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The Protection of Souls and the Banning of Books

Last month David Mills offered a two-prong suggestion to Ethika Politika’s (primarily Catholic) readers, arguing that most people don’t know as much as they think they do: (1) Study and submit to the Catholic tradition, particularly the magisterium, in an open and non-selective manner; and (2) Read more texts that challenge, perhaps even unsettle, previously held convictions, particularly political.

What is to be done with works that challenge faith and morals? While there are some souls equipped by nature and circumstance to examine, digest, and ultimately refute such texts, a good many persons are not. The health of a just society depends in no small part on this distinction—a distinction which, admittedly, upsets many commonplace liberal assumptions.

Starting at the social level first, let it be recalled that the practice of prohibiting harmful literature for the sake of the common good is neither an innovation nor a relic from the distant past. In an appendix to his seminal Theologia Moralis, St. Alphonus Liguori recalled that even the ancient pagans burned books that threatened the social order with the Romans going so far as to enshrine the practice into law. Just over a century ago, in his 1897 Apostolic Constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, Pope Leo XIII wrote the following on the censorship of books:

Most perilous of all is the uncurbed freedom of writing and publishing noxious literature.  Nothing can be conceived more pernicious, more apt to defile souls, through its contempt of religion, and its manifold allurements to sin. … The decline and ruin of states common owes its origin and its progress to bad books. … Worst of all of all, the civil laws not only connive at this serious evil, but allow it the widest license.

Considering the gravity of the matter it comes as some surprise that that the Catholic Church, by an imprudent act of Pope Paul VI, abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum—the Church’s official registry of banned books—in 1966. Although it is doubtful that any state paid the Index much mind by the time the final edition was published in 1948, its moral force remained intact. Simply because Catholics had grown accustomed to imbibing the false tenets of liberalism by that point in history does not mean they were, or even still are, exempt from Divine Law when it comes to filling their minds with malignant ideas and salacious stories which place their immortal souls at risk.

The adverse social effects of literary license—which includes film, television, and digital media as well—are manifold. Books that directly challenge the Christian Faith, and yet rest on thin scholarly credibility, are routinely published for a quick buck, leading curious souls astray while remaining unanswerable to any higher authority. It is simply not possible for the Church, acting in concert with her erudite faithful, to refute every false proposition that makes its way into the congested “marketplace of ideas.” Granted, rank idiocy has always been in greater supply than learned disputation, but never before in history have so many people had such unbridled access to the former.

A culture of contempt

What emerges from this unfortunate state of affairs is a culture of contempt for both the Church and traditional morality. It is now widely assumed rather than proven that the Scriptures are comprised of pious legends; natural law and teleology are untenable in the light of modern science; and that capitalism, liberalism, and democracy are the highest civilizational achievements in the history of mankind. What for ages had been, for the good of society and souls, prohibited is now permitted, and all under the guise of “enlightenment.”

Not every individual is capable of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to disagreeable works, particularly when such works demand a great deal of intellectual sophistication. A well-meaning soul cognizant of the social principles set forth in magisterial statements such as Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, but with no formal training in economics, can be led astray by propagandist works from a certain marginalized school of free-market thought, particularly when those works are hybridized with ostensibly Christian thinking. In fact, there is an entire institute dedicated to that project.

None of this is to say that there is no room for reasonable disagreement among faithful Catholics concerning not only socio-economic matters, but headier theological affairs as well. For over half-a-century Thomists and thinkers associated with the nouvelle théologie have engaged in a vigorous (albeit at times unedifying) debate over the doctrine of natura pura (“pure nature”) in Aquinas and his Scholastic interpreters. And with respect to the Church’s social magisterium, there is ample room for discussion on how its principles ought to be operationalized.

When it comes to Catholics—or faithful Christians in general—engaging works produced by secular thinkers, greater caution is required. Only an individual who, following the first part of Mills’s aforementioned advice, is truly steeped in the Catholic tradition and the Church’s magisterium should venture into foreign lands in pursuit of alien wisdom, and then only sparingly. The ultimate goal of any critical engagement with non-Catholic thought should be to uncover a common grammar which can be used to explain, defend, and promote the Catholic Faith. And if that non-Catholic thought is aimed directly at undermining faith and morals, then every reasonable effort should be made to limit its exposure.

