung up, the popes of Rome and the oecumenical councils, as well as the particular synods of Africa, Asia, and Europe, condemned, conjointly with the false doctrines, the books and writings containing them. (Cf. Hilgers, Die Bücherverbote in Papstbriefen.) The latter were ordered to be destroyed by fire, and illegal preservation of them was treated as a heinous criminal offense. The authorities intended to make the reading of such writings simply impossible. Pope St. Innocent I, enumerating in a letter of 405 a number of apocryphal writings, rejects them as non solum repudianda sed etiam damnanda. It is the first attempt at a catalog of forbidden books. The so-called "Decretum Gelasianum" contains many more, not only apocryphal, but also heretical, or otherwise objectionable writings. It is not without reason that this catalog has been called the first "Roman Index" of forbidden books. The books in question were not unfrequently examined in the public sessions of councils. There are also cases in which the popes themselves (e.g., Innocent I and Gregory the Great) read and examined a book sent to them and finally condemned it. As regards the kinds and content of writings forbidden in ancient times, we find among them, besides apocryphal and heretical books, forged acts of martyrs, spurious penitentials, and superstitious writings. In ancient times, information about objectionable books was sent from both East and West to Rome, that they might be examined, and, if necessary, forbidden by the Apostolic See. Thus at the beginning of the Middle Ages, there existed, in all its essentials, though without specified clauses, a prohibition and censorship of books throughout the Catholic Church. Popes as well as councils, bishops no less than synods, considered it then, as always, their most sacred duty to safeguard the purity of faith and to protect the souls of the faithful by condemning and forbidding any dangerous book.

During the Middle Ages prohibitions of books were far more numerous than in ancient times. Their history is chiefly connected with the names of medieval heretics like Berengarius of Tours, Abelard, John Wyclif, and John Hus. However, especially in the thirteenth and fourteen century, there were also issued prohibitions against various kinds of superstition writings, among them the Talmud and other Jewish books. In this period also, the first decrees about the reading of various translations of the Bible were called forth by the abuses of the Waldenses and Albigensians. What these decrees (e.g., of the synod of Toulouse in 1129, Tarragona in 1234, Oxford in 1408) aimed at was the restriction of Bible-reading in the vernacular. A general prohibition was never in existence. During the earlier Christian centuries, and until late in the Middle Ages, there existed, as compared with our times, but few books. As they were multiplied by handwriting only, the number of copies to be met with was very small; moreover none but the learned could make use of them. For these reasons, preventive censorship was not necessary until, after the invention of the printing press and the subsequent large circulation of printed works, the harm done by pernicious books increased in a manner hitherto unknown. Nevertheless, a previous examination of books was not altogether unknown in more remote times, and in the Middle Ages it was even prescribed in some places. St. Ambrose sent several of his writings to Sabinus, bishop of Piacenza, that he might pass his opinion on them and correct them before they were published (P.L., XVI, 1151). In the fifth century, Gennadius sent his work, "De Scriptoribus Ecclesiaticus" to Pope Gelasius for the same purpose. The chronicler, Godfrey of Viterbo, applied expressly to Urban III (1186) for examination and approbation of his "Pantheon" which he dedicated to the pope. These are, of course, examples of a merely private, preventive censorship. Yet in the most flourishing period of the Middle Ages we find censorship of that kind established by law in the very centres of scientific life. According to the papal statutes of the University of Paris (1342), the professors were not allowed to hand any lecture over to the booksellers before it had been examined by the chancellors and the professors of theology. (In the previous century the booksellers were bound by oath to offer for sale only genuine and "corrected" copies.) A similar censorship occurs in the fourteenth century at all universities.

Down to more recent times, forbidden books were got out of the way in the simplest manner, by destroying or confiscating them. It is worthy of note that when the Roman synod of 745 ordered the burning of the superstitious writings sent by St. Boniface to the Apostolic See, Pope Zachary ordered them to be preserved in the pontifical archives (Mansi, XII, 380). Again, while the provincial synod of Paris (121) strictly forbade certain works of Aristotle as found in the erroneous Arabic edition, Pope Gregory IX (1231) merely suspended the use of these writings until they had been minutely examined and cleared of all suspicion (Du Plessis d'Argentré, Collectio judiciorum, I, 1, 133; Denifle, Charularium Universitatis Parisiensis, I, 70, 138). The Roman expurgation of suspected books, so often unjustly held in ill repute, had therefore, no inglorious beginnings under this last-named great ecclesiastical legislator. In general, it may be said that in the examination and prohibition of books, Rome displayed wise moderation and true justice, since it intended only to keep faith and morals unpolluted. With the invention an spread of typography begins a new period in the censorship of books. It was in the nature of things that the discoveries and tendencies at the end of the fifteenth, and commencement of the sixteenth, century should very soon abuse the "divine art" of printing for the purpose of multiplying and disseminating all kinds of pernicious books. The religious disruption of Germany had not yet begun when Rome took precautionary measures by insisting on a preventive censorship of all printed works. The beginnings of the censorship just mentioned are not to be traced to the Curia of Rome, but to Cologne, where we find it established in the university in the reign of Sixtus IV. In a Brief of 18 March, 1479, this pope granted the fullest powers of censorship to the university, and praised it for having hitherto checked with such zeal the printing and selling of irreligious books. In 1482 the Bishop of Würzburg enacted a law of censorship for his diocese; in 1485 and 1486 the Archbishop of Mainz did the same for his ecclesiastical province. Thus the way was paved for the Bull of Innocent VIII (17 Nov., 1487), which universally prescribed the censorship of books, and entrusted the bishops with its execution. Nevertheless, this first universal binding papal edict of censorship remained unheeded. We only hear of its being promulgated by Herman IV, Archbishop of Cologne. Consequently, in Venice, the papal legate, Nicolò Franco, issued in 1491 an order of censorship for this republic. As early, however, as 1480 we find books published with the approbation of the Patriarch of Venice. The decree of 1491 ordered the censorship of theological and religious books only.

