QUAERITUR: Index of Forbidden Books

From a reader:

Is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum still binding, and if so, what does that mean for the faithful? Is it a sin to read books on the list?

No and No.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    Search on page for “Hugo”:

    You Must Not Read This!

  2. Imrahil says:

    There are three reasons why a Catholic does not read what he otherwise would want to read:

    1. obedience towards Church authority. This reason was valid when the Index was in force; it totally falls away today.

    2. because it might endanger his faith. For a Catholic who has read his catechism and is intellectually capable to pose the question “am I allowed to read this”, I dare say it does not. (But still this does rule out something. Especially among, excuse what might sound like snobbery, the old uneducated people, there still lurks the supposition that what is written must be true; and that the very fact that a book contains other things than those the Church teaches means that the latter ones are not so sure after all; especially if we are in the esotery-newrevelation field I’d suppose.)

    3. because, while it would not endanger his faith, he does not need to read it and it would spoil his fun, spiritual equilibrium, or the like. Personally, I saw what the Index had been good for when I first watched Thelma & Louise, which is simply the adversaries at their best. (That a movie can favor feminism, male-bashing, soft men, crime, drugs, drunk driving (if I remember correctly), overspeed, fornication, and suicide all at once and explicitly, and this in a technical, musical and actorial masterpiece, is an achievement of its own…)

  3. KevinSymonds says:

    Fr. Z.,

    While it does not have legal force, the Index maintains its moral force. This was stated in June, 1966 and reiterated by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 in his famous letter to Cardinal Siri.

    I understand that the threat of excommunication no longer applies (legal force) but the threat of sin still looms under the natural law (moral force) if one puts material in front of his- or herself that can endanger their faith.

  4. wmeyer says:

    Ah, but it may be a sin to read the Fishwrap!

  5. LisaP. says:

    Again, nice points.
    I think, honestly, we need to have more humility in understanding how susceptible most of us are to certain forms of persuasive writing and media. I think as long as we go in wary and armed, it can often be advantageous or do little harm to read or view works that are antithetical to the faith. But if we go in thinking we are above being influenced, we are in danger.

  6. Imrahil says:

    When they said it retained its moral force, they meant the moral force of the qualification by the Church as not conform with Catholic doctrine and or morals.

    They did not mean the moral force that comes with the legal force. They did not say it still, qua Index, constituted a sin even though no crime to read one of them.

    It is, via natural law, a sin to read what endangers one’s faith. But, again, the fact that it was on the Index does not say it does endanger one’s faith. Despite the truth of what dear @LisaP. said (thanks for the friendly remarks), for a faithful Catholic of college level and above who does not abhor going into further study if he does not know something he wants to know, the faith-endangering things are fairly little compared to all the things that were on the Index.

    (The depressing things can be a bit more.)

    If I remember correctly and to put aside such exceptional cases as St. Faustina, Sartre had his opera omnia condemned on the index. But there is, frankly, nothing, why a Catholic should not sometime read Huis Clos

  7. Mike says:

    Yea, those nuns on the bus read all that cool stuff, and they’re doing just fine…er, no…wait.

  8. GordonB says:

    Les Miserables was/is on the index of forbidden books, but I think there are many Catholics who adore the work and the various Christian messages contained therein.

  9. KevinSymonds says:


    Perhaps you would be interesting in my 4-part series on Catholic Lane:


    Let me know what you think!

  10. Johnno says:

    You won’t believe the amount of anti-Catholicism, anti-Christian content that is available in books the world over, in comic books, in books for children, and as well promotion of immorality in all its forms.

    I’d welcome an Index back, if only as a way to properly inform Catholics about the content in many books and media, however in today’s day and age it’d be too monumental a task, nor do I believe many are up to the task, I’ve seen many a blatant immoral work get a pass and a shrug from Catholic critics and papers.

    So let’s face it, the Church has lost the war when it comes to propaganda against it in all forms of media.

  11. Johnno says:

    The quote at the end of the link by Charles E Flynn is hilarious:

    “Fortunately for the church a new spirit of openness occurred with the Second Vatican Council. Although there remain reactionary forces within the church, some in the highest positions, who would like to return to the days of censure and condemnation, please God, the fresh breath of the Spirit will prevail and blow such unhealthy anachronisms as the Index into the dustbin of history. ”

    Ah… the gift that keeps on giving…

  12. jhayes says:

    KevinSymonds, Cardinal Ratzinger was simply citing what the CDF had said in 1966

    questa congregazione per la dottrina della fede, dopo aver interrogato il beatissimo Padre, comunica que l’Indice rimane moralmente impegnativo, in quanto ammonisce la coscienza dei cristiani a guardarsi, per una esigenza che scaturisce dallo stesso diritto naturale, da quegli scritti che possono mettere in pericolo la fede e i costumi; ma in pari tempo avverte che esso non ha più forza di legge ecclesiastica con le annesse censure.

    I am sure there are many people here whose Italian is better than mine, so please feel free to revise my translation:

    this Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, having consulted the Holy Father, states that the Index remains morally binding in that it alerts the conscience of Christians of the need, which arises from the natural law itself, to beware of writings that could endanger faith and morals; however, at the same time, we point out that this does not have the force of ecclesiastical law and its penalties.

    See the Latin HERE (page 445)

  13. KevinSymonds says:


    Yes, I am quite familiar with both documents. Since we ought not to take lightly books that were on the Index, according to Ratzinger, we ought to exercise caution in this regard. That is all I am saying.

