Censor Librorum

This semester, CCIH Fellow Gustav Roman and intern Roman Krasnitsky are researching the place of heretical books in the original library collection of St. Ignatius College.  In what he calls “Part 1 of the JLPP Heresy Saga,” Krasnitsky reflects here on the idea of the heretical book and the role of papal encyclicals in shaping Catholic responses to “bad” books.

“Books which openly oppose the teaching of Christ are to be burned. Even more importantly, the eyes and minds of all must be kept from books, which do so more stealthily and deceitfully.”

Pope Pius VII, Diu Statis, 1800

To many, the concept of religiously-driven literary censorship is a wholly foreign and antiquated one. On the rare occasion when someone actually thinks of it, it is usually in the ambiguous context of seemingly irrelevant events occurring centuries ago, or in some backwards dictatorship on the other side of the globe. My experience with this issue is much more immediate.

In 2013, I entered Loyola University as a seminarian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I got a job at the seminary, working maintenance. Halfway through the summer, my janitorial duties took a somewhat unusual turn. I was pulled away from scrubbing and vacuuming and tasked with a different sort of “cleaning:” purging the seminary’s library of all “questionable” books. The library had inherited a 2,000 book donation after the death of a benefactor theologian, and I was to weed out the heterodox from the orthodox, simultaneously combing through the library’s existing collection. While this was a welcome break from the usual physical labor, deep-down I was perturbed; it seemed an unhealthy anachronism to engage in such censorship. My internal dilemma only grew when I learned that while some of the rejected books would be sold, others (ones deemed especially pernicious) would be destroyed.

Luther, Chittister, and Küng went into sealed black bags and eventually to the landfill. Theologians of non-Christian religions were consigned to the flames. Any who have been through the seminary system know the danger of questioning orders; you’re likely to be branded a heretic yourself if you do. So I feigned eagerness and did as I was told, secretly wincing each time I sent a book to its demise. During times when my clerically-clad overseer was out of the room, I would pick up an interesting looking tome and read little sections; a few books I even managed to smuggle out and save on the false pretext of “wanting to use them for kindling at home.”

A few months afterwards, I left seminary, no longer able to put up with the repressive atmosphere imposed within. My experience as censor librorum stayed with me. When I got the internship with the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, and discovered that my friend Gustav, also an intern, was starting a sub-project to examine the role of heterodox books within the library of St. Ignatius College (founded in 1870), I signed on right away to work alongside him.

Initially, we intended to start by identifying the heretical books within the reconstructed collection of the library, but immediately realized it wouldn’t be so simple. To get to that point, we needed to take a step back and first form at least a working definition of what the Catholic Church considered “heretical” in the period in question. This restricted the sources which could be used to assemble such a definition to the 1870s on the late end (disqualifying such otherwise tempting, damnatory papal documents as Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentabili Sane). The early cutoff point was set at 1800, marking the ascent to the Petrine throne of Pius VII and the Pope’s return to Rome after his predecessor’s capture and removal from the Eternal City by Napoleon. This gave us approximately 80 years of sources to work with (78 to be exact, as we set the end point at the death of Pius IX in 1878).

The 1800s being the era of the codification of papal infallibility, and the continuing centralization of the Roman Church, we decided that the best place to start would be the official declarations of the popes themselves – the papal encyclicals. Five popes reigned between 1800 and 1878: Pius VII, Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI, and Pius IX. Between them, they promulgated a total of 59 encyclicals. Going through all 59, we identified 20 which had at least some relevance to our topic of literary censorship in conjunction with the wider topic of heresy. Reading through those 20 was truly an eye-opening experience where we were able to glean an insight into the state of Church, the threats facing it, the fears of its leaders and their sometimes knee-jerk reactions. The very language of the encyclicals was defiant and militant, with lines peppered throughout such as: “…see that they are on their guard against seduction, so that they may shudder at the evil opinions propagated by these miserable times and at the books inimical to religion, morals, and public peace, from which this foul crop of wickedness has grown.” (Leo XII, Charitate Christi, 1825)

Pius VII went even further by ordering the sequestering and burning of any books deemed contrary to Christian teaching (see quote at start of the article). It seems that the general sentiment in the Church of the time (at least as expressed by the Roman Pontiffs) was that of distrust, pessimism, and condemnation. The frantic censorship of books was more-and-more imposed on the universal Church by the highest religious authority in existence with mandates like “…take from the faithful both the vernacular Bibles which have been published contrary to the sanctions of the Roman Pontiffs and all other books which are proscribed and condemned.” (Gregory XVI, Inter Praecipuas, 1844) After parsing the encyclicals, we found that the most referenced guide for censorship therein is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – a list of books (first compiled in 1559 under Paul IV) forbidden to be read by Catholics. Leo XII references the Index by name in Ubi Primum, Pius VIII in Traditi Humilitati, and Gregory XVI in Mirari Vos, and Inter Praecipuas.

The significance for our project of these references to the Index are considerable. A cursory inspection of the St. Ignatius collection revealed an 1873 edition of the selfsame Index. Moreover, the delicate tome appears to have been given to St. Ignatius College by the Midwest Jesuit Province. Was this perhaps a subtle suggestion from the provincial superior to the fledgling Jesuit university? And how did the Jesuits in charge of the growing collection respond? Did they wholeheartedly accept the papal charge to “…destroy the plague of bad books” and ensure that the “…criminal sources of depravity perish in flames?” (Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos, 1832)

Stay tuned as we assemble our 1870s definition of “heretical” and find out how our very own Jesuits treated the works unfortunate enough to fall under that demarcation.

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