On 1 June 1501, followed the Bull of Alexander VI, an exact copy of Innocent VIII's, but issued only for the ecclesiastical provinces of Cologne, Mainz, Trier, and Magdeburg. Finally, during the Lateran Council, Leo X promulgated, 3 May, 1515, the Bull "Inter sollicitudines." This is the first papal censorial decrees given for the entire Church which was universally accepted. All writings without exception were subjected to censorship. The examination was entrusted to the bishops or to the censors appointed by them and to the inquisitor; in Rome, it appertained to the cardinal-vicar and the Magister Sacri Palatii. Printers offending against the law incurred the punishment of excommunication; moreover they were liable to a fine and had their books destroyed by fire. After examination, approbation was to be given free of charge and without delay and this under pain of excommunication. Meanwhile, the prohibition of books had been maintained by the pope and bishops as usual. In 1482 the bishops of Würzburg and Basil forbade certain printed works in their diocese, and by a Bull of 4 August, 1487, Innocent VII prohibited Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's nine hundred theses, printed at Rome in December, 1486. This prohibition was ratified by Alexander VI in 1493. In Germany great excitement prevailed, it being the eve of the Reformation. A book containing the tenets of humanism, the "Epistolæ obscurorum virorum," was suppressed by a brief of Leo X, 15 March, 1517. The case of Reuchlin's "Augenspiegel" was a long time pending in Rome; the book was ultimately prohibited, 23 June, 1520. Some days previous (15 June, 1520) Leo X issued the Bull "Exsurge Domine," by which all writings of Luther, even future ones, were forbidden under pain of excommunication. Adrian VI again set forth this prohibition in divers Letters of the year 1522, and in 1524, Clement VII inserted in the Bull "Consueverunt" (in coena domini) a clause proscribing under pain of excommunication all heretical writings, notably those of Luther.

After being reorganized by Paul III (Bull of 21 July, 1542) the General Inquisition took charge of the supervision of books, chiefly in Rome and Italy. Subsequent to a proclamation of 12 July, 1543, enjoining with special emphasis the suppression and censorship of books, this tribunal composed a catalogue of forbidden books, which, together with a rather too rigorous decree (30 Dec., 1558) and another that mitigated it, was promulgated in the reign of Paul IV, some days after the date just mentioned. Similar catalogues have been published since the twenties of the sixteenth century, by political as well as ecclesiastical authorities, particularly in England, the Low Countries, France, Germany, and Italy (Venice, Milan, Lucca). But the catalogue of the Inquisition of 1559 was the first Roman list that was meant for the whole world; it was also the very first that bore the title "Index." This Roman catalogue, like all others published up to that time, contained almost exclusively works distinctly heretical or suspected of heresy; and since these were considered as already condemned and forbidden, especially by the Bull "In Coena Domini," the catalogue seemed to be merely the detailed list or register, in short the "Index" of the prohibited books. This Index of Paul IV, however, contained one particularly rigorous enactment, viz. : that all books — published as well as to be published — of the writers mentioned in the catalogue (of the so-called first class); all books of the second and third class; and even books thereafter published by printers of heretical works, were declared forbidden under the same most severe pains and penalties. No other entirely new enactments or regulations of censorship were contained in this edition. Later editions of the Index imitated this first one only in name. The typical Index for Roman decrees of this kind appeared soon after and abolished the too rigorous one of Paul IV.

During the fourth session (1546) of the Council of Trent the assembled Fathers, discussing the canon of Holy Scripture, insisted expressly on the censorship of books, such as had been universally proscribed by the Lateran Council, and on the sanctions therein decreed, especially in regard to books and writings treating of religious things, or in their words, de rebus sacris. For members of religious orders wishing to publish works of this sort, examination and approbation of their writings on the part of their superiors was prescribed, in addition to the approbation of the ordinary. Towards the end of the council the reorganization of the censorship and prohibition of books was more particularly debated. The result was the so-called "Index Tridentinus," which, however, was not published until 1564, by order of the council, along with the brief of Pius IV; wherefore it is also called "Index of Pius IV." Besides a revised catalogue of forbidden books, this index contained, as a most important modification, ten general rules composed by the council, since known as the "Tridentine Rules."

First, these ten rules contain prohibitions

A particular statement is made with regard to heresiarchs, or heads of sects sprung up since 1515, whose names are mentioned in the so-called first class of the index. All their books, even those free from objection, i.e., not treating of religious questions, as well as future publications, are to be considered forbidden.

Second, the rules contain conditional prohibitions, i.e., books published by heretics, or even by Catholics, that are in the main good and useful, but not altogether free from dangerous passages, are forbidden until corrected by the lawful authorities. To these writings belong chiefly those mentioned in the Index itself as needing correction.

Third, on certain conditions, and after asking special permission, leave is granted for the reading of Latin translations of the Old Testament edited by heretics, and for the use of Bible-versions in the vernacular written by Catholics.

Fourth, preventive censorship and approbation, as prescribed by the Bull of Leo X (1515), are insisted on. The punishment of excommunication is extended also to the author who has his book printed without the necessary approbation. A copy of the examined and approved manuscript is to remain with the censor. Moreover, printers and booksellers are forbidden both to offer for sale prohibited books and to sell conditionally interdicted works to anyone not producing a permit; they are ordered to keep ready an exact list of all writings they have in stock. At the same time bishops and inquisitors are urged to supervise printing and book-shops and to have them inspected.

