The Catholic Church has been banning books for centuries. Here’s what it can teach us about censorship today.

Last fall, cartoonist Maia Kobabe had the disturbing experience of waking up to emails from The Washington Post, The Associated Press, and others. Gender Queera coming-of-age memoir that Kobabe had published years earlier had suddenly become the subject of a firestorm at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia. “A week later,” Kobabe later wrote in the Washington Post, “I found out that ‘gender queer’ was also banned in a Florida school district and was being challenged within a month at schools in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington and Texas had been.”

Kobabe, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns e/eir/em, was stunned. “Why are you mad at the book? Because I said there are non-binary people and trans people?” Kobabe wondered. “The book has been on the market for two and a half years. Why now?”

Groups calling for censorship of books in libraries and classrooms today would do well to consider the Catholic Church’s experience of censorship.

2021, Gender Queer would prove to be the most banned, contested, and restricted book in the United States, according to the American Library Association. 2021 was a particularly bad year for censorship. The ALA’s Office of Freedom of Thought tracked 729 challenges to material from public libraries, schools and universities last year, including 1,597 books. That’s five times as many challenges as last year and almost six times as many books. It is by far the greatest challenge the ALA has faced in the last 20 years.

And 2022 looks set to get even worse. In the spring, the Florida legislature passed legislation giving parents more power over the books that are available in their school district libraries. Six other states have similar laws, and five others are considering them. There has also been an increase in harassment of teachers and local community librarians in recent years.

The Catholic Church is no stranger to trying to control which books people can read. From 1559 to 1966 we literally wrote the book of condemned texts and authors, often out of the same instinct to protect the vulnerable that parents and parishioners are currently expressing. And just like today, we didn’t hesitate to prosecute those who opposed our way of thinking about certain literature. But in the end, our practice has only revealed the reasons why censorship is a terrible strategy to address social and moral issues. Groups demanding censorship today would do well to consider the experiences of the Church.

Today we see organizations not only challenging specific books, but calling for entire classes of material to be banned, such as LGBT stories.

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Problem one: Censorship tends to get out of control.

Censorship was already on everyone’s lips when Pope Paul IV published the first index of the Vatican’s banned books in 1559. The printing press, invented a century earlier, had become the Internet of its time, enabling the rapid spread of ideas and reach previously unthinkable. Some governments had begun requiring publishers to be licensed and imprisoning or executing printers and writers for their work, seeing writers’ new ability to quickly foment opposition to state policies.

The church was also badly affected by the printing press. As librarian Robert Sarwak points out: “Without the printing press, for example, the ’99 Theses’ [sic] by Martin Luther (1517) should have been copied by hand…. Simply put, neither Lutheranism nor Protestant Christianity in general would ever have spread without the printing press.” By the time Pope Paul IV published his Index, churches in some countries had already drawn up their own lists of banned books. The Inquisition was also active in many countries, persecuting, imprisoning, and sometimes executing anyone who spoke or wrote heresy.

But Pope Paul’s list would not just condemn individual works; it censored the entire work of a staggering 550 authors and dozens of publishers. Even within the Church, these moves were viewed as draconian, so much so that they were often ignored and then officially rescinded at the Council of Trent a few years after Paul’s death.

Paul’s impulse to go too far is not unique, either to the church or to secular society. Today we see organizations not only questioning specific books, but demanding the banning of entire classes of materials, such as B. LGBT stories, and engage in extreme actions to achieve their goals.

Censorship is like starting a fire. Once started it tends to get completely out of control. It’s not just about burning a book.

The church’s systematic efforts to annihilate indigenous cultures in mission areas were born not out of legitimate doctrinal concerns, but out of racism.

Problem 2: Censorship is often a Trojan horse for other agendas.

