It was a surreal experience this week reading Una M. Cadegan’s thoroughly researched academic text, All Good Books Are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 2013) while watching North Korea enact its own censorship of The Interview (Columbia Pictures, 2014), forcing Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent company, first to pull the film and then announce selected screenings after being hacked by cyber-terrorists working for the North Korean government. The reports from CNN and other news organizations were a bit more interesting than the book, mainly because Cadegan deals with past censorship of another age while Sony’s predicament is in the here and now and will have far-reaching consequences in our global culture going forward. The bottom line is that no state or church should be allowed to practice censorship in a country that accepts the right to free speech as sacred. Yet, here we are facing textbook censorship, both in Cadegan’s book on Catholicism’s reach in the twentieth-century and today, over a decade into the twenty-first century, from a rogue nation.
Cadegan begins with an analysis of Catholic literary culture that originated around the time of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). The Church, trying to refine the world canon of literature, struggled with Transcendentalist writers and found them authentic as an American tradition of literature and therefore, acceptable. They also affirmed the group of writers more familiar to nineteenth-century Catholic readers: John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others. James Joyce, a man whose work featured characters who abandoned God and their faith, suffered the wrath of the Church as the twentieth century dawned. In addition, a considerable amount of space in the book is devoted to the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, the title of which would make any red-blooded reader want to make such an index a literal “to read” list. Cadegan explains its origins, its development, and its propagation, which although a bit academic and dry, is interesting nonetheless. One interesting tidbit: “Will Durant’s life in particular was presented as an example of the dangers of forbidden reading,” Cadegan writes, “as he admitted publicly that he had lost his faith through reading a wide range of works, regardless of whether they had been approved by the Church.”
The main problem with the Catholic hierarchy was not film or illicit reading per se, but its losing battle with modernity and a changing world. Cadegan gives a thorough airing of the subject of modernity, but the topic has been fairly well documented over the decades of the 1960s through 2000s, especially after the Second Vatican Council. As Cadegan points out, there were many forces acting to pull the Church forward, such as John F. Kennedy telling a group of ministers in his campaign speech of 1960 that censorship was on his list of issues about which he “would not be influenced by the Vatican.”
Cadegan’s book contains twenty-three pages of notes and an index. It is well-researched, but I missed a more narrative approach. The Catholic Church did play a role in censorship of reading material, films, and television during the twentieth-century, but an academic rendering of facts and citations to other scholarly research may not appeal to the person looking for a story about how the Church influenced popular culture during that century. However, the signs are all around that censorship continues to be a defining issue of our time made more so by the rise of technology. The Church struggles to keep up as our children are more influenced by social media and the internet. They may no longer go to the local Cineplex or watch television in the traditional way those of us who are part of a certain generation once did. But that is the subject for another book like Cadegan’s analyzing the twenty-first century. Undoubtedly, the current situation with North Korea’s seemingly long reach into American culture will be part of that discussion as well as the rise of social media as new efforts to censor what we see, read and hear continue to emerge in this digital age.