Protecting souls

Such suggestions are no doubt anathema to contemporary liberal ideology, but so be it. Protecting souls, and by extension society, from error has nothing to do with “close-mindedness,” “intolerance,” or “ignorance.” As the old, but not forgotten, saying goes, “Error has no rights.” While it would be wonderful if academics, authors, and journalists were humbly open to charitable correction from Holy Mother Church when their works fell victim to the usual weaknesses of the will or understanding, we are a long ways away from that reality returning.

Meanwhile, Catholics must be vigilant to protect themselves and those whose care they are charged with from the rivers of falsity which flow daily from every media outlet under the sun. Before cracking open a book or downloading an article written outside of, and likely against, the Catholic tradition, faithful sons and daughters of the Church need to know their limits and perhaps, in humility, set aside anything and everything that risks what is most important in this life, namely their Salvation.

Gabriel S. Sanchez taught at DePaul University College of Law from 2007 to 2012 and now works as an attorney and independent researcher, publishing primarily in the area of trade and economic regulation. His latest scholarly work, a treatise on aviation law, is published by Cambridge University Press. He writes the Opus Publicum weblog.

For further reading:

St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Treatise on the Just Prohibition and Destruction of Dangerous Books

Pope Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos (paragraphs 14 to 16)

Pope Leo XIII’s Officiorum ac Munerum

David Mills’ Speaking Truth


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Rachel Meyer

    For books of heretical theological content I could see a purpose, though the imprimatur system is supposed to accomplish the same purpose in theory. I just can’t see the church banning Catholics from reading an economics book! For one thing, that would probably quadruple its popularity, even among Catholics. I think it would also really be scandalous for most people in and out of the church because the idea is so hideous to our society. More harm than good.

    Maybe a better idea would be to have some office publish brief comments on certain works instead of banning them. Then anyone interested could avoid the ones adverse to the faith.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      My proposal isn’t necessarily for the Church to ban economic books necessarily, and really I don’t see the Church getting back into the business of issuing lists of titles which attack faith and morals (too bad). I think what’s necessary for the time being is for individual Christians to be cognizant of their own limits and understand that they may pick up a work by someone like Hayek or Mises, find the arguments superficially plausible, and yet recall that the field is far, far larger than what the so-called “Austrians” have to offer.

      Where the real trouble begins is when ostensibly Christian (or Catholic) thinkers and institutes start promoting this stuff as economic gospel to fellow Christians who simply are not well-read enough to discern truth from error. Moreover, any economic book which directs people to support policies which directly contradict natural justice and Divine Law ought to be immediately suspect.

      • NDaniels

        True. One can walk into a many a bookstore on campuses that profess to be Catholic and find a multitude of books that do not challenge the issues of the Day in the light of our Catholic Faith, but rather serve to challenge and undermine The Deposit of Faith. No doubt, for those who desire to serve mammon, rather than God.

        • Gabriel S. Sanchez

          Well, sadly, there are very few authentically Catholic colleges left in the U.S. and some of the ones which are ostensibly orthodox still have faculties filled with dissenters. The problem for many is finding sure guides on the Catholic Faith and far too many Catholics are left without those even in their own parishes.

  • NDaniels

    Gabriel, this is an excellent post, clear and concise.
    “Considering the gravity of the matter it comes as some surprise that that the Catholic Church, by an imprudent act of Pope Paul VI, abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum—the Church’s official registry of banned books—in 1966. ”
    This should have been a red flag moment.

  • John2843

    Well, perhaps regrettably, Pope Paul VI is not known for prudence. With regard to reading, though, and media in general, did our culture then confer as much credibility as now to the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens? But what are we to do? Perhaps local parish groups could focus for a year or two on reading their works for the purpose of exposing the fallacies. But of course that too would be imprudent, and even worse if extended to film, theater, and television. Perhaps the best approach would be to build a wall to protect readers of only the good.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      Thankfully the the atheist tribe have been put in their place over the last few years by the likes of D.B. Hart and Edward Feser, though the kind of nonsense they promote still has a lot of purchase in the minds of far too many people.

