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Les Miserables and the Index

Victor Hugo

For the past several weeks, Catholics around the Internet have been talking about a scandal, and, surprisingly, they’re more or less in agreement.  It is a real-life scandal of a bishop who forgave a criminal for robbing from him.  It is a fictional scandal of a criminal who broke parole, became a successful businessman and mayor, then spent the rest of his life as a fugitive, then illegally adopted the orphaned daughter of a prostitute.  And it is the real life “scandal” that a movie based upon a musical based upon a novel that was once on the “Index of Forbidden Books”  is now being discussed across the Internet as one of the greatest Catholic works of fiction of all time.

I have over 1400 Facebook “friends”–over 90% of them Catholics, mostly of the “conservative” sort, some more moderate or even liberal, and many are on various aspects of the spectrum-within-a-spectrum-within-a-spectrum that is known as traditionalism or radical traditionalism.  Nearly everyone who has discussed the Les Miserables movie directed by Tom Hooper are agreeing with the sentiment in the first paragraph.  A few think the musical is too “maudlin”, or just don’t care for sung-through musicals or musical dramas.  Some have criticized some or all of the singing (I’m not a particular fan of Russell Crowe’s performance, but I don’t think he’s really bad, either, and I think Hugh Jackman does a great job, although he lacks the etherial quality of Colm Wilkinson’s legendary performances).  Only one, person, however — a longtime Internet friend who is a member of the Society of St. Pius X — besides me raised the issue that the novel was on the Index, and my friend insisted that since Paul VI said the Index still retained its “moral force,” that means no Catholic should be involved with the novel, the musical, or any movie adaptation of either

Now, there is a common misconception about the Index.  The Index was not, as many surmise, a list of “banned” books.  The notion was not that under no circumstances should a Catholic read those books, but rather that they should only be read under guidance from a spiritual director or in an academic setting.  Sometimes, throughout history, works that were on the Index at one point were later removed.    (Les Miserables was apparently removed from the Index in 1959.) Works that were on the Index were often taught in colleges but banned for the average layperson merely for reasons of confusion.  One critique of the Index, and one of the reasons for its elimination, was that so much secular literature had been published that the Church could not keep up with it all. 

Pascal’s Pensees was on the Index (at least an edition annotated by Voltaire).  St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy in My Soul was on the Index  (although many “RadTrads” argue that it should still be banned, and that she should not have been canonized). 

Just about every name in modern philosophy was on the Index, including Renes Descartes, whose devout Catholicism was attested by the fact that he converted the Queen of Sweden back to Catholicism from Protestantism.  Maimonides, a necessary stepping-stone to Scholasticism, was on the Index.

Officially, the Index included books that were heretical or immoral, yet many authors who published during the Index’s tenure (Marx and Hitler, on the one hand, or Joyce and Lawrence on the other), were somehow able to escape its eye. Some have said that the Index focused on anti-clericalism, blasphemy or heresy.  Recent scholarship into the Vatican’s much-discussed “Secret Archives” suggests that what was or was not included seems to be a matter of who the reviewer was.  For example, the first reviewer to consider Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin worried it was a call to revolution, and almost banned it, but a second reviewer overturned the decision.

Today, if a Cardinal in charge of a Vatican Congregation issues an opinion, the general Catholic response pretty much boils down to whether one is inclined to agree with that opinion.  Otherwise, people will say, “that’s just his opinion, and he’s not the pope.”  This is especially true of decisions by lower level Pontifical Councils and other organizations within the Vatican.  This is essentially what the Index amounted to: not the opinion, directly speaking, of the Holy Father, or even of one of the chief Cardinals of the Vatican, but the opinions of the reviewers who worked for the subdivision of the Inquisition/Holy Office/Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith that was in charge of the Index. 

Now, why might Les Miserables have been included?  There are several reasons.  First, Victor Hugo was a Republican, in the 19th Century French sense of the word.  He supported the French Revolution, had mixed feelings for Napoleon, and generally favored that liberty/fraternity/equality business.  There’s an expression one often hears in old cartoons and westerns: “them’s fightin words”.  In the 19th Century, “liberty, fraternity and equality” were literally “fighting words”, and the Church was distrustful of overturning political status quos.  That’s why the Church initially opposed democratization, but it’s also one of the reasons why, in the late 19th Century, the Church began putting the brakes on Catholic monarchical movements that wanted to have counter-revolutions.

Prizing social order and peace, the Church was wary of political revolution, and notions of promoting non-law-abiding (criminal) behavior.  Even though Catholic morality teaches that a law which does not conform to Natural Law is invalid, the Church was not comfortable at the time with telling people they could go around breaking the law—that’s still true today.  This was a time of what Dietrich von Hildebrand called “ossification” in the Church.  A few centuries before Victor Hugo, the great Mystic Doctors Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were under the watchful eye of the Inquisition, to the extent that some of Teresa’s works were lost to history while being “reviewed.”

