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What is the scope of an imprimatur? What does a work having an imprimatur mean for that work? What does it mean for the body of doctrine itself?

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Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat

"Imprimatur" is Latin for "let it be printed." An imprimatur is a bishop's permission to print a religious book. The bishop is always the local ordinary of the author who wrote the book. The Catholic Code of Canon Law, canons 822-4, requires pastors to help guide the faithful in their use of social communication and particularly books. The imprimatur is one way that charge is carried out.

An imprimatur is always preceded by a "nihil obstat," which is Latin for "nothing stands in the way." This is the judgment that the religious book contains no significant doctrinal errors. Both the imprimatur and the nihil obstat are negative judgments insofar as they are not meant to positively approve the contents of the book, but are merely meant to say that it is not disapproved. It sometimes happens that imprimaturs or nihil obstats are revoked after a period of time due to a discovery of doctrinal errors in the work.


Answering Specific Questions

  1. "What is the scope of an imprimatur?

The scope covers the entire book as published, but not new versions of the same book. It is a practice which is only carried out for religious texts because it is a judgment about how the book comports with the doctrines of the Catholic Church, doctrines which involve faith and morals. It is a negative assessment insofar as it is not meant to approve the book or any proposition in the book. It is not an endorsement (see above).

  1. "What does a work having an imprimatur mean for that work?"

It means that the local bishop believes the work is fit to print. See above for more detail.

  1. "What does it mean for the body of doctrine itself?"

As far as the deposit of faith of the Church is concerned, it means very little. Per canons 822-3, it is a service to the faithful, not a means of developing or promulgating doctrine. Although it is a judgment about the presence of errors in a work, imprimaturs and nihil obstats can be revoked, as noted above. It is also a diocesan-based initiative in the sense that each diocese has a bishop and at least one censor (a theologian approved to render a nihil obstat), so the opinion represents the decision of a single diocese rather than the whole Church.


Newman on St. Alphonsus Liguori

St. John Henry Newman writes about the beatification process of St. Alphonsus Liguori, part of which was an examination of Liguori's writings in a way that would be very similar to the examination carried out by those authorized to give the imprimatur or nihil obstat. Although this process is more precise, thorough, and authoritative than an imprimatur or nihil obstat, I believe it may help shed some light on your question at a deeper level. Please forgive the length:

It is supposed by Protestants that, because St. Alfonso's writings have had such high commendation bestowed upon them by authority, therefore they have been invested with a quasi-infallibility. This has arisen in good measure from Protestants not knowing the force of theological terms. The words to which they refer are the authoritative decision that "nothing in his works has been found worthy of censure," "censurâ dignum;" but this does not lead to the conclusions which have been drawn from it. Those words occur in a legal document, and cannot be interpreted except in a legal sense. In the first place, the sentence is negative; nothing in St. Alfonso's writings is positively approved; and secondly it is not said that there are no faults in what he has written, but nothing which comes under the ecclesiastical censura, which is something very definite. To take and interpret them, in the way commonly adopted in England, is the same mistake, as if one were to take the word "apologia" in the English sense of apology, or "infant" in law to mean a little child.

  1. Now first as to the meaning of the form of words viewed as a proposition. When they were brought before the fitting authorities at Rome by the Archbishop of Besançon, the answer returned to him contained the condition that those words were to be interpreted, "with due regard to the mind of the Holy See concerning the approbation of writings of the servants of God, ad effectum Canonisationis." This is intended to prevent any Catholic taking the words about St. Alfonso's works in too large a sense. Before a saint is canonised, his works are examined and a judgment pronounced upon them. Pope Benedict XIV. says, "The end or scope of this judgment is, that it may appear, whether the doctrine of the servant of God, which he has brought out in his writings, is free from any soever theological censure." And he remarks in addition, "It never can be said that the doctrine of a servant of God is approved by the Holy See, but at most it can [only] be said that it is not disapproved (non reprobatam) in case that the revisers had reported that there is nothing found by them in his works, which is adverse to the decrees of Urban VIII., and that the judgment of the Revisers has been approved by the sacred Congregation, and confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff." The Decree of Urban VIII. here referred to is, "Let works be examined, whether they contain errors against faith or good morals (bonos mores), or any new doctrine, or a doctrine foreign and alien to the common sense and custom of the Church." The author from whom I quote this (M. Vandenbroeck, of the diocese of Malines) observes, "It is therefore clear, that the approbation of the works of the Holy Bishop touches not the truth of every proposition, adds nothing to them, nor even gives them by consequence a degree of intrinsic probability." He adds that it gives St. Alfonso's theology an extrinsic probability, from the fact that, in the judgment of the Holy See, no proposition deserves to receive a censure; but that "that probability will cease nevertheless in a particular case, for any one who should be convinced, whether by evident arguments, or by a decree of the Holy See, or otherwise, that the doctrine of the Saint deviates from the truth." He adds, "From the fact that the approbation of the works of St. Alfonso does not decide the truth of each proposition, it follows, as Benedict XIV. has remarked, that we may combat the doctrine which they contain; only, since a canonised saint is in question, who is honoured by a solemn culte in the Church, we ought not to speak except with respect, nor to attack his opinions except with temper and modesty."

