Was the Bible ever on the Index of Prohibited Books?

See also: Bible Study is Good: Backed Up by Church History

Short answer: No.

Long answer: The Index of Prohibited Books is an old list of bad books and authors. It was made popular by the Council of Trent, which prohibited Catholics from reading books on the list, as well as some of the authors on it. The Index also contained an introduction with ten “rules” that gave general information about how to know if a book was acceptable and how to use the Index. You can read the Latin text of the Index here. An English translation of the “rules” part is available here.

Rule 3 is where some people attempt to find a prohibition on reading the Bible. Here is what it says: “versions of the books of the Old Testament may be allowed only to learned and pious men at the discretion of the bishop.” And: “let versions of the New Testament, made by authors of the first class of this index, be allowed to no one.” Notice that: regarding the New Testament, only certain versions are prohibited -- versions “made by authors of the first class of this index.” Those are the authors whose names are listed in alphabetical order starting on this page. The first name on the list is Abidenus Corallus. Abidenus Corallus was a name associated with Ulrich Zwingli, a heretic. The New Testament is not prohibited by the Index of Prohibited Books, only versions of it made by heretics.

Moreover, that very same rule, in the next sentence, mentions that some bibles are approved: “[some] annotations are made public with such versions as are permitted, or with the Vulgate edition…” Notice: the Vulgate is not the only version of the Bible that is permitted. There is a plural used: such “versions” as are permitted. And these are separate from the Vulgate: “OR...the Vulgate edition.” You can use Either such “versions” as are permitted “or” the Vulgate edition. The Vulgate was permitted too, since it was an official Catholic bible. But this rule makes it clear that there were other Bibles permitted for use among Catholics.

Then there’s the subject of the Old Testament. “versions of the books of the Old Testament may be allowed only to learned and pious men at the discretion of the bishop.” It is Possible to read this statement as banning Most people from reading the Old Testament, but not “learned and pious men” who have their bishop’s permission. I’d like to observe something about this interpretation. The phrase “only to learned and pious men” may be referring to a smaller category and a larger category. There are more pious men than there are learned men because it is possible to be good without being educated.

If I said that my car insurance can cover other drivers from my city and my state, I think it would be clear that drivers from my city get the coverage and also drivers from my state. The second category is larger than the first and covers more people. Notice, drivers from my city are Also in my state, but it’s okay to specify that drivers from my city get coverage. Similarly, it seems possible that the phrase about letting “only...learned and pious men” read the Old Testament might actually cover a smaller category and a larger category, learned men and pious men. Just as my car insurance only covers people in my city because they are in my state, so also the learned men must be pious or else they wouldn’t particularly care what the Church commands. If you are pious but not particularly educated, you would be in the “pious” class of men without being in the “learned” class. And if you were learned but not pious, you would not care what the Church says because impious people do not obey the Church.

From this analogy it seems clear to me that reading the Bible isn't necessarily "limited" to learned people by this rule. They are the smaller category out of two categories: "learned" could be one category, and "pious men" could be a bigger category, which includes some learned men but is not limited to them. The rule calls for "pious men" to be allowed to read the Old Testament, and perhaps this category includes most ordinary Catholics. But also, some "learned men" are specified within that larger category because grammatically it's okay to do that, and learned men can more easily discover the best insights available in the Old Testament.

Then there’s the issue of “discretion.” The full sentence says: “But versions of the books of the Old Testament may be allowed only to learned and pious men at the discretion of the bishop.” How does the bishop show discretion here? There are several ways a bishop can show discretion. For example, if my local bookstore sells books by 10 authors, and my bishop says there is 1 author in that bookstore whose books are bad, and Catholics should not read them -- if my bishop forbids that one author, he has shown discretion. He has prohibited the 1 and not the 9 others. This is being selective, it is showing discretion.

Similarly, it seems possible that my diocese might have 10,000 Catholics who read the Bible in a spirit of love for others and 1,000 Catholics who read the Bible in a spirit of judgment against others. If my bishop says that those 1,000 judgmental readers may not read the Bible, he has been selective and shown discretion. If that was how the bishop showed discretion, the situation would be the opposite of how some protestants read this rule: most people in this diocese would be allowed to read the Bible, but not impious men.

Next is Rule 4. Some protestants try to find a prohibition of Bible reading in Rule 4, just as others try to find it in Rule 3. (And many protestants have already done the research and know that the Catholic Church has never prohibited Bible reading but always promoted it.) Rule 4 says: “if the sacred books be permitted in the vulgar tongue indiscriminately, more harm than utility arises therefrom by reason of the temerity of men.”