Prior to Vatican II, and even today in many circles, religious were warned against reading the Mystical Doctors.  Carmelite nuns and friars have gone their entire lives without reading Teresa or John because their superiors told them, “That’s not for you. You’re not holy enough.”

A strange phenomenon of pre-Vatican II Catholicism was that the average layperson was taught a very narrow and “safe” version of the Church’s moral teaching. They were unlikely to comprehend what Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus pointed out in his appearance on The World Over Live: that the story of Jean Valjean perfectly exemplifies Catholic Social Teaching. St. Thomas Aquinas famously states that it is not theft for a starving person to take what is necessary for survival from someone else.  Thus, when Valjean notoriously steals his loaf of bread in 1796 to feed his sister’s starving children, he does nothing wrong according to Catholic teaching (except maybe the parts about breaking the glass and holding the baker at gunpoint).  Arguably, he does nothing wrong when he “steals” from the Bishop of Digne, either, since he is in desperate need, and the Bishop explicitly tells him, upon welcoming him in, “everything that is in this house is yours.”  Valjean just took the Bishop at his word. 

Nevertheless, to a Church deeply concerned about a replay of the Protestant Reformation, deeply concerned about revolutions fomenting around Europe, deeply concerned about preserving social order, these were dangerous sentiments.

Then there’s that bit about morality: Les Miserables depicts the fact that, yes, people do bad things, and sometimes moral decisions are very complex.  The fact that the novel depicts prostitution has been a major reason for its banning by various secular authorities over the past 150 years.  Once again, a very basic principle of Catholic moral teaching is that a person is only guilty of something if he or she chooses it freely.  Victor Hugo shows again and again how people commit sins out of desperation, and he illustrates very vividly the Catholic teaching that when an individual commits a sin out of desperation, the guilt lies largely, if not wholly, with society, rather than merely with the individual.  However, to the practical governing authorities of the Church, it is problematic to spread around these notions.

My daughters know the musical very well, since their mother and I are huge fans, and when I was talking about this topic at home, I said, “No one really knows why it was on the Index.”  My eldest daughter, without missing a beat, suggested, “Fantine?”  She was probably right.  In countries and schools that have banned it, depiction of prostitution is the most cited reason.

One can see how the Church might be uncomfortable with some of these notions, but also how they are important illustrations of authentic Catholic moral and spiritual teaching.  The real problem with the book, however, comes back to Victor Hugo’s politics.  While he praises authentic spirituality and morality, Hugo was extremely critical of the Church as an institution.  While some of his criticism was well deserved, this was exactly the kind of thing that the Index frowned upon (and why the Index needed to be abolished, given some of the problems we’ve started to clean up since Vatican II—indeed, it is quite ironic that traditionalists’ own critiques of the Church hierarchy would have landed their writings of the Index if it still existed). 

There are sections of the novel where Hugo engages more in philosophizing than in narration, and this is where some of his problematic ideas come out.  In one section, for example, he seeks to respond to complaints that convents and monasteries reflect a backward view of human society and should be abolished.  While he ultimately comes out in favor of convents and monasteries, so long as their members are there by choice (noting how often people were confined to convents and monasteries for the wrong reasons), it is unclear sometimes whether Hugo is merely recounting, or agreeing with, the modernist attacks on Religious Life.

Ultimately, Les Miserables can be seen as an anticipation of Vatican II.   It is almost a book-end to Francis Cardinal George’s famous speech to the Commonweal conference about liberal Catholicism having been an exhausted project.  Hugo finds himself as both an admirer of authentic Catholicism and of the good ideas in modernity.  He critiques the monarchy, but he often critiques the pre-Revolution monarchy precisely for being un-Christian.  He condemns the Revolution for being godless.  He praises the Restoration Monarchy for restoring what was good about the monarchy while maintaining the ideals of liberty and social reform promoted by the Revolution.


John C. Hathaway, OCDS, MA, is a secular Carmelite with 10 years of experience teaching high school and college English. He has had articles in several books and periodicals, including Doors in the Air: C. S. Lewis and the Imaginative World and Inside Catholic. He blogs at www.lewiscrusade.org.


  • Louis Tofari

    A layperson is not a “member” of the SSPX – only clergy and religious are. He might attend a chapel administered by the Society of St. Pius X, but in that case, he’s merely part of the Catholic faithful that attend Mass there.

    • John C. Hathaway

      Just to be technical the SSPX does have a Third Order. Not saying that my friend’s a member of it, but if you’re going to be technical about “membership” in the SSPX, you must include the Seculars with the Priests and Religious.

