Eighteenth-Century Life 26.2 (2002) 45-52
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Pope-Bashing by Papists?
A Curious Censoring of Alexander Pope's Letters by the Mexican Inquisition
Sam Houston State University
In Gallery 4 of the National Archives of Mexico, inside an imposing building that was once a monastery, and later the infamous Lecumberri penitentiary, there are stored 1588 volumes and 200 boxes of papers. These documents contain the meticulous records of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which functioned in Mexico from 1521 to 1823. The files are of four types: lengthy cases against individuals, denunciations (of songs, plays, customs, writings), Edicts of Faith (official posters that prohibited certain books, performances, or practices), and opinions on books. 1 Among the latter type, it is surprising to find an opinion on Alexander Pope. Curiously, England's most famous eighteenth-century Papist was criticized by these guardians of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.
The entry about Pope is found in volume 1382 of the Inquisitional documents and concerns volume four of The Works of Alexander Pope. Pope's work is not in the files, only the opinion, but the censor translated passages into Spanish and gave the page numbers; by comparing several editions, I have determined that the censor had in his hands the 1742 edition published by T. Cooper. His translation is very accurate and demonstrates that he had an excellent command of English. [End Page 45]
The opinion is dated 26 October 1790 and is signed by José García Bravo and the scribe Ignacio Sánchez Leñero. From the archive we do not have any biographical information on García Bravo, but we do know that by January of 1792 he had died. The record shows that after García Bravo's death, a representative of the tribunal, along with the brother of the deceased, opened two small bookcases in his living quarters. They found twenty-three books in English, seven in French, and loose papers. Among the papers were some dated 1788 in which the Inquisition asked García to read the books and give his opinion on them. Also found were the clergyman's written opinions on most of these books, including the one on Pope. 2
The censor begins with a statement about Pope: "It is known that this celebrated Englishman lived and died publicly professing the Catholic Religion, and even at several places in this book he refers to himself as a Papist" (fol. 145r). He then continues by saying that, despite this, there are "several censurable things and propositions" in volume four, and that this volume consists entirely of Pope's personal letters (fol. 145v). García Bravo summarizes his general criticism of the letters: "On the point of piety and Religion, there are propositions worthy of note, either out of pure respect for sacred things or because they indicate a sort of tolerance that is alien and opposed to Catholicism" (fol. 145r). In other words, García's objections fall under two categories: Pope's sacrilegiousness and his tolerance. He later adds another category—his favorable attitude toward Erasmus.
Sacrilegious use of scripture is defined in the "General Regulations for the Index," under Rule XVI, which summarizes a number of criteria for expurgating writings. One of these warns that "There should be expurgated any words of the Holy Scripture applied unpiously for profane use; and those words whose sense and declaration is apart from the unanimous exposition of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church should be erased also. 3 The objections that fall most often in the first category are in Pope's letters written to women. In several of them, Pope jovially makes Biblical references while flirting with his lady friends. García is not amused: "In many places he uses allusions to sacred things, in such a profane way that sometimes they offend piety, and become excessive" (fol. 145r). Then he quotes the following from letters that Pope wrote to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu while she was on a trip to Turkey: "I think...