Bad Reading

Source: District of Asia

When a boy temporarily leaves his family during the summer for a vacation in the mountains or at the seashore, his father considers it unnecessary to tell him, "Son, don't carry a snake in your little valise, and if you see one on your hikes be careful not to pick it up with your bare hand to examine it."

Nevertheless, fatherly love requires that we give this kind of advice to you. In our last audience we briefly explained the benefits of good literature; today we wish to remind you of the danger of bad reading. The Church has never ceased to raise its voice against this danger, but despite these helpful warnings many Christians ignore or even dispute its gravity.

You must therefore convince yourselves that there are bad books, bad for everyone, like those poisons against which no one is immune. As the flesh of every man is subject to weaknesses and the spirit is ready to rebel, so also such reading constitutes a danger for everyone. The Acts of the Apostles relate that during the preaching of St. Paul in Ephesus, many who had followed vain and superstitious rites brought their books and burned them publicly; the value of these writings on magic, which were reduced to ashes, was found to be more than 50,000 pieces of silver (Acts 19:19). Later on, in the course of the centuries, the Roman Pontiffs published a catalogue or Index of books, which are forbidden reading to the faithful, with a clear warning at the same time that many others, although not expressly named, fall under the same ban because they are harmful to faith and morals. Who could be surprised at such a prohibition on the part of those who are the guardians of the spiritual health of the faithful? Even civil society wisely legislates preventive measures against the harmful effects of toxic substances in the industrial and domestic economy, and controls carefully the sale and use of poisons, particularly the more noxious ones.

If we remind you of this grave duty it is because of the increase of the evil, facilitated now by the ever-growing capacity for literary production, as well as the freedom many allow themselves to read anything. Of course there cannot be freedom to read everything, any more than there can be freedom to eat or drink everything we have at hand, such as cocaine, for example, or prussic acid.

Dear newlyweds, this fatherly advice is intended especially for you. Most of you are at an age and in a situation where the mind finds great delight in romantic novels, and your numerous desires find gratification in a happiness which at times is purely imaginary, while stern reality is softened in sweet dreams. Surely it is not objectionable for you to savor the fascinating stories of pure and healthy human affection; Sacred Scripture itself offers similar scenes which have preserved their idyllic freshness throughout the centuries, such as the meeting of Jacob and Rachel, the engagement of the young Tobias, the story of Ruth. There have also been greatly talented authors who have written good and wholesome romances; it is enough to mention our own Manzoni. But beside these pure flowers what a teeming growth of poisonous plants there is in the vast kingdom of imaginative works! Now the latter, being more accessible and visible, are plucked far too frequently, and because their perfume is penetrating and intoxicating, it is more willingly inhaled.

"I am no longer a child," says a young woman, "and I know life; therefore I have the desire and right to know it even better." But the poor thing does not realize that her language is the language of Eve, face to face with the forbidden fruit; and does she think perhaps that to know love and experience life it is necessary to examine all its abuses and deformities?

In the same way, a young man says, "I am no longer a child, and at my age sensuous descriptions and voluptuous scenes no longer mean anything." Is he sure of this? If true, this would be an indication of unconscious perversion resulting from reading already indulged in, like certain legends of Mithridates, King of Pontus, who grew, prepared, and experimented with poisonous herbs to which he wished to become immune; hence the word mithridatism.

But you young men and women must not believe that if you allow yourselves sometimes in secret to lapse into the reading of harmful books, their poison has no effect on you; rather must you fear that this effect, when it is not immediate, is even more pernicious. In the tropical countries of Africa there is a species of harmful insect known as the tsetse fly, whose bite does not bring instant death but a simple, passing, local irritation. Yet it innoculates deadly tropines in the blood. By the time the evil symptoms are clearly manifest, it is sometimes too late to apply any remedial medications known to science. In like manner, impure images and harmful thoughts which a bad book will produce in you seem at times to enter your mind without causing, as it were, any noticeable wound. Thus you will be easily fooled, not understanding that in this way death enters the abode of the soul through the window of the eye if you don't react promptly and decisively. The soul, like an organism stupefied by sleeping sickness, will slide slowly into mortal sin and enmity with God.

