Ask Mary: Is Reading/Seeing Les Miserables a Sin?

Question:

I recently came across this post
(http://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2011/03/21/index-of-forbidden-books/) by a canon lawyer talking about the history of the Vatican’s list of banned books. I was very surprised to see Victor Hugo’s Les
Miserables mentioned. I was planning on reading it before seeing the
upcoming movie adaptation, but I do not want to do so if it is a sin.
From everything I know about the book, it is not anti-Catholic or
Christian. I think one of the main characters is even a pious bishop.
So I am confused.

Answer:

Once upon a time there was a family.  This family was, like a lot of families, made up of a Father, a Mother, and many children.  Also like most families, in this family the Father and Mother set rules for their children.  Some rules were more serious than others.  It was expected that the children would be present for family meals, that they would do their part to keep the household in good order, and that they would obey certain rules of conduct (respect others, don’t lie, etc.).  And like most families, if anyone failed in their responsibilities, it was expected that they would apologize and try to make amends.

The Church has many titles.  Body of Christ, Bride of Christ, etc.  It would be a misunderstanding to say that one of these titles is “more correct” than the others, because they are all true.  However, one of my favorite titles of the Church is that of a loving Mother.

Let me paint a picture for you.  It’s the period of the “Enlightenment.” Books are circulating.  People are talking.  Ideas are spreading.  None of this is bad in itself; in fact it all sounds pretty good.  But the Church is in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.  Picture a Mother who has just seen a number of her children taken from her home, led away by someone claiming that what she was telling her children all those years was wrong.  The mother still has children at home, but she’s understandably worried that they too will get swept away by false teachings.  It’s time to set some rules.

I’ve written in the past that when I was younger, I wasn’t allowed to read certain books, see certain movies, or watch certain TV shows.  What I’ve tried to convey (how successfully I did so is up for discussion) is that it wasn’t necessarily that my family thought these books or movies or TV shows were completely evil, or that we judged those families even in our faith community that took a different stance on certain books, movies, or television shows.  It was simply that my parents saw that a certain book or movie could have potential to lead me or one of my siblings away from the truth and/or even into sin in some cases.  For this reason, they put limits on the content that I was allowed to consume—like most parents do.

In a similar way, there was a time in Church history when the Church attempted to guard her children from false teachings or questionable doctrines by limiting their access to certain materials.  The Index of forbidden books was created in 1559, and was constantly being updated and revised (as would be expected, given that new books were being published regularly) until Pope Paul VI abolished it in 1966.  The link you provided does a good job of explaining what the Index was and why we don’t have it now.

But more to your question (and as the link says), the fact that the Index has been abolished doesn’t mean everything on it is automatically A-OK and 100% moral or in line with the truth.  As with everything, we need to practice individual prudential judgment.

As for Les Miserables, I must confess that I have never read it (and have not yet seen the film), and so I cannot speak in great detail.  What I have heard from those who have read it is that it’s a story of redemption, conversion and of hope in times of great trial: all very Christian themes.  The link suggests that it was perhaps included in the Index because “it called into question both the need to respect lawful authorities and the laws themselves, and the consequent need to obey them.”  Perhaps during this time in history the Church saw a number of her children struggling with this, and thought it best for them to avoid it.  Perhaps even today a person that may really struggle with the need to obey and respect just law should avoid reading material that they may be tempted to use as justification for sinful action.  Again, the need for prudential judgment is key.

Ideas matter.  This is why it’s extremely important for anyone who creates anything (which, when you really think about it, includes all of us) to pray constantly that we are doing the work of God.  Is it a sin for you to read or to see Les Miserables?  I highly doubt it.  It is certainly not a sin to read a book on the Index of forbidden books simply because it was once included in the Index.

I hope that answers your question, and I sincerely hope no one read this as my condemning Les Miserables.

mary-sig