Finally, the rules inflict the punishment of excommunication on such as read and possess forbidden heretical works, or those suspected of heresy. Any person reading or keeping a book prohibited for other reasons commits a grievous sin and is to be punished according to the bishop's discretion. The ten rules remained in force until Leo XIV abrogated them by the Constitution "Officiorum ac Munerum" (25 Jan., 1897) and replaced them by new general decrees. In the course of time, however, the rules not only received some few additions, especially when a new index was published, but in consequence of contrary custom also gradually lost their binding force with regard to certain regulations.

The most important event regarding the administration of the censorship after the Council of Trent was the institution of a special congregation, the S. Congregatio Indicis Librorum Prohibitorum. (See Roman Congregations.) The first task of this body of cardinals was to be the promulgation of new indexes as well as the expurgation of books needing correction. It also soon took in hand the examination and prohibition of dangerous new writings, together with the supervision and management of all that pertained to the production and distribution of books. The Congregation of the Index was called into existence by Pius V, in March, 1571, formally and solemnly confirmed by the Bull of Gregory XIII, "Ut pestiferarum" (13 September, 1572), and its rights eventually defined by Sixtus V in the bull "Immensa Æterni Patris" (22 Jan., 1588), with those of the other congregations of cardinals. Sixtus V intended to replace, in his new index (printed 1590) the ten Tridentine rules by twenty-two new ones. This index, however, never passed into law; Sixtus died and its publication was stopped by the succeeding popes. In the next Roman Index the ten rules were re-instated instead of the twenty-two rules of Sixtus V. The new index, published at length by Clement VIII (1596), contained, besides additions to the catalogue of forbidden books, not only the ten rules but, directly after them, an instruction on the prohibition, expurgation, and printing of books, some remarks on the fourth and ninth rules, and on several of the forbidden books. The instruction reminds bishops and inquisitors both of their duties and rights regarding the prohibition of books. Outside Italy, they, as well as the universities, are ordered to draw up and promulgate indexes of forbidden books for their respective districts, copies of which are to be sent to Rome. As regard the expurgation of books, the instruction sets forth in detail who is authorized for this purpose, how it is to be practiced in different cases, and what is to be cancelled. After completing the corrections, bishop and inquisitor are to publish a "Codex expurgatorius," according to which the books in question are to be expurgated. Practically, neither of the first two parts of this instruction was of much consequence. Outside of Italy, apart from Spain and Portugal, Poland and Bohemia, particular indexes were almost unknown. A short time after it was even forbidden to do this without special leave of the Congregation of the Index. As to expurgation, it was only in Rome itself, apart from Spain, Portugal, and Belgium that an "Index expurgatorius" (one volume) was published in 1607, the author of which was the then Magister Sacri Palatii. But this never became legally binding. The third part of the instruction exactly states the rules to be observed (1) when examining a book previous to the printing; (2) when approving, and (3) when actually printing it. The whole is a more detailed specification of the decree of the Lateran Council as well as the regulations laid down in the tenth Tridentine rule. The observations appended to the instructions refer chiefly, on the one hand, to the permission of reading translations of the Bible; on the other to the prohibition of astrological works, of the Talmud, and of other Jewish books.

In the early part of the seventeenth century both the Congregation of the Index and the Magister Sacri Palatii published in Rome, from time to time, decrees containing new prohibitions of books. These decrees were collected in smaller indexes considered as additions to the index of Clement VIII, and in 1632 the then secretary of the Congregation of the Index edited (in his private capacity only) a complete alphabetical list of all books forbidden up to that time. But it was not until 1664, under Alexander VII, that by order of the Congregation a new official index was published which differed from all prior ones in form and arrangement of the subject-matter; as to the contents, the only difference was that all prohibitions from 1596 to 1664 were inserted. The same is to be said of the abridged edition of the index of Alexander VII, which was published the following year (1665). In the introductory Brief, "Speculatores," this pope decreed that in the prohibition of books none but the penalties fixed, both in the tenth rule and the bull "In Coena Domini," should be in force. In the second half of the seventeenth century and the first of the eighteenth, many (chiefly Jansenistic) books were condemned by the congregation of the Index, the Roman Inquisition, and papal Bulls or briefs. The works interdicted by letters Apostolic were, as a rule, forbidden under pain of excommunication. During this time it was not unusual that in addition to single books whole classes of writings of a similar kind were forbidden, just as had been done formerly, particularly in letters Apostolic. Originally these classes of books were inserted in the alphabetical list mostly under the word libri until the Index was reformed under Benedict XIV. This new index (1758) far surpasses all former ones by reason of the correction of the many typographical errors and inaccuracies to be found in the earlier indexes, so that it is in every sense the best edition published prior to 1900. It was also notable for the novel arrangement by which the aforesaid classes of works were expressly registered, at the commencement of the catalogue of forbidden books, in four paragraphs headed "Decrees Concerning Forbidden books not Mentioned Individually in the Index." Among the works enumerated, we find especially writings on certain disputed questions such as the Immaculate Conception, the theory of grace, the Malabar and Chinese Rites.

