Sister Farley’s revenge: Want to popularize a book? Ban it.

From papyrus to vellum to paper to e-books, two principles of publishing have not changed over the centuries: 1. Churches … Continued

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

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  • usapdx

    And they thought moveable type was dangerous. Now it’s a small world after all.

  • immigrant1

    Yes it popularized the book and also let the world know who Margaret Farley truly is, someone not worthy of being called sister.

  • immigrant1

    Just like the book the New York Times and other main stream media ignored about Obama called “Amateur” that hit 1 NY times list . LOL

  • XVIIHailSkins

    I’ve asked this before but could it be possible that there is a group of people in the world that are worse at delivering one-liners than American christians? Among many things, your faith has robbed you of your sense of humor.

  • amelia45


    Sister of Mercy

    PhD, Yale Divinity School

    Professor Emerita – Yale University Divinity School

    former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America

    former president of the Society of Christian Ethics

    recipient: John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America – 1992

    recipient: Grawemeyer Award in Religion from the University of Louisville (kentucky) – 2008

    a few works:
    1) A Study in the Ethics of Commitment within the Context of Theories of Human Love and Temporality (1978)
    2) Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing (1986)
    3) Compassionate Respect: A Feminist Approach to Medical Ethics and Other Questions (2002)
    4) Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006)
    ….there are more

    Catholic, Sister, teacher, ethicist


    few of us could do better

  • vintagecars

    Ha ha ha, I just read this article after an article showing an increase in marijuana consumption among teenagers in America. Prohibition doesn’t work, and literary history reflects that.

  • bytheway1

    About 10 years ago the christian right opposed “Harmful to Minors” by Judith Levine because it was published by the Univeristy of Minnesota Press regarding teenage sex, so i had to buy the book, which i read. i found it spot on, well reseached and easy to read.


    Pope Pius X banned the saxophone and look how well that took.

  • lisashap

    It still amazes me that intelligent people are still trying to ban books. I would bet that many of the people who are now buying this book are Catholics who want to find out what all the fuss is about. I have found, more often than not, those who move to ban books or who go along with a ban have not read the book in question or do not understand what they have read. Reading and discussing books that present controversial ideas are very good ways for us to deepen our own sense of faith and values. Banning books has never worked and never will work.

  • RetiredOfficer

    The Vatican has about as much sense as that nut down in Florida who likes burning the Koran. Bunch of Nazi look-alikes.

  • ticktockky21954

    and we have lost another author, ray bradbury, age 91, may the universe accept his soul.

  • ticktockky21954

    how many of us read him simply because the powers that be banned him.

  • jnc4p

    9:56 AM EDT
    how many of us read him simply because the powers that be banned him.”

    When was Ray Bradbury ever banned?

  • ticktockky21954

    no ray bradbury book was in my high school library until the 1980’s, had to wait until college to read him.

  • jefffrane

    ticktock, that may have had more to do with the attitude toward science fiction than a ban on Bradbury. I’ve never even seen his name on a list of “bad” books.

  • MavenUniversity

    Time to read (or re-read) Farenheit 451.

  • ceflynline

    Bradbury’s banned creds devolve almost entirely from Farenheit 451. since his Lovecraft imitations don’t usually get banned, and everything else is readable if not necessarily comprehensible.

    You put Bradbury on a reading list because he is a stylist, and reading just a few of them improves writing skills. Reading a lot of Silvergerg, Cordwainer Smith, Clifford Simak, Ursula leGuinn jost makes you a potential truefan.

    I’ve never been able to prove it affected my thought processes.

  • VTengineer

    The Caholic church should lose it’s tax exempt status for a whole variety of reasons.

  • crete

    Usually the purpose of any group’s attempt to get a bbook bannedd is fundraising. I meean if Sister Farley’s “Just Love” book had stayed in the mid 100,000’s how much outrage could the church have insited and how much less money for the tuu belivers would it have recieved?

    Many books that are the subject of such attacks are mideocre at best, authors ove the attention, the attack group rallies the troops, Win/Win.


    “Intelligent people” are not trying to ban books. The catholic church is trying to ban books.

    There’s a difference. HTH.

  • Sara121

    I just did that on Sunday, in fact.

  • Sara121

    Fahrenheit 451 was required reading when I was in high school.

  • Hazmat77

    The same theory applies to pornography, doesn’t it?

    The religious want to ban it so others want to see or read it…. leading to the obvious observation – read and view what interests you, and then mind your own business regarding what you deem is not suitable for others.

  • oldbrownhat

    Possibly, but note that not all “American Christians” are from the Bible-thumping, dour, scientifically-challenged evangelical far right. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and these people often make a lot of noise and so are assumed to represent Christians in general. Some (Episcopalians, Methodists and – gasp – even Catholics, and quite probably others, too) actually enjoy life without getting all frumpy-uppity and judgemental and saying silly things.

    I couldn’t help remembering one of H.L. Mencken’s comments:

    Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone,
    somewhere, may be happy.

  • practica1

    Blessed Bradbury – and don’t forget Hizzoner Sinclair Lewis’s ‘It Can’t Happen Here’

  • fcs25

    All religions try to ban debate about the truth or falsehood of their doctrines and beliefs,not just Christians,not just the Catholic Church. Ask any Muslim what would happen to them if they dare to express doubts about Mohammad. Religions hate debate and doubt because they know their beliefs can not be defended by logic and rational thought.The contradictions within their doctrines and even the very concept of the necessary properties of god leads one to an undeniable conclusion that this concept is false and can not be true,which leads to the conclusion that Atheism is true and god or gods do not and can not exist in reality because of internal contradictions.

  • practica1

    Farley’s MY Sister – I don’t know what you imagine a sister to be, but I’m sure glad I’m not yours, immigrant1