« Censer or Thurible Censorship and Prohibition of Books Census »

Censorship and Prohibition of Books

CENSORSHIP AND PROHIBITION OF BOOKS: By censorship is meant the provision that no publication shall be issued without preliminary examination and permission by the authorities, either ecclesiastical or secular. The prohibition of books as dangerous to religion, to morals, or to the State dates back to an early period.

Early Instances.

Thus all works on magic were ordered to be destroyed by the later Roman Empire. Constantine issued an edict that the works of Arius should be burned, and numerous like edicts against books of other heretics followed. Those who used or possessed such books were threatened with death. The Church forbade, on its own account, the reading of pagan and heretical books (Apostolic Constitutions, i. 6, vi. 16; canon xvi. of the Council of Carthage, 398). During the Middle Ages, both Church and State adhered firmly to the same principles; a salient instance is the decree of the Council of Constance against the writings of John Huss and its execution.

Censorship by the Church.

After the printing-press was invented and used to advance the cause of the Reformation, measures for its regulation were introduced by the Church, which first established a formal censorship of books. In a letter addressed to the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, Treves, and Magdeburg, Alexander VI. ordered (1501) that no book should be printed without special authorization. The Lateran Council of 1515 sanctioned the constitution of Leo X., which provided that no book should be printed without having been examined in Rome by the papal vicar and the master of the sacred palace, in other countries by the bishop of the diocese or his deputy and the inquisitor of heresies. Further and more detailed legislation followed, and the Council of Trent decreed (session iv.): "It shall not be lawful to print, or cause to be printed, any books relating to religion without the name of the author; neither shall any one hereafter sell any such books, or even retain them in his possession, unless they have been first examined and approved by the ordinary, on pain of anathema and the pecuniary fine imposed by the canon of the recent Lateran Council." On these regulations are based a number of enactments in different dioceses which are still in force. The Council decreed also that no theological book should be printed without first receiving the approbation of the bishop of the diocese; and this rule is extended in the monastic orders so far as to require the permission of superiors for the publication of a book on any subject.

Present Practise.

The Council of Trent left the further provision concerning the whole subject to a special commission, which was to report to the pope. In accordance with its findings, Pius IV. promulgated the rule submitted to him and a list of prohibited books in the constitution Dominici gregis custodiæ of Mar. 24, 1564. Extensions and expositions of this ruling were issued by Clement VIII., Sixtus V., Alexander VII., and other popes. The present practise is based upon the constitution Sollicita ac provida of Benedict XIV. (July 10, 1753). The maintenance and extension of the Index librorum prohibitorum was entrusted to a special standing committee of cardinals, the Congregation of the Index (see Curia), which from time to time publishes new editions (the latest, Turin, 1895). There is also an Index librorum expurgatorum, containing books which are tolerated after the excision of certain passages, and another librorum expurgandorum, of those which are still in need of such partial expurgation. The prohibition to read or possess books thus forbidden is binding upon all Roman Catholics, though in special cases dispensations from it may be obtained. The most recent regulation of the whole matter was made by the bull Officiorum ac munerum of Leo XIII., Jan. 25, 1897.

The State in many cases for its own purposes approved the principle of censorship until comparatively recent times. In Germany it was abolished only in 1848. In England after the Reformation the licensing power was in the hands of the archbishop of Canterbury; after Milton's famous onslaught upon it in the Areopagitica (1643), it came to an end by the refusal of the House of Commons in 1695 to renew the Licensing Act. The Reformed Church of Germany maintained similar regulations in some places, where the synodal form of organization prevailed. Among the Lutherans, the matter was as a rule left in the hands of the State.

(E. Friedberg.)

Bibliography: E. G. Peignot, Dictionnaire . . . des principaux livres condamnés au feu, Paris, 1806; H. Arndt, De libris prohibitis Regensburg, 1855; J. Fessler, Das kirchliche Bücherverbot, Vienna, 1859; F. Sachse, Die Anfänge der Bücherzensur in Deutschland, Leipsic, 1870; Suppressed and Censured Books, in Edinburgh Review, vol. cxxxiv., July, 1871; T. Wiedemann, Die kirchliche Bücherzensur in der Erzdiöcese Wien, Vienna, 1873; F. H. Reusch, Der Index der verbotenen Bücher, Bonn, 1883 sqq.; G. H. Putnam, Censorship of the Church and its Influence upon. . . Literature, 2 vols., 1906; JE, iii. 642–652.

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