Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fr. Dietzen's Question Corner:
Q. Where can one obtain a current list of the Church's Index of Forbidden Books? When I was growing up we heard much about this group of books Catholics were not supposed to read. But it's been a long time since I last heard anything about it. (Indiana)

A. Nearly from the beginning of Christianity, the Church has recognized that what people read can have enormous good or bad consequences for their faith. For example, this is one reason Christians were always so careful that translations and copies of sacred Scriptures were as accurate as humanly possible.

Among the most colorful and combative documents we possess from the early centuries of Christianity are letters exchanged between St. Augustine and St. Jerome arguing over the best appropriate translation of a word in the Bible. They realized how people's understanding of their faith could be malformed by a messed-up version.

By the fifth century this concern was already being expressed over other writings, including what later became the Index of Forbidden Books. It cited books relating to religion, Christian religion particularly, which members of the Church were not to read without sufficient preparation and background. The first general legislation, however, requiring permission to print certain books was in 1487.

The index continued in one form or another up to our own time. In 1966 the index was eliminated, and in 1975 the rules were significantly revised. These changes are reflected in the present Code of Canon Law.

Approval by proper Church authorities is still required for certain types of publications either before or after they are printed. These mainly include editions of the Bible, liturgical and devotional books, and religion textbooks.

While these provisions are considerably less restrictive than previous Church law, the Church retains the same concerns for the integrity of our faith as in the past. The shift is toward a different understanding of the purpose of Church laws.

As the Canon Law Society of America explains, "The purpose of this legislation has partially changed, from a rather paternalistic attempt to protect the faith and morals of the people by safeguarding them from harmful religious publications, to a more restrained and positive effort to assure that those writings which express the Church's prayers and beliefs do so accurately" ("Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary," [1985], 578).

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