      My larger concern, beyond the atheists, is when Catholics (or any Christian) encounters books claiming to give them the “real truth” about some aspect of their faith, and it winds up being a lot of conjecture dressed up in rhetoric. Books by Bart Ehrman come to mind.

      • John2843

        It may have been debunked, but it still seems commonly accepted uncritically among the secular elite. For example, Lawrence Krauss had an article in the March 17 New Yorker, “Scientific Breakthrough Let’s US See to the Beginning of Time”. It is a good article, accessible, celebratory on the science, and clear on the novelty of the findings. Then suddenly, toward the end of the piece, this disconnect:
        “For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.” I don’t understand why the editors let that through, but it points to overall acceptance of these views among the elite, including such joyful words as “heralds” and “new era”. I have to go read the two you mention. I am familiar with Spitzer, Haught, and (slightly) Delio, but not Fester or Hart. Thank you for your note.

  • Joseph McDonald

    The (very) long term answer to the problem discussed in this essay is the development of properly Christian and Catholic educational and life-disposition practices to form a strong foundation for the full formation of the child, the adolescent, and the young adult: what Augustine, Chrysostom, and Basil did with the pagan Paideia. But, as long as Christian and Catholic parents continue to entrust their children to “public” schools, and as long as the Church, in practice, dismisses parochial education, and increasingly proves irresolute in the support of educational apostolates, matters will worsen. Even a strong revival of parochial education, now, given the state of the culture and the compromising character of many of the dioceses and parishes in the Church today, would likely prove indecisive, if not some what deleterious.

    But, this isn’t much help to the parent, the teenager, the college student, the “man/woman on the street” Catholic, right now. It’s an emergency little recognized as one, and requires an emergency response by the Church-as-Hospital. However, I have strong doubts that limiting access to “bad” ideas from the faithful is a helpful way to go.

    The parable of the wheat and the tares can help us, here, I suggest. The wheat and the weeds are thoroughly mixed together and we must learn to identify the weeds and we can only learn this by examining the weeds, with the proper tools. But it is not our job to pull up and discard the weeds because in so doing we may well disturb (damage?) the roots of the wheat. Furthermore, the weeds and the wheat share the same life support systems and we may find some good in the weeds under the rubric, “All truth is God’s truth.”

    Good and evil are not two distinctly separate phenomena, rather, they comprise a continuum from irrefutable truth at one end to undeniable total evil at the other, with a big messy muddle in between, which is where we live and try to make shalom.

  • Thomas Storck

    Years ago I wrote an essay for NOR in favor or censorship, and I’m glad to see another writer frankly endorse it too! With regard to the Index, though, I doubt it could have been kept up to date without an inordinate amount of work, considering the huge number of bad books printed.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      That’s probably true. Perhaps it would be better if a general set of guidelines or principles were put forth, similar to what Pope Leo XIII promulgated with his Apostolic Letter Officiorum ac Munerum.

  • lyle

    The “Catholic mind” is a dead issue in the United States, proved by the fact the one time second to the Bible book Following of Christ is not even known, that inner core of we must decrease, God must increase.. Todays issues of ponography, war/murder of humans, hate and revenge, and trading of humans as sex slaves, the economic issue of socialism is against the Catholic faith. Socialism is the forced taking of the fruits of labor from the people, stripping away the freedom of the people to chose for themselves what they want to do with their fruits of labor.. Christians have a huge tolerance of vices, and that brought a great demise to Europe, as borrowing of money was agasint the Catholic faith before reformation. The United States is a big collection of heretics, claiming a faith in Jesus, but in denial and ignorance fail to recognize the Eucharist is the central heart of the faith alone. A Catholic mind is a rarity, to none existent in the USA, one of the few we can look to is Francis of today.