Monday, 7 January 2019

More on the Vatican Enfer

In my recent post on “The myth of a Vatican porn collection” (here), I mentioned the popular conflation of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum—the bibliography (published by the Vatican) of books that Catholics were prohibited from owning or reading—with the collection that the Vatican itself held.

Over Christmas break, I read an excellent essay on “Prohibited Books in the Clergy Library at Ovada” by Father Ivan Page (a lovely man, and a long-time member of the Centre for the Book at Monash, who died in 2012; see here for his obituary). Ivan’s essay contains fascinating new information about prohibited books that are (or once were) in the Vatican’s collections, by someone who knew the collection well. The essay helps explain how the myth of a Vatican porn collection may have arisen.

Ivan’s essay is based on a paper presented at the State Library of Victoria in July 2010, but has only just been published in a small collection of essays (Censorship in the Ancien Régime), in a limited edition, by the Ancora Press. Since this essay is unlikely to have the scholarly reach that this subject deserves I thought I’d mention it here. It is possible that others have previously reported on Ivan’s findings. If so, it is news to me!

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The parts of Ivan’s essay that are of particular interest are pp.25–26 (concerning the fate of the Vatican’s banned books, which I will discuss today) and 39–42 (concerning licenses, which I will discuss on another occasion). Ivan conducted his research at the Vatican Library to discover why certain works had been put on the Index; consequently, he consulted the “Archives of the Congregation of the Index, which, since the Congregation no longer exists, are held with those of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (24–25). Since “it has only been possible for scholars to consult these archives since 1998 … the experience is still relatively rare” (25).

(I’d suggest that the experience is more than just rare, it would be a bibliophilic and bibliographic heaven! The records that Ivan had gone in search of are contained in “thick volumes of manuscript reports, mostly written in Latin, each one covering the Congregation’s activities for one or more years” (25). What an evocative description. Below is a reminder of what the Vatican library archives look like!)

Based on this 2005 article by Thomas Heneghan, which reviews the research undertaken by the Rev. Hubert Wolf**), Wikipedia explains (here), the administrative process of evaluating a work: the Congregation of the Index held meetings several times a year; works that were to be discussed at the meetings were thoroughly examined—two people scrutinizing each work. (Prohibitions made by other congregations, mostly the Holy Office, were passed on to the Congregation of the Index.)

At their meetings, the Congregation collectively decided whether to advise that the works should be included in the Index. Documentation from these meetings was passed on to the Pope, to aid him in making his decision. After the Pope decided whether to approve these works being added or removed from the Index, final decrees against the individual works were drafted by the Congregation and made public.

According to Ivan, “Where the work [being scrutinized by the Congregation was] a pamphlet, one sometimes finds it bound up with the report. According to the inventory,” however, “all the books referred to the Congregation were at one time shelved in the Secretary’s office. There came a time when they were too numerous for the space available. With the approval of the Pope, they were transferred to the Biblioteca Casanatense, one of the Dominican libraries in Rome. No instructions were given, such as requiring them to be kept together. The library took some of the books into its collection—and discarded the rest” (25).

Unfortunately, Ivan did not provide any references for this paragraph; his sudden death probably prevented him from fully referencing his essay as a whole. The claim, however, is clear: that the reports compiled by the Congregation of the Index were based on a close examination of the work concerned—something that required access to the book itself. As Ivan writes: while the decree “never gives the reason for the decision … the censor’s report analyses the work examined in some detail; it often quotes a selection of passages … and reminds the reader of the Church’s own teaching on the subject” (25).

It is clear, then, that the Congregation library did, at one time, contain copies of all of the works which it reported on—whether or not the work was ultimately added to the Index (and many were not added). That some pamphlets remain in the Congregation library, but that the bulk of them were—at some point—transferred to the Biblioteca Casanatense, which kept an unknown percentage of them.

It would be interesting to examine the Casanatense collection, to see whether it is possible to establish just how many of the works examined by the censor’s at the Congregation of the Index, survive. That is, what proportion of the Vatican’s enfer resides at Via di Sant'Ignazio, 52.

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Rev. Hubert Wolf is the author of numerous relevant works in German: Inquisition, Index, Zensur [Inquisition, Index, Censor] (2003), Index. Der Vatikan und die verbotenen Bücher [The Index. The Vatican und the Forbidden Book] (2006), Verbotene Bücher. Zur Geschichte des Index im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert [Forbidden Books. The History of the Index in the 18th and 19th Centuries] (2008) etc., right up to the recent audio-book “Die verbotenen Bücher: Die geheimen Archive des Vatikan” ["The Forbidden Books: The secret archives of the Vatican"] (2018).

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