  14. oldCatholigirl says:

    I think that one should take the Index as a big “Beware” sign, in the sense of “Be wary”, on guard. Obviously, scholars (formal or desultory) must read many of the books cited in the “You Must Not Read This!” list, but being extra careful to excercise their (presumably always active) critical judgment. Children, and those of us still at a childhood level of knowledge of any subject, need guidance. Lisa P. is quite right about the need for humility.
    I do wonder if books with unfavorable criticisms of (individuals within) the Church were put on the Index whether or not the criticisms were accurate.
    A modern-day Index would have to be so long that it would crash everyone’s computer. And some people would take its “Beware!” to mean “Look, look!”

  15. Imrahil says:

    Dear @KevinSymonds,

    thank you for your kind question. Your articles are highly interesting; I totally agree with Part One. Let me just state where I disagree…

    It is true that in abolishing the Index, a distinction between law and morals was done. It is also true that the faithful (and all others) are bound to the natural law.
    However, I believe an obligation to read nothing contrary to faith (which doubtlessly once existed, in a sense, in positive law) does not exist in natural law. What does exist is an obligation to read nothing what might endanger one’s faith, which, without prejudice to the humility dear @LisaP piously reminded us of, is quite a different thing. (Whether the motives to abolish the Index were praisable or not is of no relevance here.) The quondam Index serves as a reminder that the contained material has once been judged incorrect by the Church’s magisterium, an information to be included in one’s moral decision. That, and only that, is its remaining moral force.

    The application to private revelations is highly interesting. Indeed while we tend to associate censorship with the fight against heresy, probably private revelations is the first area where the Index had rather been retained. Nevertheless, it was not retained, and according to my principle “all is allowed that is not forbidden” (which I believe to be by necessity deducible from the postulate of Christian freedom), I have to disagree with the sentence Some Catholics thought it permissible that books alleging private revelation could now be published without censorship. This thought, however, is not what Paul VI did or intended. It is not against natural law to publish a private revelation, if you sincerely believe it is authentic; however much we may wish that there is a positive law to forbid it unless the Church also believes it is authentic.

    Also, if I interprete rightly that you allude to Medjugorje when speaking of seeing the latest visionaries, etc., here the positive act of choosing private revelations above the Magisterium is not to be feared. There may be an overoccupation with private revelation and a lack of occupation with Magisterium, but this is not apostasy nor even a sin; it is only, perhaps, suboptimal.

    Nevertheless, taken as abstractly as you wrote it, this danger exists. How many apostatic movements are out there that ground themselves on the awe people feel when hearing nothing but “this has been revealed to a visionary”!

    On part four, I do not think a return to Latin is of most immediate concern. It certainly is to be wished (I said I agreed completely with part one…). But seen systematically, the change from Latin to vernacular was the most minor of all changes of the liturgy reform – if stripped of the wrong translations that were included in it. English seems to have been particularly gruesome in this; but I guess you’re quite fine by now… We, on the other hand, have a better translation, but it does have one flaw (pro multis = “for all”, sit down, that’s an F grade).
    What we first must do is to return to a science and liturgy formed on Latin, even if in the vernacular. If you watch two medical doctors discuss a case, you’ll find that however English they speak, this English is, in reality, a sort of Latin, which only takes some English influences in grammar and pronunciation. This, in fact, is something to be achieved beforehand in theology.

    Of course, I wonder whether a Catholic even should be able proceed to college education without having learnt Latin in school. All the world learns English*, which is merely secuarly the world’s lingua franca. Can’t a Western Catholic, then, learn the mothertongue of his own rite? [*Note: With excuse for the patriotism, I’m perhaps overgeneralizing from the level of a language learnt in school on a German Gymnasium. Frenchmen, Italians, are said to be less good in English.]

    On the other hand – but now I’m disgressing – I think your caution against the accusation of wanting to turn the clock back was quite unneccessary. Never try to compromise; give a finger, lose a hand. As Chesterton reminds us, (no literal quote) “progressists” [by which I do not mean you] ” are getting lost in their own metaphors. It may be true you cannot turn time back. But you can turn the clock back.” You want a change for the better; you have given your reasons why it is a change for the better, and quite good reasons at that. It is not only a wrong argument against it but not even an argument against it, that this better state had already existed.

    Again, that you very much for your linking your articles.

  16. KevinSymonds says:


    Please see my last post.

    Also, I think we will disagree about publishing a private revelation. However, I do not see the need to lay out the arguments here when my book on this subject will be out soon enough. Buy a copy when it comes out! (shameless plug…)

  17. StWinefride says:

    @Imrahil said: “There may be an overoccupation with private revelation and a lack of occupation with Magisterium, but this is not apostasy nor even a sin; it is only, perhaps, suboptimal”.

    In my humble opinion, I think it’s more than suboptimal! It’s positively dangerous!

    In the case of Private Revelation, we can never give to it the assent of Catholic faith only of human faith or pious belief (Benedict XIV). Catholic faith we can only give to Public Revelation, the Deposit of Faith. This is an important distinction.

    We are all called to be Saints and on the narrow path by which we achieve this, we find the words:

    Humility and Obedience.

    Ignore this at our peril, because the devil can appear as an angel of light and really doesn’t care, in the long run, how he gets people out of the Catholic Church, just as long as he does. Hence the danger!

    Happy New Year!

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