The most important addition to this index was the Bull "Sollicita ac Provida" (9 July, 1753), which, for the Congregations of both the Inquisition and the Index, uniformly regulated and definitively settled the whole method of conducting cases concerning literary productions. Even now this bull furnishes the principal direction for all decisions concerning the prohibition of books. Benedict XIV states as his motive for publishing this constitution the many unjust complaints against the prohibition of books as well as against the Index. All such complaints, even in our own times, are best refuted by this Bull. In the following century neither index nor censorship underwent substantial changes. Quite spontaneously, however, the prescriptive law was formed to no longer submit for ecclesiastical censorship all books and writings, but only theological and religious ones. This right was assented to first tacitly, then also indirectly by other ecclesiastical enactments. when alter on, by the Bull "Apostolicæ Sedis" (12 Oct, 1869) Pius IX reorganized the ecclesiastical censures (penal laws of the Church) he abolished the punishment of excommunication which, both in the Tridentine (1564) and Clementine (1596) indexes, was inflicted upon printers as well as authors not submitting their works for ecclesiastical censorship. Since the publication of that Bull only three definite classes of books are still forbidden under pain of excommunication (see below). During the Vatican Council, great exertions were made, especially on the part of Germany and France, to induce the assembled Fathers to mitigate the ecclesiastical laws relating to censorship (cf. Coll. Lacens. Concil., VII, 1075), but before this question could be discussed, the council was dissolved. Leo XIII, therefore, took it upon himself to reorganize the ecclesiastical legislation in this respect, which he accomplished by the Constitution, "Officiorem ac Munerum" (25 Jan., 1897) and the reform of the Index, published in 1900. Since that time, for all literary matters, for censorship and prohibition of books, no other laws or rules are in force than those contained in the new index of Leo XIII. Of former enactments, the Bull "Sollicita ac Provida" alone has been retained; together with the new Bull, "Officiorem ac Munerum" it forms the first and general part of the Leonine Code, whereas the second and larger, but not therefore more important, part comprises the special, alphabetically arranged catalog of books forbidden by particular decrees since 1600. Pius X issued in 1905 orders regarding the printing and publication of liturgical chants and melodies, and in the Encyclical Letter "Pascendi dominici gregis" (8 Sept., 1907), most urgently enjoined on all the prohibition and censorship of books.

Ecclesiastical laws in operation since 1900

The end of the Church founded by Christ is the propagation and promulgation of the teachings of Christ and a life after these teachings. One of the most formidable dangers threatening purity of morals among members of the Church arises from pernicious books and writings. For this very reason the Church has from the beginning and at all times taken such precautions against bad literature as were appropriate for the different times and the peculiar character of the dangers. If the Church had ever neglected doing this, she would have failed in one of her most important and solemn duties. In our own days the danger caused by bad books has risen to a degree never thought of before. Unrestraint of intellect and will is the real cause of this increase. The so-called freedom of the press, or the abolition of public censorship, is largely responsible for this unrestraint. All the more the Church is bound to put an end to evil by wise and just laws. The highest ecclesiastical authority, Leo XIII himself, has done so in the most solemn way by the aforesaid Bull "Officiorum ac Munerum" (23 Jan., 1897) which obliges very strictly all the faithful. This papal constitution contains the general legal enactments (decreta generalia) arranged under two headings of ten and five chapters respectively, in forty-nine paragraphs or articles. The forty-nine paragraphs exhibit not only the prohibition of certain classes of books, together with the injunction of preventive censorship for other classes, but also detailed regulation concerning the application and sanction of the whole law.

The first paragraph decrees that the books mentioned in former indices and forbidden previous to 1600, remain forbidden even though not individually enumerated in the new index of Leo XIII--unless they be allowed by the new general paragraphs. To this class, however, belong almost exclusively heretical books and a few others forbidden also by the following general decrees. Here it is to be remarked that heretical works of ancient times, or even of the Middle Ages, are no longer held to be forbidden, so that the words of the first paragraph seem to refer exclusively to the sixteenth century. In accordance with the main end of the law, paragraph 2 forbids books of apostates, heretics, schismatics, and in general all writers defending heresy or schism or undermining the very foundation of religion; paragraph 11 prohibits books falsifying the notion of "Inspiration of Holy Scripture"; paragraph 14 condemns all writings defending dueling, suicide, divorce, or representing as useful and innocuous for Church and State Freemasonry and other secret societies or maintaining errors specified by the Apostolic See [those mentioned, e.g., in the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) or Pius X (1907)]; paragraph 12 interdicts superstitious writings in the following words: It is forbidden to publish, read or keep books teaching or recommending sorcery, soothsaying, magic, spiritism, or similar superstition things; paragraph 9 reads as follows: Books systematically (ex professo) discussing, relating or teaching obscene and immoral things are strictly prohibited; paragraph 21 says: Dailies, newspapers and journals which aim at (data opera) destroying religion and morality are interdicted not only by natural law but also by ecclesiastical prohibition. All works forbidden in the above-mentioned paragraphs may be put together in one group, viz.: irreligious, heretical, superstitious, and immoral writings. It will readily be understood that these classes of books constitute a serious danger to faith and morals and consequently must needs be forbidden by the Church. Works, however, composed by heterodox authors are, agreeable to paragraphs 3 and 4, not forbidden even if treating of religion, provided that they contain nothing serious against the Catholic Faith. Paragraph 10 grants leave for the use of the classics, ancient as well as modern, though not free from immorality, in consideration of the elegance and purity of their style. This exception is made for the benefit of those whose official or educational duties demand it; for teaching purposes, however, only carefully expurgated editions are to be given to students. Concerning newspapers and journals forbidden in paragraph 21, the bishops are especially reminded to deter the faithful from such reading; and in paragraph 22 it is warmly recommended to all Catholics and particularly the clergy, to publish nothing in dailies, journals, and writings of that sort, except for just and sensible reasons.

A second group of prohibited books comprises all insulting writings directed against God and the Church. Regarding them paragraph 11 says: All books are forbidden that insult God or the Blessed Virgin Mary or the saints or the Catholic Church and her rites, the sacraments or the Apostolic See. In like manner all books are forbidden that aim at the defamation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the clergy or the religious. It is hardly necessary to say that a fair historical work, for example, on an individual member of the hierarchy, of a religious order, or even on any particular order who have but disgraced their calling or the Church, is not included in paragraph 11. With this second group may also be reckoned, among the works forbidden by paragraphs 15 and 16, all novel religious pictures that deviate from the spirit and the decrees of the Church, also all works on indulgences containing spurious or falsified statements.