Today, as we look back at the history of censorship and persecution in the Church, we often find that the ideas and authors who were suppressed or imprisoned did not really challenge Catholic doctrine. Astronomer Galileo Galilei was convicted for claiming that the earth revolves around the sun. French Dominican theologian Yves Congar saw his 1950 book True and False Reform in the Church forbidden, not because it took a heretical position on the divinity of Christ or the real present, but because it simply pointed out that the church, as a human institution, can stand in the way of God’s grace and must be reformed. “The church apparatus could overshadow the work of the Holy Spirit and grace in people’s lives,” he wrote.

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Other forms of church activity have worked similarly. The witch-hunts in which tens of thousands of women were persecuted and often murdered by Catholic and Protestant authorities in medieval Europe had nothing to do with the Apostles’ Creed and everything to do with men’s concern for women’s power and sexuality. The church’s systematic efforts to annihilate indigenous cultures in mission areas were born not out of legitimate doctrinal concerns, but out of racism.

And the same problems are found in the books that people want to ban today. Six of the 10 most censored books of 2021 were written by people of color or have them as their main characters. About half have female protagonists. Looking back over previous years, the same patterns remain: the books under challenge are often written by people of color, women or members of the LGBT community, or address issues such as race, gender and sexual orientation.

Those who demand Gender Queer often cite his graphic depictions of sexuality. But in its 240 pages, there is nudity on just a handful of pages and sexual activity explicitly depicted on just one. Instead of some kind of pornographic comic book, Gender Queer is a heartfelt and often funny story. Kobabe’s journey may not be “the norm,” but the book does capture the quest to discover oneself in the universe – and how to love best – that every young person embarks on. Rather than a book to censor, it’s the kind of novel parents with older children might use to help them talk about their own burgeoning sense of identity.

“Some people are happy to live where they were born,” Kobabe writes on a page with a pretty drawing of mountains, forests, and a beach, “while others have to make a journey to reach the climate in which they thrive and grow.” be able. Between the ocean and the mountains is a wild forest. I want to find my home there.”

Six of the 10 most censored books of 2021 were written by people of color or have them as their main characters. About half have female protagonists.

Problem three: Censorship is usually short-sighted.

Things that once got the church hot and distressed have often later turned out to be no big deal or fundamental to the church’s self-understanding. Thus, Congar’s book, which called for an ecumenical council, inspired Pope John XXIII. to convene the Second Vatican Council. Likewise, the science that the church once condemned, from cosmology to the theory of evolution, is now accepted as fact.

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If the history of the Church with censorship has emphasized anything, it is the need for hesitation and humility in contemplating what constitutes heresy. The stones rejected by the builder have all too often become the cornerstone.

Problem four: Censorship doesn’t work.

By banning books or arresting and executing thinkers deemed heretical, the Church has sometimes succeeded in suppressing these views—but only temporarily and at great cost. The fact that the Church condemned Galileo did not mean that the idea of ​​the earth revolving around the sun disappeared; Even the suppression of the work of theologians such as Congar or the Jesuits John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner did not end their influence. In fact, her work at Vatican II became fundamental to the Church’s self-understanding.

Today the book ban is even less effective. People can find anything they want online, and in fact, banning a book usually only boosts its sales. So in February, when America‘s James T. Keane notes the Holocaust memoirs Mouse: A Survivor’s Story returned to the bestseller lists 36 years after its publication after word spread that it had been placed on banned book lists.

Banning books really is like kids trying to build a dam on a big river. Your work may distract the flow of water a little, but don’t stop it.

And in the meantime, the activity of those who would ban books often undermines their credibility. The censorship and imprisonment of notable figures like Galileo remains one of the greatest disgrace of the Catholic Church. Even today such movements continue to be cited as evidence that the Church cannot be trusted, that when challenged it will always abandon rational discourse in favor of naked aggression.

In the end, those who call for the removal of certain texts from schools or libraries may succeed for a time. But the history of the church shows that they cannot prevent these stories from reaching the people in their communities. Ultimately, you can’t stop an idea through censorship. And usually the impulse to try comes out of fear of others rather than love of one’s own.

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