Reflections on Latin and the Catholic Church’s Memory and Identity, Part Two


Part Two, The Church’s Memory & Identity Under Siege:

In my previous article, I talked about the Catholic Church and the Latin language.  I left off with a note on various theologians and laymen substituting their makeshift theology for the Tradition of the Church.  I would like to expand upon that point.

Still smarting from the sharp reminder of the proper role of a Catholic theologian that was issued to them by Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Humani Generis (paragraphs 9-13), these various theologians and laymen now took heart in the fact that they were in the limelight.  They had the attention (and concomitant power) of the media on their side and their views were given a lot of prominence, which subsequently influenced how people heard and understood the Church’s actions both during and after the Council.  In other words, they thought themselves to be the interpreters of the Council and formed what Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz called a “para-Council.”[i] 

A particular doctrine that many of these theologians and laymen wanted the Church to adopt was that of free speech without the fear of censorship.  Let us look together at this in some detail.

Many older Catholics would remember the Index of Forbidden Books (“Index”) and its system of censorship.  Any book suspected of or known to contain matter contrary to faith and morals was put on a list of books that Catholics were forbidden (under pain of ecclesiastical law) to read.  Statements were made before and during the Council either to get rid of the Index or mitigate its censures.  The reasoning behind these statements was that the Index was from an antiquated epoch of ecclesiastical history.  In other words, they believed that modern man does not understand this system so it should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Immediately after the Council and as a part of its reforms, Pope Paul VI began revising the Church’s laws of censorship.  He removed the legal force of the Index and relaxed the canonical censures of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  When the Pope did these things, there was an important distinction made between ecclesiastical law and the moral/natural law.  Namely, that the faithful were still bound by the natural law not to read matter contrary to faith and morals even though they would not incur canonical censures if they did read any such material.

Unfortunately, against the backdrop of the vision of various theologians and laymen being propagated onto the masses, many Catholics were misinformed as to what Paul VI intended with the above.  What they heard was, “the faithful can now read and disseminate what they wish.”  Under the guise of free speech, “academic freedom” or even that of being “open to the Holy Spirit,” Catholics were led to believe that they could now read and disseminate whatever they wanted.  This resulted in a wholesale disregard for faith and good morals.  The numerous media propagating the vision of the “para-Council” spoken of earlier made it very difficult to discern the “one true voice” of the authentic Magisterium.  The competition formed by these two took the faithful by a tour de force that had a disastrous effect upon Catholic life and practice leaving many confused.

As it relates to book publishing and reading, the above confusion did not favor people paying close attention to Paul VI’s distinction between natural and ecclesiastical law.  Once the floodgates were open, the subsequent tsunami known as the “spirit of Vatican II” was unstoppable.  Many were given the impression the Church had entered the modern world with its doctrine of free speech without censorship.  There is, perhaps, no better example of this than in the explosion of books alleging private revelation.


[i] Bruskewitz, Fabian, A Shepherd Speaks.  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 136-137.  See also Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology: Approaches to Understanding Its Role in the Light of Present Controversy. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 101-118.

(© 2011 Kevin Symonds)


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  • noelfitz

    This is an interesting article.

    It discusses “theologians and laymen”. Can laymen (or laywomen) be theologians?

    It would have been interesting if the article named some of these people who had problems with the proper role of theologians,

    Years ago I got a copy of the Index, and was intrigued about what books were on it. Authors whose work was on the Index include Dante, Kepler, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal and Saint Faustina Kowalska.

    Catholics used to believe it was grievously sinful to read books on the Index.

    • Naming some people would have created some issues in which I did not want to entangle my article. If you would like to know that information, I would look at the theological literature surrounding the timeframe of Pius XII’s Encyclical “Humani Generis.”

      Laymen & -women can also be theologians. Since this is not always the case, I made a distinction as implied in the article.

      Regarding the sinfulness of reading books on the Index, an upcoming installment will treat this very point (if even indirectly).

      Thank you for your comments.

  • noelfitz

    Dear Mr Symonds,
    thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful reply to me. I appreciate it that you took so much time to answer my concerns so well.

