I enjoy reading and I am extremely proud of my collection of books in my study. I am also quite proud of the fact that I am so well known at the local Catholic bookstore, for the number of books that I regularly buy from them. I firmly believe that it is extremely important for me to read regularly to ensure that I constantly grow in my knowledge and love of God.
I have however learned over time just how easily one can be deceived by books and other works, where the contents seem to be in accordance with official Church teaching, yet later it turns out to actually not be strictly in accordance with the teaching of the Church. That’s if one is fortunate enough to find out. If you never discuss the subject with anyone who properly understands the teaching of the Church, you may well go through life believing your understanding to be correct, when in fact it is not.
Most of us are able to spot significant differences with Church teaching ourselves and therefore able to steer well clear of those. So, if I was to read a book that stated that Jesus was not God, I would not need anyone to tell me that the contents of the book was not in accordance with official Church teaching.
The real problem lies in those areas where the differences with official Church teaching is extremely subtle or where the subject matter is complex and it is not always evident that it is in conflict with Church teaching. I think we would all be surprised if we were made aware of how many times what appears to be right is actually wrong.
Another cause of the problem may also be because of our trusting the source of the information. Many people may, quite reasonably too, believe that the contents are correct because the author is a Catholic priest, or bishop, or a well-known Catholic theologian, writer, speaker or personality. It could even be that, because the book was purchased from an official Catholic bookstore, an assumption has been made that it must therefore contain only what is in accordance with the official teaching of the Church.
Unless one is an expert, and I am most certainly not, it is entirely possible for one to easily end up being taught something that is not entirely correct. Start accumulating a number of these slightly erroneous understandings of our faith and, before long, we may find ourselves with a very different understanding of our faith than that which is taught by the Church.
The Church understands this possibility and accepts responsibility to help us avoid these errors, if we will allow Her to guide us in these matters.
“It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates.” (CCC 890)
The Magisterium, with this responsibility in mind, has implemented a solution that can guide us to ensure that we avoid errors. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith therefore issued the following norms in this matter:
“The Pastors of the Church have the duty and the right to be vigilant lest the faith and morals of the faithful be harmed by writings; and consequently, even to demand that the publication of writing concerning the faith and morals should be submitted to the Church’s approval, and also to condemn books and writings that attack faith or morals.”
This mandate was also reiterated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, No. 823.
The Magisterium will therefore examine those works, particularly those regarding faith and morals, to determine if they are free of doctrinal error.
The process involves the author submitting his work to the censor deputatus, who is appointed by the bishop or other ecclesiastical authority. If the censor deputatus finds no error in the work, a “Nihil Obstat” is granted attesting to this fact. Translated “Nihil Obstat” is “nothing stands in its way” and means that the work can be submitted to the bishop for his approval.
If a member of a religious order is the author, the work will be submitted to the major superior of the religious who, if the work contains no doctrinal error, will grant an “Imprimi Potest” which is translated “it is able to be printed”.
The work, with the “Nihil Obstat” or “Imprimi Potest”, is then submitted to the bishop for a decision. If the bishop agrees that the work is free of doctrinal error, he will grant an “Imprimatur” which translates “let it be printed”.
The “Nihil Obstat” and “Imprimatur” or the “Imprimi Potest” and “Imprimatur” can usually be found on the inside cover of the book along with details such as the name of the publisher. If these have been granted to the book, it means that it is free of any doctrinal error.
A Catholic author does not have to seek the “Imprimatur” before publishing. The Church cannot force the author to do so. I personally however avoid a book completely unless it has been granted the “Imprimatur”.
In my opinion, living my faith is difficult enough as it is. The last thing I need is to be confused with teaching that may not be exactly in accordance with the teaching of the Church. Goodness knows there are enough people in the Church who insist that they always know better than the Church. One just needs to read some of the Catholic newspapers to see the number of experts who share their strong opinions on what true Catholic teaching should be, never mind what it is. Also how many times do people quote the works and teachings of intellectuals, assuming because they have theological degrees they are experts, yet they have not ever had the “Imprimatur” granted to their works.
My approach is simple. When the Church accepts it, then so will I, but not before.
The bookstore that I frequent already knows that, if the book has not been granted the “Imprimatur”, I as a rule will simply not buy it without doing a lot of homework first. Even the Catholic Bible that I use has been published with ecclesiastical approval.
It may be of interest to note:
Prayer books for public or private use, and catechisms or other catechetical materials must have the bishop’s permission for publication. (Code of Canon Law, No. 826, 827.1)
Books related to Sacred Scripture, theology, canon law, Church history, or religious or moral disciplines cannot be used as textbooks in education at any level unless they are published with the approval of the competent ecclesiastical authority. (Code of Canon Law, No. 827.2)
Books or other writings, which deal with faith or morals, cannot be exhibited, sold, or distributed in churches or oratories unless they are published with the approval of the competent ecclesiastical authority. (Code of Canon Law, No. 827.4)