The third and last group also comprehends several classes of forbidden books. To these belong, in the first place, all editions and versions of Holy Writ not approved by competent ecclesiastical authorities. For by paragraphs 5, 6, and 8, leave to use editions and versions published by non-Catholics, provided they do not attack Catholic dogmas either in the preface or the annotations, is given only to such as are occupied with theological or Biblical studies. And by paragraph 7, all vernacular versions, even those prepared by Catholic authors, are prohibited if they are not, on the one hand, approved by the Apostolic See, or, on the other, are not supplied with annotations taken from the works of the Holy Fathers and learned Catholic writers and accompanied by an episcopal approbation. Second, according to paragraph 18, there belongs to the third group of prohibited works, all liturgical books, such as missals, breviaries and the like, in case any change is made in them without special sanction of the Apostolic See. By a new decree of Pius X (1905), all editions of ecclesiastical liturgical chant differing from the pontifical edition are now forbidden. Third, by paragraph 20, are forbidden prayer or devotional books or booklets, catechisms and books of religious instruction, books and booklets of ethics, asceticism and mysticism, or any others of like kind if they are published without permission of the competent ecclesiastical authorities. Fourth, the works condemned by paragraph 13 must be mentioned, viz., books and writings containing novel apparitions, revelations, visions, prophecies, miracles, or those endeavouring to introduce novel devotions, private or public, in case these works appear without legitimate ecclesiastical approbation. These four classes of prohibited works are here put together in the third group because all of them are but conditionally forbidden, i.e., only in case the previous ecclesiastical approbation be wanting. It is just these classes of books that may be very dangerous, particularly to pious people, unless previous examination and approbation sufficiently guarantee the absence of anything contrary to Christian Faith or the Church. It was proper, therefore, to forbid them. Besides the three groups just quoted, the Constitution "Officiorum ac Munerum" prohibits no other class of books. For works individually mentioned in the Index and held to be still forbidden, belong one way or the other to one of these groups, and for this very reason they have been put on the Index.

The Index of forbidden books is a general law strictly binding on all, inclusive of the learned, and this even if in a particular case no great risk would be incurred by the reader or owner of a forbidden book. The obligation refers to the reading as well as to the possession of the book in question. It is in itself a grave obligation by reason of the importance of the matter, since the safeguarding and protection of faith and morals are involved. This is also apparent both from the existence of the constitution and from its wording. Nevertheless it is self-sufficient that not only for subjective, but also for objective, reasons lighter transgressions and venial sins may be committed when offending against the prohibition of books. Only in the event of more serious offenses, in two particular cases, the heaviest ecclesiastical punishment is inflicted by the law. According to paragraph 47, the penalty of excommunication specially (speciali modo) reserved to the pope is forthwith incurred by all who, though conscious of law and penalty yet read or keep or print or defend books of heretical teachers or apostates maintaining heresies. Under the same penalty, and in like manner, books individually condemned by letters Apostolic are indicted by paragraph 47, in case the letters referred to are still in full force, and punish the reading of the condemned book with excommunication reserved to the pope. The penalty of the said paragraph applies solely to books, not to smaller pamphlets or manuscripts of any kind. The paragraphs 23 to 26 deal with the permission to read and keep forbidden books. Whosoever desires such permission may obtain it from the competent ecclesiastical authorities. To these it appertains to judge of the need for the permission requested. It is evident that the permission granted by the church can exempt only from the ecclesiastical law. In spite, therefore, of a special dispensation, the licensee would not be at liberty to read such books as would for some reason or other cause him grievous harm in faith and morals. For him also, the obligation of the natural law remains intact, just as before the license was granted.

Since the prohibition of books concerns all, anyone wishing to use forbidden books is bound to get a dispensation either from the Apostolic See or from some person specially authorized by the pope (paragraph 23). By paragraph 24 full powers to that effect are given to the Roman Congregation of the Index as well as to that of the Holy Office; also to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith with regard to the countries under it and to the Magister Sacri Palatii Apostolici with reference to Rome. Bishops as well as prelates with apostolic jurisdiction have the aforesaid power, according to paragraph 25, by virtue of their office, only in urgent cases for individual books; they are however, invested with full power, either directly by the Apostolic See or through the Congregation of the Index or the Propaganda. Dispensations are to be granted with prudence, and on just and reasonable grounds. The general authority given to bishops directly by the pope, in the so-called quinquennial faculties, may be delegated by them to others since the Decree of 14 December, 1898 (Acta S. Sedis, XXXI, 384). The bishops of England have this power from the Congregation of the Propaganda, and they make use of it by delegating it to their priests; thus, the latter may, without further formalities, give permission (e.g., to their penitents) to read forbidden books. Still a confessor, or even a bishop, who foresees that the reading of prohibited writings would expose the petitioner to great risk regarding faith or morals, would not be free to grant the desired dispensation; and if the petitioner nevertheless obtains it, he is not allowed to make use of it, since he is at all times bound by the natural law. Whoever has permission to use forbidden books may not read works distinctly forbidden by the bishop for his own diocese unless the dispensation refers expressly to "all books prohibited by whomsoever"; otherwise he must ask special leave of his bishop. In addition to this paragraph 26 states that anyone having obtained a dispensation is strictly bound to keep forbidden books in such a way as to prevent them from falling into the hands of others.