    I note your Catholic interests are extensive. We share some, as my main interests are NT (Paul) and Patristics (Apostolic Fathers).

    I look forward to reading further articles by you.

    God bless, and I wish you every success in your apostolate.

  • Mr. Symonds:

    Thanks for an informative series. I’m enjoying them.

    In the most recent article you discuss the fact that the Index lost ecclesiastical penalties (but retained moral force) after Integrae servandae (though more specifically the AAS of June 1966). The problem, as I see it, is that in removing the positive law associated with the Index, the pope essentially moved the prohibition from “Secondary Natural Law” (inferred or derived, and therefore requiring positive law), to “Primary” (able to be directly deduced) – on more-or-less equal footing with “Thou shalt not kill.”

    This is a problem, in my view, because many of the prohibited books, and those written since 1966, are often too subtle for the average person to identify as a violation of natural law flowing from the primary principle (a Thomistic “do good and avoid evil”). While it may be easy for the Catholic to know that The Tropic of Cancer is “…so obscene and lewd it is dangerous to all individuals of all ages…” [Commonwealth v. Robin, 218 A.2d 546], and therefore against natural law, the same cannot be said of other prohibited works or those more recently written. Should Fr. McBrien’s Catholicism be reprobated? Probably, but who can know without reading it (yes, it is McBrien, but I hope you see my point)?

    Even a properly catechized layman (as differentiated from a trained theologian, lay or ordained) may not be able to understand the nuances of theological heterodoxy extant in Poem of the Man-God without recourse to either a sound review by a theologian or a “rule” which identifies it as a work deserving of censure, like the Index.

    In Christ,

    • Dear Michael,

      Peace be with you! Thank you for your comments and take on this matter. I would like to offer the following for your consideration.

      Re, Natural Law:
      I would direct you to further study of this matter beginning with Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam.”

      Re, reprobation & reading books:
      I encourage you to remember that there was an entire system of censorship to the Index and it was very specific/detailed. I hope that you have the opportunity to do some study in this area so as to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding.

      Again, thank you for your comments.

      In Christ,
      -Kevin Symonds

  • noelfitz


    everything you write is sound, and shows a great grasp of Church teaching.

    The Church has not given up moral authority with the removal of the Index.

    I note:
    The Irish Bishops’ Conference has issued a doctrinal warning against a 1997 book of Marist theologian Fr Sean Fagan titled Does Morality Change?’
    6 Aug 2004.

    Fr Fagan criticized the Church for many years, claiming it was not the Church, but the Vatican, he disagreed with.

    I believe Rome reprimanded Fr Fagan, but I cannot find where this is.

    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still exists, and is the successor of the Inquisition and the Holy Office. The responsibility, I believe, of this Congregation is to protect Church teaching.

    I also believe Fr McBrien is a priest in good standing in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

    I think it is up to the Church to reprimand him, if his teachings are contrary to the Faith.

    • Mr. Symonds:

      Thank you for your reply. Peace to you as well.

      I’ve gone ahead and re-read Ecclesiam Suam yet I don’t find that it directly addresses the question of whether the well-formed Catholic can divine, from Natural Law alone, the “goodness” or “badness” of a particular work, particularly if it treats on theology. Can the average Catholic read a work attempting to reconcile the Western notion of Original Sin with the Eastern notion of Ancestral Sin and determine which might be a view in line with Church teaching viz. the Immaculate Conception and one which may lead down an alien path?

      If the Catholic had recourse to simple (“Primary”) Natural Law in matters as nuanced as selecting good books and rejecting bad, it is unlikely that there would be a need for a magisterium, since knowledge would “spring from the heart of the baptized” with regard even to sound precepts and doctrine. ES 37 and 38 could almost argue that there is still a place for the Index or like guide in the body of ecclesiastical publishing, despite the overall appeal to the well-formed conscience of the Christian.

