Monday, September 24, 2007

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

On Saturday, I used the destruction of the Alexandrian library to suggest that religious dogma and public libraries are not congenial companions. It was not religion I meant to place in opposition to libraries, but dogmatic religion.

When I was a young graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the early 1960s, I wanted to read the French philosopher Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution. To my astonishment, it was off-limits, locked away in that part of the university library reserved for works on the Index of Prohibited Books. It was not difficult to gain access; a note from a priest-teacher was sufficient, and it was obvious that he and the librarian were embarrassed that such rigamarole should be necessary.

The library didn't have much choice, I suppose. Everything was done in conformity with Rome, and the Index of Prohibited Books was still a part of the Roman desire to hold all the strings of power. The Church had been banning "heretical" books since the earliest centuries of Christianity. The first published lists of prohibited books date from the 15th century, codified by the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Index of Prohibited Books was not abolished until after the Second Vatican Council, in 1966. Most Catholic universities and colleges must surely have breathed a sigh of relief. Now Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Sterne, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Mill, Montesquieu, Bacon, Comte, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Stendhal, Balzac, Dumas, and all the rest could come out of the locked closets and take their rightful place on the library shelves. In fact, there are no more closets. My own Catholic college library has three copies of Bergson's Creative Evolution ready for the taking.

Of course, the Catholic Church was not alone in censoring books. Book banning and book burning are always with us. Every community has its committee of bluenoses who want to restrict what their neighbors read, and totalitarian regimes notoriously censor books. Fundamentalist religions seem particularly desirous of enforcing orthodoxy. It is the old Caliph Omar syndrome -- when you possess the truth by divine revelation, there is no need for any book other than the one by the divine Author.