It is, of course, absolutely impossible for both the pope and the Congregation of the Index to watch over the press of all countries in order to suppress at once each and every pernicious writing. Nor is this necessary after the definite aforenamed classes have been marked out as pernicious and consequently forbidden. For with regard to the worst and most dangerous works, even they who are unskilled in such things will perceive that these are strictly prohibited by the Church through the general decrees of the Index, though they have never been individually condemned nor put on the Index. There happens, however, at all times and in all nations cases in which the writings of celebrated scholars, even of distinguished Catholic theologians, contain erroneous doctrines. The better the author is known as an orthodox Catholic, the greater his reputation as a writer, the more easily will his work influence and mislead the unsuspecting. In these and similar cases, though the savant may have acted in good faith and written his book in the best of intentions, the Church as a Divinely appointed guardian must protect the imperilled faithful. If such a book is circulated and read only in small districts, it may be sufficient that the competent bishop, after careful examination, forbid it for his diocese. If however, the work in question constitutes a danger to the whole country, it must as soon as possible be denounced to the Apostolic See, above all by the bishops concerned, in order that the book may be examined in Rome and forbidden, if necessary, to all Catholics. This is a sacred obvious duty of all bishops; nevertheless the ecclesiastical law specially reminds them of it by paragraph 29. In the different countries and diocese the bishops are the appointed guardians of faith and morals. Hence, the highest ecclesiastical authorities in Rome do not, as a rule, take any steps until a book has been denounced by them. It is for this reason that the law contains three paragraphs, 27 to 29, on the obligation of giving information about bad books. The tenor of paragraph 29 has been stated above; the two others read as follows:

Although it is the concern of all Catholics and particularly of the educated to give notice of pernicious books to the bishops or the Apostolic See, still it is above all the official duty of the nuncios, the Apostolic delegates, the ordinaries (bishops) and the rectors of universities of high scientific repute.

It is desirable that anyone giving information against bad books should mention not only the title of the book, but as far as possible, the reason why he thinks the book deserving of condemnation. Those, however, to whom information is given, have the sacred duty to keep private the names of informers.

From these plain regulations it will be readily seen that the much abused so-called "denunciation" has nothing odious about it at all; that, on the contrary, just as in the case of a public prosecutor, it is part and parcel of the most indispensable official duties, e.g., of a bishop.

So far the Constitution of Leo XIII with regard to the prohibition of books. In addition, however, it contains exact regulations concerning the preliminary examination, the so-called "preventive censorship." Of this, the censorship of books in the proper sense, the second title of the Bull "Officiorum ac Munerum" treats in five chapters. From the notion and scope of censorship it is evident that it appertains exclusively to the pope and the bishops, not, however, to any community of scholars nor to any university. The pope, of course, has the right of censorship for the entire Church. In the general decrees here spoken of, he has (by paragraphs 7 and 30) reserved to himself the examination and approbation of all vernacular editions of Holy Scripture, if they are to appear without annotations. From paragraph 18 it is likewise apparent that authentic editions of the Missal, Breviary, Ritual, Cæremonial Episcoporum, Pontificale Romanum, and other liturgical books (to which also belong works on liturgical chant) require the approbation of the Apostolic See (see above). A book forbidden for the entire Church may not, as a rule, be reprinted. If, however, in a particular case this be necessary or desirable, it is to be done only with permission of, and on the conditions laid down by, the Congregation of the Index (paragraph 31). The same holds good also for any work forbidden not absolutely but with the clause donec corrigatur (i.e., until it be corrected). Paragraph 32 prescribes that writings on matters appertaining to a still pending process of beatification or canonization require the approbation of the Congregation of Rites. Generally speaking, collections of decrees of the Roman Congregations may be published only with the express permission of the Congregation concerned (paragraph 33). For censorship and approbation of grants of indulgences see INDULGENCES. Since Apostolic vicars and missionaries are immediately under the Congregation of Propaganda, they must, according to paragraph 34, observe the regulations of the said congregation regarding censorship of books. Apart from the particular cases mentioned above, in which censorship is reserved to the pope or to one of the Roman Congregations, it appertains in general to the bishop of the place in which a book appears (paragraph 35). This does not imply, however, that the said bishop may not simply agree to the censorship of another ordinary, e.g., the bishop of the author. Paragraph 36 warns the regulares i.e., members of religious orders with solemn vows, that beyond an episcopal imprimatur, they shall also require, according to the regulation of the Council of Trent--at least for books de rebus sacris--the approbation of their own superior. Finally, paragraph 37 states that a writer living in Rome, even if he wish to bring out his work elsewhere, need not have any other approbation than that of the cardinal-vicar, and the Magister Sacri Palatii Apostolici.

After this first chapter (paragraphs 30 to 37) the second instructs bishops (paragraph 38) to appoint as censors none but conscientious and capable men. The next paragraph (39) recommends to the censors themselves, warmly, and above all, the exercise of impartial justice. When examining books they must have before their eyes solely the dogmas of Holy Church and the universal Catholic doctrine as contained in the decrees of oecumenical councils, the constitutions of Roman Pontiffs, and the unanimous teaching of theologians. The last paragraph (40) prescribes that the bishop, if after finishing the examination nothing is to be said against the publication of the book, should grant the author the required permission in writing and free of charge. The imprimatur is to be printed at the beginning or the end of the book. Pius X in the Encyclical "Pascendi Dominici gregis" of 8 September, 1907 (Acta S. Sedis, XL, 645), expressly orders all bishops to appoint as censors qualified theologians, to whom the censorship of books appertains ex officio. Like appointments are to be made also at Rome. The official censor is to present to the bishops a written verdict on every book he has examined. In case the decision is favorable to the book, the bishop will give the approbation using the formula Imprimatur, which is to be preceded by Nihil obstat, together with the name of the censor. If after the examination the bishop refuses the approbation, but thinks the book capable of improvement, he must make known to the author the points to be corrected.

