Index Librorum Prohibitorum

In the second installment of CCIH Fellow Gustav Roman and intern Roman Krasnitsky’s research into heretical books in the original library collection at St. Ignatius College, Roman looks at the presence of two copies of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in the collection and their significance over time.

“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.” – George Bernard Shaw

The nineteenth century’s mammoth surge of Papal Encyclicals concerned with the devilish workings of conspiracy, sabotage, heresy, and the reactive necessity of censorship from the Catholic Church presents an interesting backdrop for the building of the St. Ignatius College library. In trying to understand the ideas that would be classified as heretical in a Jesuit college’s library, we discover no easy path in coming to a sound definition grounded in historical Catholic understandings of general literary and theological indecency.

Where the Encyclicals give us an easy sense of context in theory, what was done with them in practice is less clear. We know by looking today that our excerpts of Papal authority on the matter of censorship are not proud moments for the church—it seems to be an era of deeply realized but unfocused Church hysteria. Our question is how these missives from the global church were received on a local level.

The Encyclicals directed at the censorship of particular content in books are never wholly limited to that. They are often interested in such a variety of fears that it’s hard to see what nineteenth-century Jesuit faculty and students would make of them; not that a piece of rather hysteric intrigue directed at uncovering plots made by dastardly Prussian bishops wouldn’t have interest, but it may not be a directly preached social reality to anyone in an American Jesuit college in 1870 in the heart of a growing metropolitan landscape. This would be a question for the Bishop of area. Bishops were the real means of distribution for Encyclicals, based on varying levels of importance found in the place where they are stationed. Just as Bishops today empathize or underplay various statements from the Vatican, so, too, did Bishops have the authority to do so then. Unlike today, however, in 1870 clear alternative means of distribution for those who sought it out did not so easily exist.

Cover of the 1870 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum given by the Missouri Province to St. Ignatius College.

Cover of the 1870 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum given by the Missouri Province to St. Ignatius College. Collection of Loyola University Libraries.

The clearest framework and tangible point of reference in trying to understand a Catholic worldview of limited literary intake and the harsh didactic language of the harmful repercussions of these “books which openly oppose the teaching of Christ” would rest in the reception of the fittingly titled Index Librorum Prohibitorum (translating eloquently to the List of Prohibited Books). At least this would seem to be the case. The book gives us exactly the clear hard facts that the Encyclicals themselves were often blurry on. That is to say, it tells good Catholics what they should not read. A dry, seemingly never quite exhaustive—even if exhausting—Latin text of well over 350 pages of small-font print by 1870, the Index stated title upon title, from Immanuel Kant to Martin Luther to the ominous sounding independent titles like The Spirit of Popery.

The Index had been in the works well since the ninth century, as early Christian tradition shows us, in unofficial productions of lists restricting various blasphemous or simply untrusted texts. Drafts were produced until the 1559 appearance of Pope Paul IV’s clear incarnation known as the Pauline Index. A slight refinement during the Council of Trent produced the more relaxed (in the inquisitional definition) and fittingly titled, Tridentine Index. It aimed to clear up any controversy produced by Paul’s draft. Twenty different editions appeared up until 1966 when the gigantic list ceased to be added to and was never again republished.

Much scholarship has been done on the Index to show its evolution and the patterns in how it grew, as well as who added the most. Our question for the Index by the time of 1870, within its last century of existence, is just how relevant it was to the library and what it can tell us about the definition of heretical texts. Two editions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1841 and 1870) resided on the shelves of the library of St. Ignatius College. We know from the surviving 1870 edition that it was gifted to the college by the Missouri Province, the Jesuits who founded St. Ignatius and, at the time, oversaw most of the schools and houses in the middle portion of the country.

In the c.1878 catalog, the two editions of the Index were shelved with other "miscellaneous" titles like The Magician's Own Book (1857). Image from Hathitrust.

In the c.1878 catalog, the two editions of the Index were shelved with other “miscellaneous” titles like The Magician’s Own Book (1857). Image from Hathitrust.

The surviving 1870 copy is clean and undamaged. No marginalia reveal the thoughts of Jesuit commentators or anyone else. There is no apparent evidence of it being checked out extensively or closely read by any possible librarians or censors. What exists in the library is a tightly bound and only slightly age-worn work in which the large list of titles stretches well across pages and pages of text. The work itself was not easily dealt with by anyone, or so it would seem. It was placed on a shelf of seeming misfit titles, sandwiched between books like Excelsior, or, Essays on Politeness, Education, and the Means of Attaining Success in Life (1873), The Elements of Tachygraphy (1874), and The Magician’s Own Book, or The Whole Art of Conjuring (1857). Not even considering the possible heretical fit that the final title could stir, the library appeared not only to be unsure of where to place the Index, but also seem not to have been phased by its very existence.

Likely displayed on library shelves more as a reference tool, or a gesture of outward piety and obedience towards the Province, the Index gives a sense of infallible authority shelved amongst oddities and superstition. Not that 1870 gives us a golden age, if you will, for the Index. Papal shifts find this and the years leading up to it as quieter times in the Catholic discourse on censorship. Although a reason for this shelving of the book can just as easily be placed toward the internal reason of Jesuitical rebellion, another reason could just as easily be from the Vatican itself. The very language of censorship as a main focus had calmed down drastically by 1870, with the Papacy of Pius IX focused more on housekeeping than possible conspiracy. The harshest of his 16 Encyclicals to a modern reader is likely Levate, which deals with affliction in the Church and harshly condemns the secular, governmental college—something St. Ignatius escaped.

Still unclear is how Bishops and Provincials interacted with and how a rising college navigated these patterns of Papal thought. In the face of professors’ orders, librarians’ meddling, and students’ desires, how might the Jesuits have possibly challenged the constructs of censorship to produce such a well-rounded library? These questions remain as we further explore these modes of textual interaction. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum gives us an exhaustive list of heretical candidates, but our question coming out of this is what the library considered to be heresy and obscenity in the face of this seeming dismissal—intentional or otherwise—of such an authoritative source.


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