Local Catholic school board wrong to ban Golden Compass

First published: December 20, 2007

When the local Catholic school board pulled The Golden Compass, a fantasy-adventure book that is now a major movie, off the shelves of its schools recently, it is a stark reminder about censorship and the ways ideas are controlled in our community.

The Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board decided late last month to pull Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, called Dark Materials. The story is about two children who travel through a series of parallel worlds in a quest to oppose oppressive authority and free the souls of children. The world within the book uses other worldly characters such as daemons, angels, and witches.

The first book was published in 1995 and received 10 awards, including Britain’s prestigious Carnegie Medal and was voted the best children’s book in the past 70 years by readers from around the world. The movie is based on the first book now playing in theatres, including Northumberland Mall.

A number of Catholic school boards across the country decided to review the book after concerns were raised. Calgary, Algonquin (in Kingston) and the local Catholic boards were the first. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based conservative Christian group, the Catholic League is urging parents to boycott the film, which they claim promotes atheism.

The concern for the local Catholic school board is the manner in which organized religions are portrayed, according to local superintendent Ron McNamara. A group of parents, teachers, administrators and trustees are charged with reading the books and will bring back a report to the board early in the New Year.

On a deeply cynical level, especially if one believes in conspiracy theories, this could be a whisper campaign started by the movie studio to enhance the promotion of film. It is not unusual for this type of subverted marketing to occur. Yet, it seems unreasonable and highly unlikely.

Sadly, the Catholic Church has a long history of censoring books. The first index of Prohibited Books was created by Pope Paul IV in 1559 and since that time lists were issued 20 times until 1948. The practice was ended in 1966. Still, there are forces within the church that continue to believe ideas can be controlled through banning books. Over history, many institutions have tried to ban books. Famous examples of censored books include James Joyce’s Ulysses, Voltaire’s Candide, Aristophanes Lysistrata, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

According to the American Library Association, through the Office of Intellectual Freedom, requests to remove books from library shelves are tracked on a regular basis. Most often, the reason given is sexually explicit content, followed by offensive language and the unsuitability of a particular book for a certain age group. Also occult themes; violence, homosexuality and promoting a religious viewpoint are high on the list.

The Canadian Library Association also raises an important point around this debate. Many challenges to books are dealt with quietly and away from public scrutiny. Sometimes, the books stay on the shelves and others times, it is removed. But, with budget cutbacks, librarians are feeling even more susceptible to community pressures to respond rather than fight to protect the principles of intellectual freedom.

Pearce Carefoote, author of Forbidden Fruit: Banned, Censored and Challenged Books from Dante to Harry Potter, said in a recent interview on CBC, that the number of books being challenged has never been higher. And, many libraries are taking the easy path by removing the books rather than entering into a public discussion.

It is strange these books even made it to the shelves of local schools. If these were so offensive, then one must ask what happened in the first place when they were originally purchased. The fact that it took a major motion picture to draw attention to its content raises even more questions about the credibility of this challenge.

But what is more worrisome is the fear that young people, parents and educators cannot navigate the ideas expressed by Pullman. While some may argue the author is attacking the Catholic Church and promoting atheism, others may say the institutions and characters in the book represent all kinds of authority figures in our society and the those who try to control society. And, there may be even more interpretations.

It is only through thoughtful discussion in an open forum and the free expression of ideas that any reasonable conclusion can be drawn. And for the Catholic school board to pull the books from the shelves throws the community back to the Middle Ages. It is also dangerous when an institution takes this kind of action single-handedly because this attitude may not reflect the views of all Catholics or all parents who send their children to Catholic schools.

It is important to recognize that some materials may be unsuitable for young children and a responsible community pays careful attention to these concerns. But, there is a fine line to walk and banning the Golden Compass should not be included. Parents must take the ultimate responsibility in guiding their children, not public institutions.

Parents, students and educators need to speak out publicly against the actions of the school board. And, the community should be aware of any and all challenges to books in our local libraries and schools. What is at stake is our intellectual freedom. Only through public deliberation can we protect ourselves from those who wish to control our thoughts. Removing books is archaic and silly in a modern society.

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