In the third chapter paragraph 41 mentions more exactly which books are to be submitted to previous censorship. All the faithful must submit for previous censorship at least those books that deal with Holy Scripture, theology, church history, canon law, natural theology, ethics or other branches of religion or morals, and in general all writings having special reference to religion and morality. To this class also belong the more important journals treating of religious or theological matters, as far as they are equivalent to books, not, however, writings of lesser extent, booklets or papers discussing similar topics. Publications of this sort need only be submitted for censorship when, for special reasons, in consideration of circumstances of matter or time, examination and approbation seem to be necessary. In the first title (paragraph 19), episcopal approbation is expressly prescribed for all novel litanies. The litanies of the saints, the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Name, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus have been explicitly approved by the Apostolic See or the Congregation of Rites, Paragraph 42 demands of secular priests that in token of their submissiveness, they should confer with their bishops, even for such books as are exempted from censorship. They must also obtain permission from their bishop if they wish to be editors of a paper or journal. Supposing that the paper or journal in question is subject to censorship, the bishop may, of course, appoint as its censor the editor approved by him. In that case the censorship of a paper published even frequently would have no special difficulties.

The fourth chapter, which consists of four paragraphs, is meant chiefly for Catholic printers and publishers. Paragraph 43 provides that No book subject to ecclesiastical censorship may be published without stating at the beginning the name and surname of both author and publisher; moreover, place and year of printing and publication ought to be mentioned. If for good reasons it be advisable in special cases to suppress the name of the author, the ordinary can give leave to do so. Paragraph 44 reminds printers and publishers that for each new edition, as well as for translations of a work already approved, fresh approbation is required. Books condemned by the Apostolic See are, according to paragraph 45, to be considered as forbidden everywhere and in any translation whatsoever. The last paragraph (46) prohibits booksellers from selling, lending out, or keeping in stock, such books as explicitly treat of obscene matters. To put up for sale other forbidden books, they require permission of their bishop. But even then they must not sell them top any person unless they can reasonably suppose him to be qualified for using such literature.

As regards the last (fifth) chapter which deals with penalties incurred by trespassers against the general rule, the first paragraph (47) has been mentioned previously, as it fixes the punishment for reading, etc., special classes of forbidden books. The next paragraph (48) inflicts excommunication "reserved to no one" on any person printing or causing to be printed, without approbation of the ordinary, books of Holy Scripture or annotations or commentary on them. The closing paragraph (49) declares it to be the duty of the bishops to watch over the observance of the law and to employ, at discretion, monition or even punishment in case of contraventions not provided for by paragraphs 47 and 48. The above-mentioned forty-nine paragraphs--Decreta generalia, as they are called in the Bull--exhibit the proper ecclesiastical law regulating the prohibition and censorship of books. There remain now to be ascertained the full import and binding force of these general decrees. This is best done by quoting the pertinent words of the Constitution "Officiorum ac Munerum":

On mature consideration of the matter, and after consulting with the cardinals of the Congregation of the Index, we have decided to issue the general decrees embodied in this constitution. The tribunal of the aforementioned Congregation shall henceforth be guided solely by these decrees, to which, by the sake of God, Catholics of the entire world must submit. it is our will that the said decrees shall have legal power, and we abrogate the rules published by order of the Council of Trent together with the commentaries annexed to them, as well as our predecessors' instructions, decrees, monita, and every other order or enactment referring to this matter, with the sole exception of the Constitution of Benedict XIV, "Solicita ac provida," which, as it has hitherto been in full force, shall remain so in future.

The Encyclical of Pius X, "Pascendi Dominici Gregis" (Acta S. Sedis, XL, 593 sqq.) not only confirms the general decrees of Leo XIII, but also lays special stress on the paragraphs concerning previous censorship. The pope demands of all bishops strictest vigilance over all works about to appear in print; he recommends warmly to them to take, if necessary, measures against dangerous writings; he expressly commands them to institute in all dioceses a council the members of which are, in a special manner, to watch carefully the teachings of innovators (Modernists), in order to assist the bishop in combatting their books and writings.

Motives of ecclesiastical laws regulating censorship

Every law is in one way or another a restriction of human liberty. In the domain of thought especially, mankind resents such an interference on the part of any human authority. The precept of fasting is more easily submitted to than an order relating to the prohibition of books. Thus, apart from all slander against, and misconceptions of, the ecclesiastical laws regulating censorship, apart also from all deficiencies to be met with in these as in all other laws it is easily understood that proud human nature is from the first opposed to everything these laws prescribe. This is all the truer the more distinctly and unequivocally the commands and prohibitions are worded, and the more strictly and universally they are applied, even to the educated and the learned. There are, of course, books forbidden to man by mere natural law. Still, in such cases, man fancies himself to be guided by his own judgment, by the dictates of his own conscience; whereas with regards to the ecclesiastical laws he sees himself dependent upon, and restrained by, human authority. Moreover, ecclesiastical legislation, since it is meant for all, contains not only prohibitions but also positive orders, and even in its prohibitions it goes, in places, beyond the limits of natural law. For human law is universal in its provisions, and obliges even when, for subjective reasons, natural law does not bind the individual. It must be added that in past centuries particularly the censorship of the State often made itself decidedly unpopular with the people, and that their hatred was but too easily, but without reason, transferred to the censorship of the Church. What has been said explains to some extent why the ecclesiastical laws relating to books and the Index are so much disliked. Nevertheless, these laws constitute a perfectly reasonable guidance for the human will. They are, therefore, good laws nay, for the faithful taken as a whole they are morally necessary and extremely useful even at the present time.