  • Joe Q

    I didn’t like how everyone was in “heaven” at the end….It’s like saying no one is ever in mortal sin or unbaptized….

    • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

      Again, you must not be familiar with the musical (or that literature and drama are always present tense). I don’t like how the movie handled the finale, certainly, but in a musical, where the chorus constantly changes roles, I don’t see the souls welcoming Valjean into Heaven as being necessarily the same people at the barricade, although the Church clearly teaches, with Christ, that those who sin because they are oppressed bear far less guilt than those who cause them to sin by oppression.

  • Dan Grimm

    IMO this movie should be on the Index. The depictions of sexuality are disturbing and gross. The glossing over of the crimes of the revolutionaries (including Jean Valjean shooting a soldier) and the depiction of heaven as a big revolutionary rally are deeply problematical. Compared to these problems, the trite music and bad singing hardly count. Are we so starved for sweet romances that we have to swallow them with poison?

    • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

      First of all, “trite music”? The second most successful theatrical musical in history?
      Yes, there is a bit of excess in the movie’s depictions, but it should be *praised* for depicting prostitution as something disturbing and gross, especially in a culture which glorifies prostitution and pornography.
      At the point Valjean shoots the soldier, that falls under legitimate self-defense. Under Catholic just war theory, individual soldiers always have a right to individual self-defense, even if they’re on the wrong side, and Valjean is not there to support the students but to save Marius’s life.

  • http://twitter.com/WarAndPeaceBook War & Peace Books

    It should still be on the Index.

  • Harry Flynn

    Dear Mr. Hathaway,

    I am commenting upon the following text of your article:

    “This is essentially what the Index amounted to: not the opinion,
    directly speaking, of the Holy Father, or even of one of the chief
    Cardinals of the Vatican, but the opinions of the reviewers who worked
    for the subdivision of the Inquisition/Holy Office/Congregation for the
    Doctrine of Faith that was in charge of the Index.”

    It may please you to know that in the days prior to Vatican II, the head of the Holy Office was none other than the Holy Father himself.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

      But the *head* of the Holy Office was not responsible for deciding which books were on the Index. It would be the equivalent of Fr. Pavone or Judie Brown, who sit as members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, being able to make statements binding upon the entire church.

      • Harry Flynn

        Mr. Hathaway, the Holy Father approved those decisions as Head of the Holy Office. Otherwise, no books would have been added to the Index.

        • John C. Hathaway

          Again that’s not what the recent research into the Vatican archives is indicating.

          • Harry Flynn

            Sir, it is a simple fact that the Holy Father was the Prefect of the Holy Office before Vatican II. He would have had to sign off on any Decrees of the Holy Office before their publication.

            That said, please provide the references where I can look up your information.

          • jmt

            mom, please do my homework for me so I can prove you wrong

          • Harry Flynn

            I fail to see how the following is to be the butt of satire:

            1) Author of article makes a claim.
            2) Reader of article raises a point.
            3) Author of article reiterates his point.
            4) Reader requests documentation to verify claim of author.

            Did I miss something in Logic 101? I mean, even the Bereans in the Book of Acts did this….

          • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

            If the author bases his article on a) his professional expertise and analysis as an established literary critic and as having the equivalent of a Master’s (at least) in study of spirituality from 12 years of Carmelite formation, b) numerous articles which provided the same basic information (basic research rules say that anything in multiple sources is “common knowledge” and does not need to be cited, but I kindly provided links to a few of my main sources, anyway), then no citation is needed, especially when the article is a commentary in a popular publication, where AP rules apply, not APA or MLA.

          • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

            I provided references in the article. They’re hyperlinked.

  • http://www.DSDOConnor.com/ Daniel O’Connor

    The obvious problem with the movie (wonderful as it may be overall), is the fact that it graphically depicts sex scenes, which is NEVER permissible in Catholic teaching. It is nothing less than a tragedy that some Catholics are specifically defending those scenes.

    • John C. Hathaway

      I’m not “defending” them per se but they’re far less graphic than what is on many television shows these days. The scene during “Master of the House” is completely gratuitous, but the scene with Fantine can hardly even be considered a “sex scene”: it’s really a rape, and again it’s depicting sin for what it actually is. It’s not intended to promote immorality. I’d rather it wasn’t there, but it does effectively portray Fantine’s situation of near-despair.
      While this piece was inspired by the movie, it is intended to be about the book, and no one has yet commented on the book itself.

      • Harry Flynn

        Mr. Hathaway, I fail to see the distinction you make.

        Upon what moral grounds can you claim a “rape” scene is not a “sex” scene? Rape IS sex, albeit violent, but sex nevertheless.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

          It is the difference between glorification of evil versus depiction of evil *as* evil. Read Flannery O’Connor’s _Mystery and Manners_, though I’d imagine you think O’Connor should be on the Index.

