Ask Alice about Catholicism
Is there really a Catholic Index of Forbidden Books?

There was. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or ILP as it was known, was active from 1557 until 1966, when Pope Paul VI abolished it. By then the ILP was viewed as contradictory to the spirit of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) which encourages dialogue between church and culture. After embracing the theological formation of the laity, Gaudium et Spes states: “But for the proper exercise of this role, the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, of thought, and of expression, tempered by humility and courage in whatever branch of study they have specialized” (no. 62). Book-banning and -burning would make this task more challenging than it already is.

The ILP originated with Pope Paul IV; it would take four centuries and a few more Pauls to undo the If a title were added to the ILP, it couldn’t be read or even possessed by a Catholic except by special permission. To be discovered with such a book meant excommunication from the church because the owner was presumed in agreement with ideas “contrary to faith or morals.”

“Forbidden” is a pretty heavy anvil to be hit with. The original ILP was so harsh that the same Paul IV who began it modified it before the year was out. The procedure itself was intended to be fair and never hasty. One bad review couldn’t get your book on the list. At least two reviewers had to evaluate negatively before it moved to the next level of consideration. Opinion wasn’t enough to denounce a book: It had to be in conflict with church teaching to receive attention.

While censorship goes against our modern grain, it’s an ancient practice. Saint Paul approves a book-burning in Acts of the Apostles, and in his letters he excoriates false teachers and doesn’t hesitate to ban them. The letters of Saints Peter and John likewise shun deceptive teaching and its promoters. It should be noted that at least two popes, Zachary (745) and Gregory IX (1231), rescued books recommended for the fire. The church also gave the ultimate thumbs up: If not for medieval monks, most secular works of antiquity would be lost to us.

Acts 19:19; 1 Timothy 3:2-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-19; Titus 3:10; 2 Peter 2:12-22; 2 John 10

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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