Secrets Behind The Forbidden Books (2023)

It was the most ambitious censorship drive the world has ever known, and the Rev. Hubert Wolf wants to reveal its secrets. Not only that, he wants to turn the Index of Forbidden Books inside out, posting on the Internet for all to see a guide to the confidential debates that lay behind it. Wolf is a German historian with a hefty budget and several dozen researchers who are poring over dusty Vatican files to show how the Roman Catholic Church triedand failedto control knowledge for over four centuries.

The Vatican offices that published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which were active from 1559 until 1966, listed books that Catholics should neither own nor read under pain of excommunication. During the index’s long life, the public was told about the latest bans but not the reasons for them. Behind closed doors, though, Vatican officials held long and sometimes heated debates about the books of the day. For over a decade now, Wolf has been building up a catalogue of those sessions that he wants to start posting on the Internet in 2005. With just a few mouse clicks, researchers will be able to survey the wide range of issues the Vatican reviewed and learn exactly where to find the files on them.

Nowhere else in the world did an institution try to control the medium of modern times, the book, for over 400 years, said the 44-year-old Wolf, a diocesan priest and professor of history at Münster University in Germany. Rome monitored the book market and reviewed all important publications. The archives covering thousands of books offer a unique peek into centuries of Vatican thinking on theology, philosophy, history, politics, science and literature.

Wolf first took the rickety elevator down to the basement of what was once known as the Holy Office, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, back in 1992, when the files were still closed to outside researchers. The lighting was dim, there were few sockets into which researchers could plug their laptops, and men had to wear jackets even in the hottest Roman summers. Sometimes, after going through very dusty file boxes, we looked like we had just finished a shift in a coal mine, Wolf recalled. The Vatican opened these documents, which are separate from its central archives, to other researchers in 1998.

Wolf and his team have zeroed in on the records of the church’s censorship drive, which started in earnest with the Roman Inquisition in 1542 to combat the Reformation. That office was soon overwhelmed, however, because the combination of the printing press and prolific Protestant authors sparked a publishing explosion as influential in its day as the Internet information boom has been in ours. So the Vatican launched a separate office, the Congregation of the Index, in 1571 to deal just with books.

Amply funded by the German Research Society for 12 years, Wolf’s project aims to provide a guide through the Index congregation’s archives. The files are far too vast to be posted verbatim on the Web, but the guide will summarize what lies hidden in each dossier. If we think we can finish this in 12 years, we must be a little crazy, or maybe completely crazy, he said with a smile.

The Index at Work

The idea of censoring heretical writings dates back to the early centuries of the church but was not formalized as a papal power until Pope Leo X did so in 1515, during the Fifth Lateran Council. Two years later, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Within weeks, they were printed in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel and distributed widely.

The first Index, as one might expect, published in 1559, banned all books by Luther, Calvin and other Protestant reformers. Since translating the Bible into vernacular tongues was a Protestant specialty, all Bibles but the Latin Vulgate were banned. The Talmud and the Koran were also taboo. But the Index didn’t stop there. It also drew up lists of books that should be purged of passages that conflicted with church teaching. Classical writersincluding Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Euclid, Hippocrates, Thucydides and otherswere put on the expurgatio list because they reflected pagan beliefs. Books translated by Protestants had to be filtered for offending passages. In some cases, a book only had to be printed in a Protestant city to earn a place on the list of objectionable works. The Index originally planned to produce purged editions of about 300 books. They only managed to do about 50, Wolf said.

After this confusing start, the Vatican decided to aim just at books denounced to it as dangerous. The Index Congregation met three or four times a year in Rome. Two consultors were named for each book being surveyed, and their findings were discussed at a meeting of the cardinals in the congregation. The congregation’s decision was then brought to the pope for approval. This produced a vast accumulation of files, written in Latin or Italian and divided into the Diarii, which recorded the congregation’s sessions, and the Protocolli, with all sorts of other papers. The Inquisition congregation met weekly but handled only 2 or 3 percent of the censorship cases, usually theology books.

Over the centuries, the Index managed to condemn a large number of writings that eventually became classics of European culture. Banned philosophy books included works by Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Pascal, Kant and Mill. Among the novelists listed were Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo, Zola, D’Annunzio and Moravia. Books by Defoe and Swift were blacklisted, as were Casanova’s memoirs. The censors’ zeal varied over the years and lost steam as the 20th century wore on. One of their last targets was Sartre, whose complete works were banned as early as 1948.

Wolf and his researchers are also writing up short biographies of the consultors to reveal the intellectual influences at play. They were all priests; and in many cases their education, travel and language skills have been recorded. The Jesuits and Dominicans dominated their ranks, and each order tried to make sure it was not outnumbered by the other. Certain patterns emerge, Wolf said: The Dominicans tended to take their men from a certain province in Italy. The Jesuits have their world-wide system, and they tended to move people around.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the archives is the large number of books that secretly passed muster. Authors were not informed that their works were being reviewed or invited to defend them. Until now, we only knew which books were banned, Wolf told me. Nobody knew about the books that passed the review.