      Regarding the process for placing books on the Index, it was not always all that rigorous, though it could apparently be fractious. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a German book on etiquette were denounced to the Holy Office. Neither made it to the list, but not because of serious examination; the first due to the overall message condemning slavery and the second because, in essence, “We’ll look like idiots if we put a book of etiquette on the list.” Additionally, Mein Kampf seems to have been kept off of the list for reasons of political expediency (the appeal to Romans notwithstanding), though Pius XI was able to slip in a critique in Mit Brennender Sorge (17). I’m not suggesting that the Index was perfect by any stretch – but I think that it served as a measure against which Catholics could judge books or suspect authors. Ecclesiastical penalties could have been relaxed, as these are certainly disciplinary matters subject to the Penitentiary, but retaining the aspect of “positive law” to demonstrate that such judgments are “derived” from Natural Law rather than explicit.

      Perhaps, however, this is the direction your reply was meant to lead. If not, could you please expand?

      In Christ,

      • Mr. Symonds:

        My last paragraph, above, should read:

        Perhaps, however, this is not the direction your reply was meant to lead…

        In Christ,

    • @noelfitz:

      I am unfamiliar with Fr. Fagan and his writings so I do not think I can be of much help.

      I do know that if the Vatican (through the CDF) issued a warning against a theologian, that would be placed in the Holy See’s official journal, “Acta Apostolicae Sedis” (AAS).

      Furthermore, most–if not all–of such warnings are available at the Vatican’s web site:

      The AAS is also available online (up to 2007) through the generous efforts of a very devoted child of Holy Mother Church:

      Regarding your point about the Church guiding us without an Index, I believe that was in the intentions of Pope Paul VI when he “de-fanged” (as I like to put it) the Index. He did, however, intend censorship to continue and I read somewhere that he lamented how lax Bishops became on this point after Vatican II.

      Our job is to look at the entire history within the perspective of Church teaching and make a judgment accordingly.


      I am glad that you took the time to re-read “Ecclesiam Suam” (ES). It was a very handy Encyclical that helped me understand Pope Paul VI’s mind and thinking.

      As to how ES relates to your question, I have been working on a response to you and it has become quite long. I will ask the CL admins if I can write a “follow-up” article that discusses the questions and provide answers.


      • Mr. Symonds:

        Thank you for your reply. Yesterday I reviewed Leo XIII’s Libertas and found both Nos. 8 and 9 seeming on-point for the situation I was attempting to describe. While No. 9 certainly refers, in this encyclical to “the state” when it refers to “civil society,” my view is that it no less applies to the Church. There are reasons, derived from Natural Law, necessitating positive law (statute, regulation, administrative authority or canon) in order to confirm the rights of individuals and provide penalties for abrogation of those right under “the law” – whether natural (and its derivations) or juridical.

        I look forward to your reply, regardless of length.

        In Christ,

  • Noel:

    Thanks for your kind comments. First, with respect to Fr. McBrien’s Catholicism, I’d like to point here.

    My point isn’t so much that a body doesn’t exist to provide guidance, but that it’s been made much more difficult for us to ferret out (does that translate to Irish?) those works which should be considered suspect.

    Had I purchased Fr. Fagan’s book in the US, I may never have known about the censure by the Irish bishops. Perhaps I could have made a determination on my own about its nature, but then again, maybe not.

    Unless you are aware of a kind of semi-Index published by the Congregation. If so, that’d be great.

    In Christ,

  • Noel & Mr. Symonds:

    Apparently I got my “reply”s mixed up. Sorry for the confusion.

    In Christ,

  • How does the Imprimatur & Nihil Obstat factor in as an expression of the Church’s moral authority? I’ve always felt I was “safe” if I looked for the Imprimatur. Problem is, few books apart from strictly catechetical works even carry one anymore. Also, I’ve been told that an Imprimatur from a “liberal” Diocese or Order doesn’t mean much. This only adds to my confusion.

    I see the problem here. When I was newly returned to the Faith, I picked up out of ignorance The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar and I was nearly knocked flat on my back. I could have lost my faith in a miasma of theological doubt but fortunately, Jesus was looking out for me. If someone like my pastor had told me, “Don’t read that, here’s something good instead,” I would have been spared quite a bit of anguish.

    • @PrairieHawk:

      Peace be with you! You have raised a very important question, one that I am afraid is very difficult to answer.

