A Book Against Books


WHY do many people feel prejudice against the Bible? The answer in some countries may be related to the history of a human instrument designed to control “heresy”​—the Index of Forbidden Books. How could that be?

The Catholic Church welcomed the invention of printing with enthusiasm. A few popes even extolled what was called by some clergy a “divine art.” Soon, though, the ecclesiastical hierarchy realized that printing was being used to spread ideas contrary to Catholicism. Therefore, limitations were established in a number of European dioceses at the end of the 15th century. The imprimatur (approval for printing) was introduced, and in 1515 the Fifth Lateran Council imparted directions to control printing. Transgressors could be excommunicated. Particularly after the onset of the Reformation, however, this did not prevent the circulation of printed matter and books that the church considered dangerous to faith and morals. Hence, toward the end of the 16th century, Vatican circles hoped  “that there be no more printing for many years.”

To impede “the impetuous slimy flood of infected books”​—as one Italian Jesuit put it as recently as 1951—​the church wanted a list that would be valid for all Catholics. In 1542 the Roman Inquisition was instituted. Its first public act was apparently an edict against editorial freedom in the religious sphere. When the former inquisitor-general Gian Pietro Carafa became Pope Paul IV in 1555, he immediately ordered a commission to compile a list of forbidden books. The first universal Index of Forbidden Books was thus printed in 1559.

What Kind of Books Forbidden?

The Index was divided into three “classes.” The first listed authors, all of whose books were prohibited whatever the subject matter. The second listed the titles of single prohibited works by authors who otherwise were not condemned. And the third prohibited a long list of anonymous works. That Index contained 1,107 censures, affecting writers not only of religious subjects but also of other types of literature. An appendix listed prohibited editions of the Bible, specifying that all translations in common tongues were forbidden.

Although local bans had previously been in effect, “with these provisions affecting all of Catholicism, the church made its first official pronouncement against printing, reading, and possessing the Holy Book in the vernacular,” according to Gigliola Fragnito, a teacher of modern history at the University of Parma, Italy. The Index was violently opposed as much by booksellers and editors as by governments, which benefited from printing. For these and other reasons, a new edition was ordered and was published in 1564, after the Council of Trent.

A Congregation of the Index was specially created in 1571 to care for its revision. At one time as many as three entities decided which works to ban​—the Congregation of the Holy Office, the Congregation of the Index, and the master of the sacred palace, a papal dignitary. Overlapping responsibilities and differences of opinion concerning whether more power should be given to bishops or to local inquisitors were among the reasons for delay in publication of the third catalog of forbidden books. Prepared by the Congregation of the Index and promulgated by Clement VIII in March 1596, the Index was blocked at the request of the Holy Office until such time as it was made more peremptory in banning all Bible reading in the tongues of common people.

With this edition the Index of Forbidden Books acquired a more or less stable form, despite continual updating throughout the centuries. Many Protestants, who saw their works included, defined the Index as “the best guide to identifying the most desirable books.” It has to be said, however, that at the time, the ideas of Protestantism were much the same as those of Catholicism when it came to censorship of books.

The Index had a disastrous effect on culture, which in countries like Italy withdrew “into cramped isolation,” says historian Antonio Rotondò. Another historian, Guido Dall’Olio, says that the Index was “one of the principal factors in the great cultural backwardness of Italy, in relation to most other parts of Europe.” Ironically, some books survived because they ended up in a special place, the so-called inferno, a location created in many ecclesiastical libraries to keep prohibited literature under lock and key.

 Gradually, though, the new role of public opinion in the age of enlightenment played its part in the demise of the “most imposing repressive apparatus ever fielded against editorial freedom.” In 1766 an Italian editor wrote: “Rome’s prohibitions do not decide the merit of books. The public decides.” The Index was losing importance, and in 1917 the Congregation of the Index, which cared for it, was dissolved. Since 1966 the Index “no longer has the force of ecclesiastical law with its related censures.”

The Bible in Common Languages

The history of the Index reveals that of all “infected books,” one in particular worried ecclesiastical authorities​—the Bible in the common tongue. In the 16th century, “approximately 210 editions of whole Bibles or New Testaments” were listed by the Indexes, explains specialist Jesús Martinez de Bujanda. During the 16th century, Italians were known as enthusiastic readers of the Bible. Yet, the Index, with its rigorous prohibition of the Scriptures in the vernacular, radically altered this nation’s relationship with God’s Word. “Forbidden and removed as a source of heresy, in the minds of Italians the Holy Scriptures ended up being confused with the writings of heretics,” says Fragnito, who adds: “The way of salvation for Catholic populations of southern Europe was through the catechism,” and “a childish people was preferred to a religiously mature people.”

Only in 1757 did Pope Benedict XIV authorize the reading of ‘vernacular translations of the Bible approved by the Apostolic See.’ A new Italian version, based on the Latin Vulgate, could thus finally be prepared. In fact, Italian Catholics had to wait until 1958 to receive their first complete Bible translation based directly on the original languages.

Today, says Fragnito, particularly non-Catholics are busy “circulating the Scriptures everywhere.” Among the most active are undoubtedly Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have distributed more than four million copies of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in Italian. They have thus helped to rekindle a love for God’s Word in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people. (Psalm 119:97) Why not become better acquainted with this extraordinary book?

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Pages from the Index of Forbidden Books

[Credit Line]

Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali

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A 16th-century Italian Bible forbidden by the church

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The “New World Translation” has awakened in many people a love for God’s Word