From “Meetings” — Looking Into the Heart of Darkness
Late 1959: During my senior year, at St. Mary’s High in Cheyenne Wyoming, it was announced one day that we would be treated to a field trip, all the way to Denver, to visit the nearest Catholic colleges: Regis, for men, run by the Jesuits; and nearby Loretto Heights, for women, operated by the Sisters of Loretto.
I enjoyed the trip, though I was already clear that, wherever I went to college, it would be at a secular school. And this resolve was greatly strengthened when we visited, of all places, the Regis College library.
I had (& have) fond feelings for libraries, and at first glance, the one at Regis seemed a fine specimen: well-lighted, relatively new, with many long open shelves. Open shelves of books to me embodied freedom of thought and learning, and their liberating possibilities.
But something didn’t jibe with my sentimental notion. Behind the reference desk, my eye was caught by a large area enclosed by heavy mesh metal partitions, and with a locked gate. Inside were more books; I could see the shelves through the mesh. Were these antiquities? Precious manuscripts of historic value? They didn’t look like that.
No. My question to a cheerful librarian got a straightforward answer: this enclosure was for books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum: the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.
I stared at it in fascinated horror: of course I had heard of The Index. It was hundreds of years old. Where the Church was part of or protected by governments, it went hand in hand with censorship.
My first, adolescent thought was that it must include the books about sex. True enough, authors such as Gide and Balzac, thought to be peddlers of lasciviousness, were on it. But The Index was much more concerned about the mind than the loins, with stamping out heresy more than lust.
Indeed, one of the main goals for its first few centuries was to stop the spread of that damnable, intolerable heresy of (wait for it) heliocentrism: the belief that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun rather than vice versa, the latter being the Church’s official view. But in 1959, there were more philosophers (Kant, Spinoza, and Sartre) on it than racy novelists, or for that matter, astronomers.
Many of the books were there, partly visible on those shelves. That was because, like numerous drugs, they were dangerous at large, but could be useful in special situations (and in limited doses). So to read them, one needed a “prescription,” in the form of official permission. This was granted (or not) by the local bishop or Cardinal, based on an adequate showing of why the reading was needed (say, studying the history of astronomy), and how the project would be subject to properly orthodox supervision.
In fact, in 1959 The Index, after its nearly 500-year run, was on its last legs. The new pope, John XXIII, who I was oblivious to, would push it halfway over the brink before his premature death, and his successor, Paul VI, finished the job, abolishing it in 1966.
But I had no inkling of that. On that day in Denver, in that brightly lit library, I felt I was looking into something close to the very Heart of Darkness. Here was one of the key tools by which the Church intended to capture, control and stifle my mind, as it had those of millions down the centuries.
That locked gate did not open on a museum, a view into the past, but on something meant to be a key part of my present, and future. That enclosure, unremarkable visually, has stayed with me ever since. And I have also seen that while the wire mesh is now down, the spirit behind it has not been finally banished, either from within the church or from many power centers outside it.
This is an excerpt from Meetings: A Religious Autobiography. It is available here, and on Amazon.
“If you love history, if you love biography, if you are interested in American culture and the complexities of navigating life in this crazy diaspora – this book is for you. Chuck is a hero of mine, and I feel enormously lucky to call him F/friend.”
— Jeanmarie Bishop, author of “The Joy,” a play about Mary Dyer
More about “Meetings” here.
A previous excerpt is here.