          • Harry Flynn

            Mr. Hathaway, that last remark was rude and uncalled for. However, it did show me your hand and I thank you for that.

            You ought to be ashamed of yourself and remember, you are billed as “OCDS” and therefore have marked yourself as a representative of the Carmelite Order.

            There is no need to respond to this. I will not read it, nor engage you further.

          • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

            How was it uncalled for? Everything you condemn about Victor Hugo is to be found in the writings of Flannery O’Connor. Or are graphic depictions of homosexual rape OK in your book?

  • James

    I simply cannot believe this post, it has taken me 3 days to digest it. Steven Graydanus is now the authority on moral movies, but not somebody in the vatican? I’m not advocating that vatican officials are always right, but your reasoning is hardly logical.

    This book ought to remain on the index, short and simple. There is no complication here. The only complication that arises is that of Catholics who are having less regard for the prudence of those who strove for morality and decency.

    In referencing the book, why should a bishop tell a lie to save a man? That is flawed and colors the line of objective truth. It might seem inconsequential, but the more we rationalize such ideas, the quicker we fall into rationalizing other difficult situations.

    Secondly, the movie cannot and must not be defended for any reason due to the nature of the subject (the new world–enlightenment era) and the sexual content. Anybody knows that in having people see new ideas as reasonable and palatable, the ideas presented must pass through the test of fire, but in the end, what remains will be the ideology. And so, Hugo presents a broken world after the the violence in France, but he doesn’t disconnect from it. We are led through it and we come out together still living in the Enlightenment era and giving thanks for it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

      James,
      1) The Bishop does not lie to save a man. You thus demonstrate you don’t even know the book.
      2) A nun “lies” to save Valjean, and even then, she doesn’t technically lie according to Church teaching. Javert asks her, “Are you alone in this room?” She replies, “Yes.” Technically she is alone “in the room”–Valjean is hiding.
      Then he asks, “Have you seen the criminal Jean Valjean?” She says, “No.” She has not seen the criminal Jean Valjean, whom she does not know. She has seen the saintly Mayor Madeleine whom she has known to be a man of great virtue. A person is not defined by one sin, especially when that sin has been both punished by society and absolved by the Church.
      3) Your statement bears no consistency. As I noted in the article, and is well documented in several sources, _Les MIserables_ was removed from the Index 10 years before the Index itself was abolished. Therefore, you’re saying that the Index was competent to judge a book as faulty, yet not competent to reverse its decision.

  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    Two issues are here:1, Les Mis and 2, the Index.

    Was Benedict XVI ever in charge of the Index? The Index of Prohibited Books was abolished in 1966, under Pope Paul VI. On November 25, 1981, Josef Ratzinger was named by Pope John Paul II as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So he really had no influence on the Index.

    Is it a pity the Index was abolished?. Many writers gained fame as “banned in
    Boston” and in Ireland not to be banned was a bad mark.

    Anyone who was anyone was on the index.

    I see:

    “The Index included a number of authors and intellectuals
    whose works are widely read today in most leading universities and are now
    considered as the foundations of science, e.g. Kepler’s New Astronomy, his Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, and his World Harmony were quickly placed on the Index after their publication. Other noteworthy intellectuals and religious figures on the Index include Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis
    Bacon, John Milton, John Locke,Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Hugo
    Grotius and Saint Faustina Kowalska (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_Librorum_Prohibitorum#Listed_works_and_authors).

    • http://www.facebook.com/jchathaway John C. Hathaway Ocds

      Noel yes there are technically two issues. I had written this as one long piece: part focusing on the recent research into the Index, and the other focusing on why Les Miserables may have been included, and whether that should still be a flag of caution. I then submitted it as two pieces, but there was so much redundancy when I split it into two that the editor decided to recombine them.
      One of the things that might have been lost in the editing process (I think on my end), as I went back and forth on whether to do this as one or two pieces, was the point that I generally agree the abolition of the Index was a good thing, and you raise some good points to that effect. We all know that the foundation of some of our greatest Catholic philosophical minds of this past century, including Karol Woytyla and Dietrich von Hildebrand, included reading authors on the Index.

      • Noel Fitzpatrick

        John,
        many thanks for your reply to me. I welcome this discussion here, as we can all learn and be strengthened in the faith by reflecting on and talking about what we believe.

        I really would like to see more debates here.

  • Hanna

    Sorry I’m late to the party; I just found this via google. But I can’t help but think that the politics in the novel are not something to just brush off. The revolution is a central part of the story, and it’s because Hugo believed, as the revolutionaries believed (well…most of them) that liberty, fraternity, and equality were something sacred. Worth killing for, worth dying for, and worth upsetting social order for. I find it difficult to disagree with these ideas and still enjoy the novel.