The treatment of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) revealed the censors’ narrow cultural focus. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not reviewed as long as it was only available in English. You see, English was a barbarian language; only Protestants spoke it and they were lost for the faith anyway, Wolf recounted with a laugh. But as soon as it appeared in a proper Catholic’ languageItalian, French or Spanishit became dangerous. An Italian translation turned up in the Papal States and was denounced to the Index because Stowe was a Quaker and thus presumably spreading the Protestant poison, as the denunciatory letter put it.

As the archives show, one consultor argued for a ban, although he had apparently not read the book. The other had read it in English and gave a spirited defense of its goal, the abolition of slavery. That is exactly what we Catholics want, he declared. Have you forgotten that we learned all humans are descended from Adam and Eve and are God’s creatures? He also produced papal denunciations of the slave trade to bolster his argument. The case against the book was dismissed.

Sometimes simple common sense prevailed. One consultor wanted to ban Germany’s first popular etiquette book, Adolph von Knigge’s On Conversation With Men (1788), because the Freemason author based his rules on rational thinking rather than Christian morals. All his opposite number had to say was that the church would look ridiculous if it banned a guide to good manners. That ended the discussion.

Equally surprising is the fact that the censors ignored three of the most challenging authors of the 19th centuryDarwin, Marx and Freud. It is not clear why, but Wolf’s hunch is that the Vatican narrowed its focus after condemning Galileo for saying the earth revolved around the sun. We suspectbut haven’t proven it yetthat the Inquisition and Index mostly did not review scientific publications unless they clearly touched on theology, faith or the Bible, Wolf said.

The censors could react firmly when science and religion met. John Zahm, C.S.C., a professor of chemistry and physics at the University of Notre Dame, tried to give a Catholic interpretation of Darwinism in Evolution and Dogma (1896). Zahm was immediately condemned as an Americanist, a modernist, Wolf said. He had to withdraw the book from publication to escape a ban.

One book that was studied closely but never banned was Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The Index condemned The Myth of the 20th Century by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg in 1934 and examined Mein Kampf for three years, but it balked at taking on the chancellor of Germany. According to the Catholic doctrine of the state, Hitler came to power fully legally, Wolf explained. So they applied St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, which says all state authority comes from God and must be obeyed. In the end, the Vatican worked its critique of Mein Kampf into Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern), Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical about the challenges the church faced in Nazi Germany.

In the Other Files

The more Wolf talks about this material from the 1930’s, the more his imagination drifts to ideas far from his original Index project. As Germans, Wolf and his researchers can hardly ignore what the archives bring to light about Nazism, anti-Semitism and the role of Pope Pius XII in the Holocaust. Most of these documents belong to the Vatican Secret Archives files on Germany opened in 2003 after the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission collapsed. One of the first finds was a letter from the German nun Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism, who warned about Nazi anti-Semitism in a letter to Pius XI just two months after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. (Edith Stein died at Auschwitz in 1942 and was canonized in 1998.) Further research showed the Vatican had prompt and precise information on what was happening in Germany. There must be 50 other letters like that, he said.

The problem is that the Vatican has opened the correspondence between it and its Munich and Berlin nunciatures only for the period 1922 (the last date when Vatican files are generally open) to 1939. Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, wrote many of those reports as a Vatican diplomat in the two cities. But we don’t have the internal discussions in the secretariat, Wolf said. We don’t have Austria. You can’t talk about Nazism and anti-Semitism without Austria. It would also be interesting to see what nunciatures in other countries told Rome about what was happening in Germany.

If Wolf had more grant money and researchers, he would like to build another database with Pacelli’s diplomatic correspondence and all other information the Vatican received about Nazi Germany. Wolf thinks Pacelli’s fault lay in his overly cautious diplomacy, not in any anti-Semitic or pro-German leanings. But he wants to see if the documents prove this. What I’d like to do is gather an international team of experts, Catholics and Jews, and let them work together to make all this material available, he said. Whatever comes out, comes out.

Secrets Behind The Forbidden Books (2)

Tom Heneghan

Tom Heneghan is religion editor for the Reuters news agency and lives in Paris. He is co-author of Pope John Paul II: Reaching Out Across Borders (Reuters/Prentice Hall, 2003).

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15 years 8 months ago

Wow. I'm speechless.

14 years 5 months ago

i find this an excellent article. thank you for writing and making this information readily available.