It is universally granted that especially in our days there exists hardly a greater danger to faith and morals than that which we may call the literary danger. From the greatness or rather indispensableness of the good at stake, the opportuneness and even necessity of preventive and strictly binding measures undoubtedly follow. In other words, the object in view of the law, that of safeguarding and keeping pure religion and morality, is absolutely necessary; now this object is at the present time more than ever endangered by a bad press; consequently those authorities whose principal office it is to protect the faith and morals of their subjects, must needs make suitable provisions against that press. Hence the moral necessity of such laws. Natural law empowers the father to keep away from his child bad and corrupt companions; the highest public authorities are bound to protect by stern measures, if necessary, their communities from epidemics and infectious maladies; State and police rightly allow the selling of poison and the like only under strict supervision. In the same way the competent ecclesiastical authorities in their sphere justly claim the right to protect the faithful by appropriate precautions from the poison, the danger of infection, the corruption springing up from bad books and writings. Faith and morals in a very special sense are the domains of the Church; within their limits, she must have independent, sovereign power and be able to discharge autonomously her most sacred duties. It ought to be clear, also, without special proof, at least to orthodox Catholics, that such morally necessary laws issued by the Church of Christ cannot be other than substantially good and reasonable. Considering, moreover, that the matter in question is a legislation which is really as old as the Church herself, which was applied according to circumstances by Leo the Great and Gregory the Great just as by Benedict XIV and Leo XIII, and which in its present form comes from such legislators as the last-named popes--everyone must admit that the wisdom and suitableness of the regulations are fully guaranteed. While with regard to these laws as far as they are of a disciplinary nature, there can be no question of real infallibility, still they remain strictly guiding precepts of Christ's Church guided by the Holy Spirit. As the origin and aim of the law, so likewise do its provisions make known its reasonableness and suitableness. Allusion to this has been made in the general history of censorship, and more detailed references have been given in the summary of the recent Leonine laws.

From the previously mentioned arrangement of all forbidden books in three groups it clearly follows that the Church not only keeps within the limits of her right, but also forbids only as much as she is bound to forbid by reason of her office as teacher and guide of all the faithful. She suppresses only those books that are in fact dangerous to all, those writings which every man of common sense must call destructive to faith and morality. Thus the only real dangers and the unrestraint of free speech are checked. Neither do the paragraphs stating penalties contain intolerable rigorousness, since ecclesiastical punishment is inflicted solely for the most grievous offenses. Besides, as to the sale of immoral, obscene books, the Church is not more exacting towards booksellers than the natural law; and with regards to the sale of other prohibited books she is more indulgent than any well-ordered government towards sellers of poison or dangerous explosives. There are cases, just as in all general laws where an individual is in need of a dispensation. But for these very cases the law makes provision by exactly stating how and where the needed permission is to be obtained. During late years especially, the Church has most liberally granted such dispensations. Likewise in the matter of previous censorship, the Church confines herself to what is absolutely required, by subjecting to examination only theological and religious writings, i.e., such as are most likely to imperil true Christianity and religion. If it must be admitted that the Church of Christ is the mistress of all the faithful, even of the profoundest scholars, and Divinely endowed with power to reach all, then in truth free research and scientific study are not hampered by previous censorship--any more, at least, than profane learning is hindered by its most qualified and renowned representatives at the universities. In the laws of censorship itself, impartiality and true justice are most strongly impressed upon censors and judges, who are aware from its terms that it is their most solemn duty to exercise their functions solely in conformity with the dogmas and the universal teachings of the Catholic Church, but in no case whatever according to private prejudices or the doctrine of any particular school.

This is why the censorship of the Catholic Church differs from every other ecclesiastical or political censorship, and why it has been guarded no less from biased injustice than from arbitrary rigour and conflicting inconstancy. Just these defects, on the other hand, characterized non-Catholic censorship, particularly that of all the Protestant sects with their continual variations of doctrine in Great Britain and Holland, the Northern Kingdoms, and Germany. The same shortcomings disgraced the political censorship of past centuries and rightly led in the end to the failure of Gallican, Josephinistic, Napoleonic, and Prussian censorship. Thus, however, is no proof of the objectionableness of censorship in itself, merely evidence of its defective execution. It may be added that prohibition of books and preventive measures against a bad press are indispensable, even where, in appearance, and according to the letter of the law, absolute freedom of the press prevails. The truth of this is established by the political history of the last century no less than by the civil legislation of more recent years. During the past decades, the freedom of the press, sanctioned by the law, has degenerated in so many places into absolute lawlessness, that on all sides and from all parties has arisen a demand for legal protection. The Catholic Church was therefore bound to adhere all the more firmly to her system, though in its practical application she was able to introduce many opportune mitigations. As to the censorship here dealt with, all factors of importance concur to demonstrate its usefulness and even necessity as practised in the Church of Christ, viz., the eminent importance for time and eternity of the doctrines that are to be safeguarded; the trustworthy foundation of revealed truth and universal Catholic teaching on which the previous examination is based; the guarantee of judicious and impartial censors. At the same time the historical development of Catholic censorship on the one hand and Protestant and political censorship on the other, furnishes the best illustration and most lucid commentary on the subject. For the historical evidence, see Hilgers, "Der Index der verboten Bücher," quoted below. (See INDEX OF PROHIBITED BOOKS; MODERNISM.)


Zaccaria, Storia polemica delle proibizioni de'libri (Rome, 1777); Fessler, Sammlung vermischter Schriften (Freiburg, 1869), s.v. Censur und Index, 125-214; Reusch (Old Catholic), Der Index der verboten Bücher (Bonn, 1883-1885); Taunton, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), s.v. Censorship of Books; Vermeersch, De prohibitione et censuræ librorum (Rome, 1906). For historical evidence, see Hilgers, Der Index der verboten Bücher (Freiburg, 1904); Idem, Die Bücherverbote in Papstbriefen (Freiburg, 1907).

About this page

APA citation. Hilgers, J. (1908). Censorship of Books. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hilgers, Joseph. "Censorship of Books." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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