Censorship of Books (Canon Law)

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The censorship of books is the control of literature that is exercised by the Church for the salvation of souls. It is a judgment made by ecclesiastical authority whether a book adheres to Catholic teaching on faith and morals. This control is deemed censorship in its strict sense when it is exercised prior to the publication of a literary work.

History. Ecclesiastical censorship began with St. Paul at Ephesus and the burning of pagan books (Acts 19.19). The early Church acknowledged as morally and doctrinally sound some works contained in the Muratorian Fragment (2d century), the Constitutiones Apostolorum (4th or 5th century), the Decretum Gelasianum (5th century), and the writings of St. Jerome (d. 420). There also existed antecedent disapproval of anonymous and/or apocryphal works.

Some of the early Fathers voluntarily practiced individual censorship. St. Ambrose (d. 397) and St. Augustine (d. 430) are two who submitted their works to others for prior censorship. Baronius (15381607) held that censorship was customary as early as the 5th century. Two later instances of censorship, the letter of Pope Nicholas I (867) and the citation of Abelard (10791142) before the Council of Soissons (1121), indicate that censorship had become obligatory through custom.

The Franciscan Order first legislated concerning censorship under the influence of St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) in the Constitutiones Narbonnenses (1260). The medieval universities enacted similar laws in the same century, and by the 15th century diocesan synods had passed laws of censorship also.

The invention of the printing press in 1453 hastened the need of legislation for the entire Church; such legislation first appeared in the 1487 bull Inter multiplices of Pope Innocent VIII (148292). This bull was re-issued in 1501 by Pope Alexander VI (14921503) and was included in the Fifth Lateran Council (151217). The Council of Trent (154363) dealt with the censorship of books, and Pope Pius IV (155965) published the constitution Dominici gregis in 1564, reaffirming the need of censorship. Although many popes had issued subsequent legislation concerning the censorship of books, it was not until the reign of Pope Leo XIII (18781903) that this entire field of law was reorganized in the constitution Officiorum ac munerum (Jan. 25, 1897). Many of the provisions of this constitution appeared in the Code of 1918. Pope Pius X (190314) strengthened the regulations of censorship in the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (Dec. 8, 1907). He did this in order to halt the spread of Modernism.

Current Law. The Church's discipline on the censorship of books changed dramatically after the Second Vatican Council with the publication of the decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on March 19, 1975, "On the Vigilance of the Church's Pastors Regarding Books" [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 67 (Rome 1975) 281228; Canon Law Digest 8, 991999], which reflected a new awareness of the Church's dialogic relationship with the modern world. These norms were included in the revised Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 (c. 823832).

The most significant change is the much narrower scope of publications which are subject to mandatory censorship. The 1917 Code required that all writings concerned with religion or morals be submitted for prior censorship. The newer norms affect only a few categories of more or less "official" Church publications, namely, the Sacred Scriptures, liturgical books and prayer books, catechisms, textbooks of theology and related subjects for use in schools, and religious publications which are distributed in churches.

Another notable change is the description of the doctrinal criteria which are to guide the censor in making a judgment that nothing stands in the way of publishing the writing nihil obstat. The earlier norm (actually from the decree of Benedict XV in 1753) was stated in terms of "the dogmas of the Church and the common teaching of Catholics" and included the "common positions of learned persons" (c. 1393 of the 1917 Code). The revised legislation says that the censor "is to consider only the teaching of the Church about faith and morals as it is proposed by the ecclesiastical magisterium" (c. 831). It seems to be a more confining and rigorous standard. However, in practice it should not be. The censor is not to demand that all writings be in complete and exact conformity with magisterial teachings, but only to consider those teachings in making an evaluative judgment about the writings.

The local ordinary whose permission to publish (imprimatur ) is required may be either that of the author or of the publisher. In some instances the approval may be given after the publication of the book rather than before (c. 827). Censors are no longer required to be clerics; they are simply persons whom the local ordinary approves.

The censorship of books is a function of the Church's teaching office. Its pastoral purpose is the preservation of the integrity of faith and morals as well as the prevention of harm to the Christian faithful (c. 823). The process in not intended to stifle creativity or to hinder legitimate freedom of theological inquiry and expression (c. 218). It is to assure the accuracy and reliability of a relatively narrow range of official Church publications.

Bibliography: d. h. wiesk, The Precensorship of Books (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 329 ; Washington, 1954). h. c. gardiner, Catholic Viewpoint on Censorship (New York 1958; rev. ed. 1961). j. a. goodwine, "Problems Respecting the Censorship of Books, " Jurist 10 (1950) 152183. e. baragli, "Una constante preoccupazione pastorale della Chiesa, " La Civilta Cattolica 2 (1975) 436449. l. echevarria, "La vigilancia episcopal sobre la publicacion de libros, " Revista espaola de Derecho canonico (1975) 341372. f. j. urrutia, "De limitibus libertatis scribendi fidelium iuxta legem canonicam, " Periodica 65(1976) 529583. j. coriden, "The End of the Imprimatur, " Jurist 44 (1984) 339356.

[j. c. calhoun/

j. a. coriden]