Ron Charles
Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012

From papyrus to vellum to paper to e-books, two principles of publishing have not changed over the centuries:

1. Churches can’t resist the temptation to condemn books.

2. Nothing boosts book sales like condemnation by a church.

Who, after all, would have read Sister Margaret Farley’s “Just Love” if the Vatican hadn’t censured it this week? The Catholic Church delivered the nun’s treatise on Christian sexual ethics from the wilderness of obscurity into the promised land of fame. For any book publicist, such denunciation is an answer to a prayer. On Amazon’s Web site, “Just Love” immediately ascended from No. 142,982 to No. 16.

What did the Holy See expect? The Book of Acts describes Christians’ first book-burning celebration as a big success, but in the modern age, highly publicized reproof seems to spark a tremendous rise in sales.

Salman Rushdie was already a Booker Prize-winning author when he published “The Satanic Verses,” but the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 transformed the novelist into an international celebrity (albeit one who had to hide for several years).

Similarly counterproductive effects are often the result when a religious organization tells the faithful to look away.

Nicholas Karolides, a professor of English at Wisconsin State University-River Falls, is a co-author of “120 Banned Books.” For many years, he’s tracked efforts to remove titles from schools — from “The Catcher in the Rye” to “My Brother Sam is Dead,” which has been challenged for taking the Lord’s name in vain. He notes that such actions don’t always have the desired effect. “I’ve heard an author or two say that they were pleased that their books got challenged because that caused people to read it. One can say without much doubt that if a book is censored, other people will want to find out what was censorable about it.”

Consider, for instance, “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1953), by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. That imaginative reimagining of Jesus got its biggest boost from its biggest enemy, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who reviled Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie version of the novel.

The British writer Philip Pullman seems to relish damnation from the church. The “His Dark Materials” trilogy regularly raises alarm in certain religious circles, but that hardly intimidates him. Pullman once told a reporter, “Wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression.” Such talk may offend some believers, but it helps keep his name and his books in the news.

Before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger complained about the “subtle seductions” of the “Harry Potter” books that “deeply distort Christianity in the soul.” So far, His Holiness hasn’t moved against The Boy Who Didn’t Die, perhaps sensing that J.K. Rowling’s novels are already popular enough without his help.

It’s a quandary religious leaders have faced since long before movable type: Socrates was condemned to death for “denying the gods recognized by the state.” We’ve all heard of Socrates; who remembers his judges?

But Gutenberg goosed the censored into action like nothing before him. From the mid-16th to the mid-20th centuries, the Vatican maintained an Index of Prohibited Books which eventually included everybody from Descartes to Galileo to Simone de Beauvoir.

Ron Bogdan, a senior cataloger at the Folger Library in Washington who has studied 16th- and 17th-century books, notes that censors have always had a tough time stamping out material they didn’t like. “It was a matter of principle,” he says, “but the logistics of it were just unimaginable” once printing technology began to spread. “Censors bit off much more than they could chew in terms of all the material.” Ironically, the Index of Prohibited Books quickly became a kind of buyer’s guide: “Publishers liked to get their hands on those books,” he says, “because those titles became so popular.”

You don’t have to be a large church — or even an old one — to bully writers. Small evangelical groups in the United States have condemned books by Tolkien and Steinbeck. The Mormons did everything in their power to silence a heretical memoir by Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife. The Christian Science Church’s manual still formally forbids members from buying, selling or circulating “incorrect literature.”

Still, we may finally be learning what John Milton argued almost 400 years ago: Trying to regulate what people read is counterproductive.

Margaret Bald, who has written about the religious repression of literature, notes that “nowadays the church very rarely condemns books or tries to censor books that it disapproves of on moral grounds, except when a priest or a nun, as in this case, writes a book that contradicts Catholic doctrine.” Speaking by phone from her home in New York, she points out that there were many attempts around the world to ban Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” (including by Islamic clerics in India who found the film version “blasphemous”) “but the Roman Catholic Church didn’t.”

“The most recent history,” Bald says, “involves Muslims and Islamic religious authorities in other parts of the world. In this country, it’s more parents or people on school boards trying to pressure libraries to remove books. Churches don’t really have the authority to ban them.”

“Over the long run,” she says, “it does seem that religious censorship has been pretty futile.”

On the other hand, Professor Joyce Latham at the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recommends looking beneath the stated objection to a book. “What we know about repression,” she says, “is that the target is not usually the point.” These cases usually involve a certain degree of bait-and-switch: What, she asks, is the church’s real interest in suppressing Sister Farley’s writings on sexual relations? “When we see women achieving significant leadership roles within a male hierarchy, in order to suppress that emergent voice, [the authorities] have to find a way of discrediting that voice. As Sister Farley is one of the leading academics in terms of Christian theology, there is a need to roll that back, to discipline her in a way that others will feel tentative about stepping out on their own.”

“If the idea is to suppress the book, it will only achieve increased distribution. But if the intention is suppress the religious sisters, it may impact them.”

Ron Charles is deputy editor of The Washington Post’s book section . You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles