THE Index of Forbidden Books has gone, and few will shed a tear at its passing. It always was a rather difficult volume to come by. In the eyes of many it had become an ineffectual symbol of thought-repression, a nagging reminder of an absolutist past when the Church had imported into her central administration the methods of contemporary secular princes. It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of anachronism and judge the Index through 20th-century spectacles; in an age which produced a welter of anonymous pamphlets. a consumers guide to the written word had its uses. The Congregation of the Index was set up by Pius V in 1571, and it maintained a separate existence till 1917 when it was fused with the Holy Office. It was a characteristic product of the Counter-Reformation which, we have often been told, came to an end with Vatican H.
Objections to the Index do not date from yesterday. At Vatican I, the French Bishops filed a postulaturn on the index. but the interrupted Council never got round to the question. The elimination of the Index was inevitable from the moment that the reform, or rather the reorganisation of the Holy Office was announced in December, 1965, in the closing days of the Council. So now we have to talk about the Index in the past tense. The most recent edition came out in 1948 and it named over 4.000 volumes, which is not much for a history of almost 400 years. Some odd works had won a spurious and dusty immortality in its pages. One can distinguish five types of book in the Index. There were the works of heretics: there was quite a commotion once when boxes of heretical works arrived at the Roman College, but when it was explained that they were required for polemical purposes, all was well. After the heretics, the pamphleteers, pursuing with single-minded dedication their Jansenist or quietist theses which need years of scholarly dedication to understand today. Then came the adventuresome Catholics who had branched out too far or too soon, and the threatening thinkers like Rousseau and Kant.
Finally— and this is what, if anything. struck the popular imagination most—there were the works of imaginative writers from Boccaccio to Victor Hugo. Gide was one of the most recent entries, shortly after his death. The scrupulous could be haunted by the Index, those who did not ask too many questions went on reading, and the bona fide student could always be dispensed. All in all, the existence of the Index, in recent years, simply fostered the image of the disapproving and embattled Church, out of step and sympathy with what was going on in the modern world. It may not have done much good, but it certainly did a lot of harm. The abolition of the Index involves the recognition that we live in a pluralist society. Christians are not surrounded and sealed off by walls from the world. 27.000 books will be published in this country alone in 1966; and even if the printed word could be dammed and channelled, television and films make their assault on the sensibilities and call for discriminating judgement. Christians today live on a frontier, and as often as not the frontier between the world and ourselves runs through our own hearts. No one can opt out or take refuge. The Church's dialogue (that is our dialogue) with the modern world does not involve a total collapse before everything that is going on; it involves being able to say no as well as yes, to discern and to discriminate.
What emerges from the conciliar documents is the portrait of a mature Christian, whose faith is adult. truly personal, integrated with the rest of his life. He learns his irreplaceable task in the life and mission of the Church through his active sharing in the liturgy. He is Seen in this context, the removal of the Index is not a 'concession' and does not lead to a moral free-for-all. It is not a matter of saying: 'Before, you couldn't read this, now you can. It is rather an invitation to a more adult and wide-a wake responsibility.
In a way, there is not less stringency here but rather more. The Borstal boy sometimes says that he would prefer a closed prison to an open one because it removes temptation. We cannot take him as our model.
Two conciliar texts, in particular, made the disappearance of the Index merely a matter of time. They are both found in the chapter on 'culture' in The Church in the World of Today. The first is about 'literature and the arts' which "strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world. They have much to do with revealing man's place in history and the world, with illustrating the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths of man and with foreshadowing a better future for him"(62).
Whatever one may think of this as a view of literature and the arts, it excludes narrow moralising while implying moral judgement. In the same chapter there is a passage on freedom: "In order that they may fulfil their function, let it be recognised that all the faithful, whether clerics or laity, possess a lawful freedom of thought and of expressing their mind with humility and fortitude in those matters in which they enjoy competence."
Nor is there any abdication of authority here. Bishops can point to dangers—it is a part of their teaching office—though they may not set up substitute indices. The Holy See "can benevolently invite an author to revise his work" and condemn the work if the author refuses.
Recent changes of personnel at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (the former Holy Office) suggest that these powers will be used sparingly, sensibly and positively.