Indeed, the danger of bad reading, under certain aspects, is more harmful than bad company because it is capable of rendering itself prodigiously more intimate. How many girls or young women, alone in their rooms with a popular little book, allow it to speak to them crudely about things they would never permit others even to whisper in their presence, or allow it to describe scenes which they would not for anything in the world wish to enact either as participants or victims! Alas, they are but preparing themselves to do so tomorrow! Other Christian men or women, who from infancy have trod the righteous path, complain of an unexpected increase of temptations within them before which they feel progressively weaker. Perhaps, if they were to examine their consciences sincerely, they would have to acknowledge they had read a sensual novel, perused an immoral magazine, or looked at improper pictures! Poor souls, can they truly and logically complain that a flood of muck threatens to engulf them when they themselves opened the dikes of a poisonous ocean?

Moreover, dear newlyweds, since you are now preparing your future and are asking, among other divine favors, the benediction of fertility on your union, remember that the souls of your children will be reflections of your own. Surely you are firmly resolved to educate them as Christians and to instill in them only the best principles. This is a magnificent resolution, but will it always be enough? Alas, at times it occurs that Christian parents who have employed every precaution in the education of a son or a daughter, and who have kept them away from dangerous pleasures or bad companions, suddenly find that, at the age of eighteen or twenty, they have become victims of wretched and even scandalous downfall. The good seed which they had sown was thus ruined by cockel. What enemy did this evil? At their very fireside, in this little paradise, the tempter, the astute one, secretly gained entrance and found the corrupting fruit already picked, ripe to offer those innocent hands. A book carelessly left on the father's desk, which undermined his son's baptismal faith, a novel forgotten on the mother's sofa or dressing table, that has blackened the purity of her daughter's First Communion. It is unfortunate that the evil, discovered with alarm, is the more difficult to cure, for the stain imbedded on an unblemished virgin soul is so stubborn.

But in addition to writings which promote impiety and bad conduct, we cannot fail to mention others that disseminate lies and foment hatred. A lie, abominable in the eyes of God and detested by every just man, becomes even worse when it spreads calumny and sows discord among brothers. As those anonymous maniacs whose pens dipped in gall and slime cause the collapse of happiness in home life and family unity, so also certain publications seem bent upon destroying brotherly relations between sons of the same heavenly Father in the great family of nations. This work of hatred is carried on at times in books and even more often in newspapers.

If a writer, under pressure and in the haste of his daily work, errs by accepting inaccurate information, or if he expresses an unfair opinion, this can appear to be, and often actually is, carelessness rather than fault. He must nevertheless realize that similar lapses or carelessness, particularly in periods of acute tension, can suffice to arouse grave repercussions. Would God that history may never record a war provoked by a skillfully disseminated lie!

If a journalist who is conscious of his mission and his responsibility has published an error, he feels an obligation to retract it. He is bound, in respect to the thousands of readers who may be influenced by his writings, not to ruin in them or for them the sacred patrimony of emancipating truth and pacifying charity which nineteen centuries of Christianity have laboriously brought the human race. It has been said that the tongue has slain more men than the sword. In the same way the publication of lies can become as lethal as tanks or bombers.

The Gospel of the Transfiguration of Our Lord relates how the Divine Master began to reveal His glory to the three privileged apostles by drawing them away from the others and taking them with Him to the top of a high mountain. If you wish your home to be favored as well by God's blessing, by the special protection of His Heart, and by the grace of peace and unity promised to those who honor It, draw yourself away from the crowd by rejecting reprehensible and perverse publications. Seek good in this as in everything, live continually in God's sight and in the observance of His law, and you will make your home an intimate Tabor where the malaria of the lowlands will not reach and where you will be able to say with St. Peter: "Master, it is good for us to be here."

Address of His Holiness Pius XII to the newlyweds, August 7, 1940.