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Vatican opens up secrets of forbidden books list

Published on December 22, 2005

22 December 2005

MUENSTER, GERMANY – The Vatican has opened up to German historians the secret records associated with the Catholic Church’s former Index of Forbidden Books, revealing that well-loved books of the 19th century nearly came under bans.

The Index, which was abolished in 1967, was a directory listing thousands of books that the church considered as theologically wrong or immoral.

The historians discovered that both a guide to good manners and the classic 19th century novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe were scrutinized by the inquisitors in Rome, who formed a department known as the Sacred Congregation of the Index.

One of the Vatican readers in 1853 considered Uncle Tom, a story of slavery in the United States, to be a coded appeal for revolution. But when a second opinion was sought from other inquisitors, they did not consider it very harmful and no ban was ever pronounced.

Another title that was nearly proclaimed insidious was a book on human relationships by Adolph Knigge, a German baron, which became a celebrated 19th century primer on the foundations of etiquette.

The church has never before revealed that the Knigge book landed on the inquisitors’ desk in 1820, with critics saying its philosophy encouraged selfishness and concentrated on personal happiness in a way that contradicted Catholic spirituality. But no ban was passed.

The historians, from the University of Muenster in northern Germany, were granted access several years ago to the records of more than 400 years of literary censorship by the church.

They had to sort out the mass of papers in the newly opened archive in the Vatican, and have now completed work on the 19th century, according to Hubert Wolf, a professor of church history.

“Both Knigge and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two examples that show how fierce the debate was about individual books within the congregation,” said Wolf, who heads the research team. “It certainly was not a bunch of yes-men churning out prohibitions en masse.”

The decisions taken by the office illuminate the personalities of the readers and their attitudes and standing within the Vatican as well as internal power struggles within the Congregation.

During the study, information was gathered from the minutes of meetings, assessments and reports. A complete list of Index and other Inquisition staff over more than four centuries was compiled.

Thousands of titles were placed on the Church’s guide to bad books, among them books by writers as diverse as Martin Luther, Jean- Paul Sartre and Immanuel Kant. The historians believe about double the number of works that were banned came under scrutiny.

“As a matter of principle, the church never disclosed the ‘not guilty’ verdicts,” said Wolf, whose research is bringing the sometimes random nature of the assessments to light.

The historians were surprised that certain books did not figure in the Congregation’s records at all.

“We looked everywhere for a mention of Charles Darwin, for example. There was nothing,” said Wolf, referring to the British scientist who proposed the theory of evolution and enraged those who believe literally in the biblical story of creation.

Adolf Hitler’s hate-filled ideology, “Mein Kampf”, was also never put on the Index, though Wolf and his team did discover evidence that the censors considered what to do about Hitler, with discussions in the office going on for years and a decision constantly postponed.

In the end, the examination of Mein Kampf was simply terminated. So far the historians are not sure why.

The Vatican now routinely releases its files for research after a set number of years, and those dealing with the period of Nazi Germany are due to be opened soon. Professor Wolf said he planned to follow up the Mein Kampf topic then.

The historian said research in the Index files was like playing detective.

When he received special permission in 1992 to be one of the first historians to see the secret documents of the Index, they were jumbled and there was no catalogue. In 1998, the Vatican officially opened the complete archive to historians.

The 19th century findings have already been published in the form of complete listings and other scholarly works of reference.

The objective remains to compile a complete survey from the 16th century to 1967, when the modernized church recognized that freedom of conscience was a greater good than supervising reading habits.

“The whole venture was crazy,” says Wolf.

Catholics are still expected today to voluntarily avoid books that would weaken their own faith or moral integrity, but that is a decision they make according to conscience, not at the orders of the church.

The research project is to seek further funding, arguing that the archives are invaluable as one of the few pan-European, contemporary compilations of information about the literature of the West.


Subject: German news