      I, too, have heard the “an Imprimatur is only as good as the Bishop giving it” statement. My mind has tossed the issue around and though far from any conclusion, I would like to offer you a thought.

      The purpose of the Imprimatur & Nihil Obstat is to show that a work does not contain matter contrary to faith and morals. A certain trust comes along with these marks. God-forbid if that trust were violated. It is on the head of the one who violated it if the book contained errors to faith and morals and caused scandal.

      Out of a legitimate concern for our spiritual lives in the wake of the “para-Council’s” interpretation of the Vatican, people have become very “high-alert” when it comes to the hierarchy.

      Were we, the lay faithful, to start playing “police” when it comes to our Bishops, we are automatically setting ourselves up for disunity…contrary to the prayer of Christ at the Last Supper, “that they may all be one.” We are also setting ourselves up for exposure to paranoia and that is not becoming of the freedom of the children of God.

      I encourage people to remember such things in their ruminations.


    • Noel and Prairie Hawk:

      I think that most Catholics who are even moderately grounded in the faith can discern when a book is, broadly, in agreement with Catholic principles (or at least neutral) or not. If you have the chance, you should read Justice Musmanno’s full dissenting opinion in the matter of Tropic of Cancer at. The dissent begins on pp. 74 (page numbers are on the left; and recall that this is based on volume pagination, so it actually begins on the second page of the actual case summary). The justice pulls no punches and it is entertaining to see someone vent his spleen so thoroughly when dismissing the book. If only all books that were contrary to faith and morals were so clearly so.

      The nihil obstat, imprimi potest and imprimatur, it should be noted, still represent the opinion of him providing each. Title IV of the Code of Canon Law lays out when and by whom certain works may be published for and by the faithful. While these laws should provide some level of certainty that the work is free from doctrinal or moral error, such, unfortunately, is not always the case. However, the benefit of the doubt should be acceded to the granting authority unless or until it is clear that such benefit is misplaced. One cannot simply judge that the Diocese of Slobbobia is too liberal and therefore the imprimatur is meaningless, or that Archbishop Hrynkysmam (I hope that this isn’t an actual name) is conservative and, therefore, his imprimatur is as close to infallible as they come.

      Mr. Symonds, on his blog, has an interesting write up about the need for these with respect to private revelation here.

      (Keeping my fingers crossed that the links will work; that I’ve not tagged them wrong)

      In Christ,

      • Shoot – missed an “italics” end tag. Sorry.


        • Michael and Kevin,

          All that you say is true. My question is, is there a pastoral way to protect clueless people (like I was when I first came back to the Church) from works that are inimical to their faith? Maybe there isn’t, living as we do in the “marketplace of ideas”. Gone are the days when people naturally trusted authority, sad to say. It’s a fruit of Watergate and the child-abuse scandals, I guess.

          • I just had an idea. They market cheese with the “real” certification that proves it is natural cheese. What if the USCCB created an “Authentically Catholic” brand that could go on the cover of legitimate books and videos? Participation would be voluntary on the part of the authors, of course, but if the brand were well-marketed, people would start wanting to have it to increase sales. Just a thought.

          • @prairiehawk:

            The only way to protect you as you request is for the Church to do what Pope Paul VI wanted them to do.

            That might be a worthwhile and separate article to write about actually….


  • noelfitz

    Michael & PH,

    thanks for your contributions here. I enjoy this discussion.

    We are fortunate here to have those you are solid in the faith – know, understand and defend it.

    This discussion raised an issue with me, whether it is better to read religious books by non-Catholics whose views are close to the Church or the views of dissident Catholics whose view wander from the Church. But this is not the time to open this issue.

    Year ago Fr Fagan’s book was very popular in the US. I think it was a NY times best-seller for ages. You might like to look at

    Micheal’s views are clear and concise, not like mine.

    A point I was trying to make is that even without the Index, the Church still can guide Catholics in reading matter.

    I think sensible folk will know if books are solid or not.

  • Noel:

    Open the issue up on the Forum and let’s dance.

    In Christ,

  • Mary Kochan

    Your wish is my command Michael — it is now a forum topic.