The key word here is “indiscriminately.” As shown previously, it is possible for a bishop to allow the majority of the people in his diocese to read the Bible without being indiscriminate. This can happen if he forbids Bible reading by impious men but allows it for others, and there is very good evidence, including the text of the Index, which indicates that this is what its authors wanted to happen. For example, the next sentence of Rule 4 says: “with the counsel of the parish priest or the confessor, they can grant to them the reading of the books translated by Catholic authors in the vulgar tongue, such persons as they may consider may derive not injury, but an increase of faith and of piety from such reading; which power they may have with respect to the scriptures.”

In my opinion, the above quotation already shows that the Church promotes Bible reading by laypeople. The above text from Rule 4 specifically calls for bishops to “grant” to laypeople the reading of spiritual writings “in the vulgar tongue,” and simply rules that they may "have" this power "with respect to the scriptures." At least, that's how I read this passage. But some people think this rule implies something else. Some people think this rule suggests that Most people in a diocese are forbidden from reading the Bible, or other spiritual writings, with exceptions for people who’ve gotten a “grant” to do so from their bishop. But I’ve already shown, a couple of paragraphs ago, that the “grant” can theoretically be the pre-existing norm rather than the exception.

The general populace can already have permission to read the Bible, on the assumption that they are pious, while the only people without power to read the Bible are the impious, whom the bishop can prohibit. It sometimes makes sense for a bishop to use his authority to tell impious people not to read the Bible. Especially during the Reformation. Impious people are more likely to misuse and misquote the Bible. “whosoever shall presume to read them without such power, let him not be able to obtain absolution of his sins, unless he has first given back the books to the ordinary.” (Index Rule 4)

This is the closest thing the Index of Prohibited Books has to a general prohibition of Bible reading, and it is not a general prohibition. It only prohibits people who don’t have the “power” to read the Bible -- a power which, earlier in Rule 4, was given quite broadly, at least by one interpretation of the text. Some protestants think the majority of people wouldn’t have this “power,” which comes from the bishop's authority to censor or permit books, but I hope the above paragraphs have shown why it is possible that the prohibited people could be the minority and the general population of Catholics free to read the Bible.

In my opinion, the question is this: which is more likely, for Catholics to have general permission to read the Bible while impious Catholics are prohibited in private cases, or for Catholics to have a general prohibition while pious Catholics are permitted in private cases. There is very good evidence for the first option, and against the second option.

First, the Index of Prohibited Books mentions approved bibles: “...[some] annotations are made public with such versions as are permitted, or with the Vulgate edition…” (Index Rule 3)

Second, it discusses the spiritual benefits laypeople get from reading the Bible: “[Some] persons…[would] derive not injury, but an increase of faith and of piety from such reading.” (Index Rule 4)

Third, the Index states that its intention is that normal Catholics may read the Bible and not impious people (and, by the way, there are more normal Catholics than impious ones): "[bishops] can grant to [good Catholics] the reading of the books translated by Catholic authors in the vulgar tongue...[a] power they may have with respect to the scriptures. But whosoever shall presume to read them without such power, let him not be able to obtain absolution of his sins, unless he has first given back the books to the [bishop].” (Index Rule 4)

Fourth, there is the context when the Index was published. It was published by the Fathers of the Council of Trent, and in their other decrees those Council Fathers discuss how important it is to read the Bible: “the preaching of the Gospel is no less necessary to the Christian commonwealth than the reading thereof.” (Council of Trent Session 5 Chapter 2) And they provided rules by which churches should help laypeople and priests read the Bible more: “[Let all churches] at least have a master --- to be chosen by the bishop... --- to teach grammar gratuitously to clerics, and other poor [students], that so they may afterwards, with God's blessing, pass on to the said study of sacred Scripture. ... In the public colleges also...a lectureship [is] honourable [and] most necessary of all...[therefore] let [one] be established... Furthermore, those who are teaching the said sacred Scripture, as long as they teach publicly in the schools, as also the [students] who are studying in those schools, shall fully enjoy...[special] privileges…” (Council of Trent Session 5 Chapter 1)

All of this evidence can be used to support the view that the Council of Trent wanted to increase Bible reading by the laity, not prohibit it with a few exceptions. As a result, when it comes to interpreting the Index of Prohibited Books Rules 3-4, a generous interpretation sees it as permitting the majority of Catholics to read the Bible in their native language, while prohibiting impious persons from using the Bible for abusive purposes. This interpretation has good evidence supporting it, and this evidence should be considered by protestants lest they erroneously commit themselves to a negative, restrictive interpretation of the Church's documents.

See also: Bible Study is Good: Backed Up by Church History