  2. Then, as to the meaning of the word censura: Benedict XIV. enumerates a number of "Notes" which come under that name; he says, "Out of propositions which are to be noted with theological censure, some are heretical, some erroneous, some close upon error, some savouring of heresy," and so on; and each of these terms has its own definite meaning. Thus by "erroneous" is meant, according to Viva, a proposition which is not immediately opposed to a revealed proposition, but only to a theological conclusion drawn from premisses which are de fide; "savouring of heresy," when a proposition is opposed to a theological conclusion not evidently drawn from premisses which are de fide, but most probably and according to the common mode of theologising, and so with the rest. Therefore when it was said by the revisers of St. Alfonso's works that they were not "worthy of censure," it was only meant that they did not fall under these particular Notes.

But the answer from Rome to the Archbishop of Besançon went further than this; it actually took pains to declare that any one who pleased might follow other theologians instead of St. Alfonso. After saying that no priest was to be interfered with who followed St. Alfonso in the Confessional, it added, "This is said, however, without on that account judging that they are reprehended who follow opinions handed down by other approved authors."

And this too, I will observe, that St. Alfonso made many changes of opinion himself in the course of his writings; and it could not for an instant be supposed that we were bound to every one of his opinions, when he did not feel himself bound to them in his own person. And, what is more to the purpose still, there are opinions, or some opinion, of his which actually has been proscribed by the Church since, and cannot now be put forward or used. I do not pretend to be a well-read theologian myself, but I say this on the authority of a theological professor of Breda, quoted in the Mélanges Théol. for 1850-1. He says: "It may happen, that, in the course of time, errors may be found in the works of St. Alfonso and be proscribed by the Church, a thing which in fact has already occurred."


Sources

  1. Wikipedia - Imprimatur
  2. Wikipedia - Nihil Obstat
  3. "What are Imprimi Potest, Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat?" by Fr. Bartunek
  4. Apologia pro Vita Sua, by John Henry Newman (Section 8 of the appendix)
  5. Code of Canon Law, Canons 822-4
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  • "As far as the deposit of faith of the Church is concerned, it means very little." How can a book who had an imprimatur mean very little when all the Jesus & Marian apparition messages is the source of the understanding of the development of Vatican Ii Council Document centered on the Mercy of God? Jesus & Marian approved messages according to the Church helps in the fullness of understanding and edifies one faith. Jan 7, 2020 at 4:23
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    Sorry, I'm not following you very well. For example, I am not aware of a Vatican II document on the "Mercy of God." Which of the 16 documents are you referring to?
    – zippy2006
    Jan 7, 2020 at 5:25
  • Ecumenism, Inter-religious dialogue, Nostra Aetate, are born out of the inspiration on Mercy of God to all mankind. The Dogma outside the Church there's no salvation speaks of the Justice of God and was changed to include the People of God who have goodwill. The encyclical of St.JP2 "Dives Misrecordiae" and the Bull of Pope Francis titled "Vultus in Misericordiae" all speak of the Mercy of God inspired thru St.Faustina private revelation that have imprimatur. How can you say that it means very little, when it is the center of the New Evangelization Mission of Vatican II Church. Jan 7, 2020 at 6:14
  • Who can give nihil obstat? Does a theologian need to be appointed by the local Bishop? Are there any conditions for one being appointed?
    – Thom
    Jan 7, 2020 at 9:22
  • @Thom The theologian does need to be appointed by the local bishop. Pascendi Dominici Gregis observes that censors should be "men of age, knowledge and prudence who will know how to follow the golden mean in their judgments." The censors I know have a doctorate of sacred theology, but in general some higher level of theological knowledge and wisdom is required.
    – zippy2006
    Jan 7, 2020 at 16:24
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According to Catholicism, what is an imprimatur?

IMPRIMATUR (Pronounced im-prim-AH-tur – Latin for “let it be printed.”)

