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David Mills: The Vatican's Index of Prohibited Books wasn't all bad

Aside from a few books, most listed in the infamous index were deservedly forgettable

Cardinal Ottaviani places the triple tiara on Pope Paul VI on June 30, 1963

It’s like the movement against smoking. The authorities decide that they must keep people from smoking for their own good. Many would ban it if they could, but they can’t, so they require scary warnings on packages, don’t let anyone smoke in public places, prevent sales to minors, restrict advertising and raise the price with really high taxes. The point is to save smokers from themselves.

That’s one of our parallels to the Index of Prohibited Books, abolished 50 years ago this month by the newly renamed Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The idea – judging from the way I used to think and the way others speak about these things – sounds funny to us, raised believing in the open marketplace of ideas and with the feeling that ideas may be good or bad but they’re not really agents in the world. But the idea of an index only sounds funny to us because we don’t think of ideas as dangerous. We recognise physical infections but not intellectual ones.

In that, the advantage goes to the men who invented the Index and kept it going. They took ideas seriously. They thought some ideas would poison you just like nicotine-filled smoke and that some people who might innocently indulge should be protected from poisoning themselves.

It still sounds funny to us, banning books, because we don’t think of them as dangerous – except that we do. Some years ago the American libertarian Charles Murray and a Harvard psychologist named Richard Herrnstein published a long, studies-filled book called The Bell Curve, which argued that the races differed in intelligence, and it was duly attacked by those on the Right as well as the Left.

Most argued that the authors were wrong, but also that the idea would let every racist, social Darwinist and neo-fascist in America claim that their bigotry was “scientific” and “realistic,” and that they were only “facing facts”. The book is still regularly invoked as a bad thing.

This article continues at [Catholic Herald] We shouldn’t be ashamed of the Index

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