Letters to Peregrinus #6 - About Books on Witchcraft in the Library

Dear Peregrinus:

We always get surprised by things; that is for sure! You have been lurking among the books in the theological Library to do with Satan and with Witchcraft! And this caused you to ask me about censorship, and whether it would not be quite appropriate for the Library to remove such books from the shelves. Good question.

First of all, I was not aware of such a collection of books in the Library, though it would not be a surprise to me if we had a collection of studies about witchcraft, especially in a university that has a Theology Department that is as old as the University itself. If things like witchcraft exist (as it has throughout history), then we should have good studies about it. Why? Because one of the greatest weapons against evil is a person who understands how evil operates, how people fall for its apparent charms … and then get caught in its web of self-destructiveness. Your question arises from a feeling of genuine “scandal” that the Library should “allow” such books to be on its shelves, where people might get at them, and getting at them, might be hurt by reading them. That feeling of alarm is important, Peregrinus, because it points to places within you worth attending to, and from inside of which feelings you formulate important questions about education, and even about books and what they are for.

I would say that your question has to do with books, and how, and when, people access them. I sense in you, and deeper than your desire for censorship, an awareness of the power of books (a good thing!), and that we should never lose our respect for the capacity of a text to have a profound impact on a reader. I sense that this is really what you are addressing, not censorship. I can see why you would do this, because you yourself are such an outstanding reader of books, one with a deep habit of reading widely and wanting to understand.

I remember, for example, my Novice Director discouraged me from reading some of the mystics—St. John of the Cross in particular—when I was a Novice (only 19-years old, as you must be, or close to that age). He did so not because the mystics are bad (!), but because he knew that reading a book whose content was beyond my level of spiritual maturity could be damaging to me. He was right, yet I ignored his counsel. Much later on I recognized how I had hurt myself.

In this regard, the Library is packed full of Philosophy and Theology books that are designed to be read when a person is ready to read them. A good teacher knows such things – or is supposed to know this – and should be able to help his students choose the books that he or she should be reading now. I think of all sorts of books, including a very sophisticated piece of work such as the Catechism, which can be read by someone not sufficiently trained to understand it, who can as a result misuse it to his or her hurt. When we read books (in relation to our level of development) is as important as what books we read. Obviously, books on witchcraft are not in fundamental ways to be compared to books by the mystics or by the great theologians! However, the point stands: when we read books should be in some relation to our degree of spiritual and intellectual and personal maturity. Discernment is needed, which among other things is what Professors are about with their students.

It used to be the custom in our Jesuit seminaries, for example, to have a section of the house library was set aside from the rest of the library, a locked room where books for the more mature were stored. (Remember this in Umberto Ecoʼs The Name of the Rose?) In this room we stored studies of all sorts, including those on demonology and witchcraft and the like. A Jesuit got access to that room only with the permission of the Jesuit Librarian.

Perhaps it should be handled this way now, Chris. I do not know. However, it is tricky, because the larger principle of eduction remains valid. Even a profound work by a mystic, or a profound study by a theologian in the best possible standing with the Church, can be damaging to a student not ready, not mature enough, not intellectually sophisticated enough to process its contents properly.

I think how the Catholic Church for centuries and centuries would not let the Bible itself be translated into the vernacular languages, because the Church judged that those untrained in how to read the Bible would read it to their detriment.

Peregrinus, your question is a good one, and well asked. Thank you for asking.

Your friend in Christ the Pilgrim,


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