Pope Benedict's history of censorship

Many, many things will be written about the papacy of Benedict XVI in the coming days (as a good summary of Ratzinger’s reign, I’d highly recommend this from John Hooper).

For me, it’s worth noting, briefly, Joseph Ratzinger’s historic association with Vatican censorship.

Previous to becoming Pope in 2005, Ratzinger had been head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — previously known as the Holy Office, and before that the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition (bear with me).

The Holy Office had, in 1917, absorbed the Sacred Congregation of the Index. This was the body responsible for the maintenance of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — the list of books and authors the Vatican prohibited Catholics from reading. This list, started after approval at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, contained authors from Giordano Bruno to Jean Paul Satre.

The Index was last updated in 1948. It’s very existence became an issue for debate during the discussions of the Second Vatican Council.

One of the main proponents of retaining the Index of banned books was Cardinal Frings, formerly the Archbishop of Cologne. Frings’s “Peritus” (theological consultant) during Vatican Two was Joseph Ratzinger. Frings and Ratzinger failed, and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was abolished in 1966.

A few years later, when trying to think of a name for a new magazine documenting censorship around the world, poet Stephen Spender, journalist Michael Scammell and others settled, with an ironic nod to Rome, on “Index“.

And here we are today.

Mexican teacher fired for showing gay rights film

A 28-year-old middle school teacher at a private school in Mexico City has been fired after showing her students the 2008 film Milk, which tells the story of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was murdered in San Francisco in the 1970s. Mexico’s capital has been celebrated as a champion of gay rights in the region, permitting civil unions in 2006 and approving gay marriage in 2009. However, the scandal around the dismissal of the teacher, Cecilia Hernandez, shows some of the ongoing battles for gay rights in the city.

Until December last year, Hernandez was an adjunct professor of civics and ethics at Lomas Hill middle school, which serves a well-heeled community on the outskirts of Mexico City. In a telephone interview, Hernandez said the dismissal surprised her,  since she was only “following Mexican educational standards”. According to Mexico’s Education Ministry guidelines, teachers in public and private schools should provide lessons on tolerance and against discrimination.

The film was given  a B15 rating in Mexico, deeming it appropriate for viewers older than 15 years old.  While Hernandez´s students were 13 and 14 years old, a B15 rating stipulates that younger viewers can see the film if an adult is present. “For me it was important that my students watched this movie. We had agreed to show the least explicit parts of the film and I was there to explain to them the meaning of the movie,” said Hernandez.

Initially, the teacher planned to show the film to three of her scheduled classes, allowing a period of discussion during every session. However, students during the initial screening were riled up with the film, and asked the teacher to stop the screening and change the assignment. A few students made derogatory statements about homosexuals — and according to Hernandez, one of them was the nephew of the school’s prinicipal, Annette Muench.

Following class Hernandez received an angry email from Muench,  calling the film “filth”, and accusing the teacher of showing the film without her approval.

Hernandez says she went through the correct procedure to show the controversial film. “I never had any problems with this school. I wrote them a list of my school activities and they never objected to my lesson plans,” she said.

Later that week, Hernandez was welcomed by two security guards when she arrived to school. She was held for two hours against her will before being reprimanded by Muench in front of the staff and student body. She was eventually escorted off of school grounds.

Shortly after being fired, Hernandez blasted the decision on Twitter, and her account of the incident went viral. It soon turned into a personal showdown between the school principal and Hernandez. Muench accused Hernandez of embarrassing her and of promoting pornography among innocent children.

Hernandez  says Lomas Hill pride itself on their reputation as a school that protects the rights of all children and favors education for children with special needs. “My students were always very open to the rights of others,” she said.

A petition calling for a public apology from the school has now garnered more than 80,000 signatures, but the school refuses to budge on the matter. Mexico’s federal anti-discrimination agency, CONAPRED, has now taken on her case.