Museum showcases history’s forbidden books

Ron Grossman

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO (MCT) – Those wearied by the current feuding between partisans of science and devotees of religion can take heart from an exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art. It shows there is a happy ending for some stories – or at least, for some chapters of some stories.

The exhibit showcases books that were once on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Roman Catholic Church’s list of works forbidden to the faithful lest they lead readers down the road of heresy.

Yet here they are, displayed in glass cases by Loyola, which is not just a Catholic institution. It is operated by the Jesuits, a religious order that served as papal enforcers for orthodoxy in an age when spiritual dissent carried the death penalty.

“It might seem odd that a Catholic university would highlight an infamous piece of the history of the Catholic Church,” museum director Pamela Ambrose said. “But there is also a good chance that Catholics under the age of 50 have never heard of the Index.”

In 1557, when Pope Paul IV created the Index, the church was in a defensive mood, said Jonathan Canning, a curator for the exhibit. Martin Luther’s criticism of Catholic practices was splitting Western Christendom in two. The church had its hands full answering Protestant arguments and wasn’t happy about having to fight a second front with science – which was just then emerging from centuries of stagnation.

Church doctrine had been built in accordance with Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers whose findings were under challenge by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo and others. Rather than argue with those new theories, the church tried to put them beyond the pale.

Virtually all the giants of early modern science wound up on the Index, as is represented in the Loyola exhibit. The show includes several volumes of the works of Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who held that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The church taught that the reverse was true, a theory seemingly backed by the biblical account.

Once the precedent was established, the list grew throughout the centuries into something like a who’s who of Western thought. Catholics were forbidden to even peek into books of philosophers like Rene Descartes and novelists like Emile Zola and Daniel Defoe. Local bishops made their own supplements to the papal Index.

The growth of the printed book would eventually doom religious censorship. Before Gutenberg introduced publishing via movable type – roughly a century before the Index – ideas were spread and suppressed, largely by word of mouth. Manuscript books were expensive; literacy wasn’t widespread.

“When Abelard was censured by the church, it was for his teaching, not his books,” Canning said, referring to the 12th Century theologian now chiefly remembered for his fated love affair with his student Heloise. “But once printed books are introduced, their arguments are countered by other books. The argument can’t be suppressed.”

For example, Luther’s ideas had been anticipated by previous would-be reformers, such as the Englishman John Wycliffe and the Czech John Huss. But while they and their disciples were easily repressed, Luther’s ideas couldn’t be contained. Spread in book form, they marked the first victory of the printed word.

From that point, the suppressing of ideas in the name of religion was doomed – though it took the church many centuries to recognize the inevitable.

“One of our docents, volunteer museum guides, was reminded that, in the 1950s, she had to get her parish priest’s permission to read Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle for an English class,” Canning said.

The last edition of the Index was published in 1948, and the practice was abolished by Vatican II in the 1960s, Canning said.

The new exhibit, titled “Science and Faith Between Observance and Censorship,” features 138 books lent by a consortium of libraries in Campania, in southern Italy. The works are in Latin, the long-ago international language of scholarship, and are handsomely leather-bound.

For Loyola, the exhibit demonstrates that the institution of religion is not immutable.

The Jesuits, like the Index, were born in the 16th Century and pledged to unswervingly uphold the papal side of the argument in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

“I will believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it,” observed St. Ignatius Loyola, their founder.

But now, the order has become one of the most liberal-minded wings of the church.

When she got the idea for “Science and Faith,” Ambrose checked it out with her superiors at Loyola. “They said, ‘Great. We’re a university. That’s just the kind of thing we should be doing,'” she said.

From the beginning, the Jesuits – whose order is formally known as the Society of Jesus – have been devoted to educational enterprises, founding numerous schools and universities. Four centuries ago, teaching was a form of intellectual coercion: Students were expected to accept the church doctrine unquestioningly. For today’s Jesuits, that view has passed into history.

“The exhibit,” Ambrose said, “is intended to show that the contemporary battle over creationism versus evolution had its antecedents. Our present squabbles over who is right, science or religion, may look quaint from the perspective of future generations.”

A place of honor is reserved in the exhibit for two early Protestant writers, Philipp Melanchthon and Ulrich Zwingli.

Once, they were considered the church’s deadliest enemies, Canning said. Now, they enjoy a wall of their own in a Catholic university run by the Jesuits.