Does the Catholic Church have a list of forbidden books? ›

Index Librorum Prohibitorum, (Latin: “Index of Forbidden Books”) list of books once forbidden by Roman Catholic Church authority as dangerous to the faith or morals of Roman Catholics. Publication of the list ceased in 1966, and it was relegated to the status of a historical document.

What is the most banned book in the United States? ›

This is the list of the most banned books in the first part of the 2022-2023 school year, according to the PEN America Index of School Book Bans. Gender Queer: A Memoir remained at the top of the list, as it was in the 2021-2022 school year, joined this time by Flamer.

Is Fahrenheit 451 banned? ›

Censorship/banning incidents

In the years since its publication, Fahrenheit 451 has occasionally been banned, censored, or redacted in some schools at the behest of parents or teaching staff either unaware of or indifferent to the inherent irony in such censorship.

Why was 1984 banned? ›

Orwell's “1984” was challenged for its pro-communist and sexually explicit content, alongside other subversive and dystopian stories such as Orwell's “Animal Farm” and Alduous Huxley's “Brave New World,” but has since become known as one of the most significant rationalizations for freedom of speech and expression.

Do Catholics reject the Apocrypha? ›

The Protestant Apocrypha contains three books (1 Esdras, 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh) that are accepted by many Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches as canonical, but are regarded as non-canonical by the Catholic Church and are therefore not included in modern Catholic Bibles.

What 7 books are only in the Catholic Bible? ›

A: There are seven books in the Catholic Bible - Baruch, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, Tobit and Wisdom - that are not included in the Protestant version of the Old Testament. These books are referred to as the deuterocanonical books.

Why is Charlotte's Web banned? ›

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

Due to themes of death and the fact that the main characters are talking animals, a parent group in Kansas sought to ban the book from their students' school libraries.

Why is milk and honey banned? ›

Kaur's debut work, 'Milk and Honey', which was released in 2014, has been banned due to its exploration of issues related to sexual assault and violence, according to non-profit organisation PEN America, which provided the data.

Why is the Lorax banned? ›

One of California's largest industries at the time was logging. Parents were concerned that teachers were “brainwashing” their children and were fearful the children would start an uprising against the logging industry. Because of this, “The Lorax” was banned in a Laytonville, California public school.

Why was The Great Gatsby banned? ›

The Great Gatsby was challenged and banned for a few reasons: sex, violence, adultery, and language. The affair between Daisy and Gatsby along with Nick's language regarding Jordan Baker make up most of the sex and adultery reasoning behind the challenging and banning of the book.

Why is Animal Farm banned? ›

The book was misunderstood and was seen as being critical of all forms of socialism, rather than specifically Stalinist communism. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded a cartoon version in 1955. Because of its illegality, many in Soviet-controlled territory first read it in pirated, 'samizdat' form.

Why is the scarlet letter banned? ›

People have tried to ban Nathaniel Hawthorne's widely read and taught novel The Scarlet Letter for moral reasons, and also because they believe it to be pornographic and even obscene. Some think that Hawthorne is far too sympathetic toward Hester Prynne, the adulterous heroine.

Why is Catcher in the Rye banned? ›

Some books may be banned for the whole novel in general, and some books are banned for just one word or even their book cover (“If You Think We're Free”). The Catcher in the Rye has been challenged several times for its “excessive vulgar language, sexual scenes, and things concerning moral issues” (Sova).

Why is the color purple banned? ›

The Color Purple by Allice Walker has been banned in schools across the United States sine 1984, just two years after the book was published. The book was banned for its sexual content and situations of abuse and domestic violence.

Why was Harry Potter banned? ›

There were concerns over the violence and increasingly dark tone of the later books but most of the censorship attempts were for religious reasons. It was also banned in some Christian schools in the UK.

Why did the Catholic Church make a list of forbidden books? ›

“The Index of Prohibited Books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, established in 1557 by Pope Paul IV, was a list of books that Catholics were prohibited from reading on pain of excommunication. The books were prohibited because they contained material considered dangerous or contrary to faith or morals

What are the forbidden books of the Bible called? ›

The Confession provided the rationale for the exclusion: 'The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings' (1.3).

What are the hidden books of the Catholic Church? ›

List of deuterocanonicals
  • Tobit.
  • Judith.
  • Baruch.
  • Sirach.
  • 1 Maccabees.
  • 2 Maccabees.
  • Wisdom.
  • Additions to Esther, Daniel, and Baruch: Esther: Fulfillment of Mordecai's Dream (Esther 10:4–13) Interpretation of Mordecai's Dream (Vulgate Esther 11) Conspiracy of the Two Eunuchs (Vulgate Esther 12)

What is the book of forbidden names? ›

The Book of Forbidden Names, in which the names of six traitors to the Jacobite cause are encoded, is MacLean's own invention, though it seems so plausible, in context, that another foray into Google was necessary. The Book of Forbidden Names is the fulcrum of the novel.

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