Imprimatur is an official approval from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church stating that a literary or similar work is totally free from error in all matters of faith and doctrine, and hence is acceptable reading for faithful Catholics. Approval is also sometimes indicated by the words Nihil Obstat which mean “nothing hinders”: there is no obstacle to publication. An imprimatur is not given lightly; it follows a thorough review process. It is usually printed on a page at or near the beginning of the work. The name and title of the official church censor or other ecclesiastical authority, and the date that permission was granted, always accompany either declaration. - Papal Blessing

Below is an example of an approved imprimatur issued by a Cardinal. - Imprimatur Echeverria

enter image description here

What is the scope of an imprimatur? What does a work having an imprimatur mean for that work? What does it mean for the body of doctrine itself?

This series of question are tied-up and can only be understood if one or a faithful can understand the role of Bishop and where does his authority to govern, censure and approval comes from.

From Catechsim of the Catholic Church we can see that a Bishop is a successor of the Apostles of Christ, it follows that a Bishop authority originated also from Christ as Apostles successor.

77 "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority."35 Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time."36

We can also see from the gospel, that Christ anticipating that when he leave, the Apostle must be guided in preaching the Truth and so Jesus Christ promised them that He will sent the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth to guide them in all Truth. The promised was given to all the Apostles united to Peter as Jesus gave only to Peter the power to bind & loose. No Bishop can bind any doctrines or teachings apart from the Vicar of Christ.

85 "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."47 This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

A Bishop who is in Full Communion with Rome is an assurance that his judgment on giving an "imprimatur" is guided by the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth to protect the Church from teaching and spreading error in matters of faith and morals.

92 "The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals."55

Now, from the previous thread in CSE citing an "imprimatur" was revoked, see this link According to Catholicism, can an imprimatur be revoked?, not only once but thrice citing a wikipedia source. Does it mean, that the Church thru it's Bishop had spread and allowed an error in faith to be published that can harm the faithful? It's good to examine and analyze first where does the error originates, why? Because if the Bishop who approved the "imprimatur" is a pious Bishop and known to be loyal or in full communion with Rome or Church Magisterium, how can his judgement failed if the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth was promised to the Church by Christ?

The Work of the Holy Spirit 26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. (John15:26-27)

16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth.

If in the course of examination, the Bishop who gave the imprimatur had committed an error in judgment and did not see the doctrinal errors contain in the propose book, then, can we say that the Holy Spirit had failed to guide the Bishop being a member of the Church? This is where a good discernment must take place and a better judgment, that's why there is a Church Hierarchy established by Christ. The Church Magisterium headed by the Pope can rescue and help the Bishop correct the error in his judgement.

93 "By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),. . . receives. . . the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. . . The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life."56

Therefore, the Dogma of Chruch indefectibility lies in the unity of the Church in handing and teaching the faithful. All the Bishops must be in full communion with Pope's Magisterium to prevent and protect the Church from spreading and teachings errors in doctrines in matters of faith and morals.

95 "It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls."62

To give one good example of a Church Magisterium disagreement with the Pope, is the issue between Cardinal Muller the former Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith and Pope Francis inspired teachings titled "Amoris laetetia". Cardinal Muller upheld the Doctrine of the Justice of God, while Pope Francis was clear in his conviction as Supreme Pontiff that the Holy Spirit inspired him to upheld the "Infinite Mercy of God". Now, whose judgment must prevail, Cardinal Muller the Prefect of CDF or Pope Francis the Supreme Pontiff the supreme interpreter, legislator and guarantor of faith? The answer is, Pope Francis inspired teachings must prevail, and we can see that their disagreement perhaps is the reason why Cardinal Muller was removed from his post as his views runs contrary not only to the Vicar of Christ but also from the scriptures who upheld the primacy of mercy over justice.

James 2:13 English Standard Version (ESV) 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

The Church Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit was assured by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, the Church Magisterium headed by the Pope cannot err in matters of faith and morals. If there is a Bishop and Cardinal who are oppose to the inspired teachings of the Pope then that Bishop or Cardinals can be the source of error & disunity to the Church. Likewise, we relate that an "imprimatur" issued or approved by a Bishop not in full communion with the Holy See can be subject to error in judgment as the Holy Spirit cannot be found in disunity and pride by not fully submitting to the Divine Authority of the Church Magisterium established by Christ Himself. That's why a Bishop who are known to oppose or resist the Church Magisterium who had issued & approved an imprimatur must be review immediately by the Church Authority.

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  • Just a little note. Would it be possible to include a link for your quotation(s) of the definition, as well as the attached image? Thank you.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 7, 2020 at 1:36
  • @KenGraham links are added.. Jan 7, 2020 at 1:38
  • @marianagustin "a fanatic is one who won't change his mind and can't change the subject"
    – eques
    Jan 7, 2020 at 14:24
  • You misunderstand the nature of the secondary questions and never actually state what the "scope" of an imprimatur is and only indirectly hint at what it means for the work (in your cited definition).
    – eques
    Jan 7, 2020 at 14:53

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