In recent years, imprimaturs have been granted to books connected with unapproved private revelations, and this has led to some confusion.
It has been argued that imprimaturs and nihil obstats are acts of the Magisterium, and therefore the faithful are obliged to give the religious submission of mind and will that they must to any other act of the Magisterium. This argument has been made, for example, by some supporters of the non-Catholic mystic Vassula Ryden.
Is this true? Are imprimaturs and nihil obstats acts of the Magisterium? What implications do they have for the faithful and how they are to regard private revelations?
The Code of Canon Law does not use the terms imprimatur and nihil obstat, but they are often used by Catholic publishers.
A nihil obstat (Latin, “nothing obstructs”) is a written opinion issued by a censor that nothing obstructs the publication of a book in terms of faith or morals (can. 830 §3).
In issuing this opinion, the censor is bound “to consider only the doctrine of the Church concerning faith and morals as it is proposed by the ecclesiastical Magisterium” (830 §2). This means that the censor is not to base the opinion on whether he agrees with everything claimed in the work—only whether the book contains statements that contradict Church teaching.
Censors are not typically bishops, so there is no question of whether nihil obstats are acts of the Magisterium. The Church’s Magisterium can be exercised only by bishops teaching in communion with the pope, so unless a censor is a bishop, there is no possibility that an opinion issued by a censor could be an act of the Magisterium.
An imprimatur (Latin, “Let it be published”) is an authorization given by a local ordinary (typically a bishop) to publish a work. The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine notes:
In the Latin Catholic Church, there are two primary forms of ecclesiastical authorization for written works. These are identified in church law as “permission” (licentia) and “approval” (approbatio). Since these terms are not used consistently within the various authoritative documents, a consensus has not yet emerged among canonical experts as to whether the terms are interchangeable or whether there is, in fact, a precise and practical distinction between the two (n. 2).
However, these terms are given precise meanings in the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches, which provides:
- Ecclesiastical permission, expressed only with the word imprimatur, means that the work is free from errors regarding Catholic faith and morals.
- Approval granted by competent authority shows that the text is accepted by the Church or that the work is in accordance with the authentic doctrine of the Church (can. 661).
Are imprimaturs acts of the Magisterium? It should be pointed out that imprimaturs are issued by “local ordinaries” (cf. can. 824 §1), and not all local ordinaries are bishops. For example, local ordinaries include vicars general and episcopal vicars (can. 134 §1).
The fact that non-bishops can issue imprimaturs is a significant sign that they are not acts of the Magisterium.
Further, to exercise his personal magisterium, a bishop must himself issue a teaching, but this is not what is happening when an imprimatur is granted. The bishop himself does not teach something; he authorizes someone else to do something—namely, to publish a work.
The situation is similar to when a bishop issues a mandate for a theologian to teach at a Catholic university (cf. can. 812). He’s giving permission for someone else to teach, but that does not make everything the theologian says part of the bishop’s personal magisterium.
Similarly, when a local ordinary—even a bishop—gives permission for a book to be published, it does not make everything the book says part of the bishop’s personal magisterium. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains:
Ecclesiastical permission or approval . . . guarantees that the writing in question contains nothing contrary to the Church’s authentic magisterium on faith or morals (II:7:2; cf. II:8:3).
This is a negative guarantee. It means that the work does not contradict Church teaching. However, it is not a positive guarantee that all of the opinions found in the book are true. In fact, this is sometimes expressly pointed out in the notification printed for an imprimatur.
For example, G. Van Noort’s 1954 book Dogmatic Theology: Volume I carries this notification:
The nihil obstat and imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal and moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the nihil obstat and imprimatur agree with the opinions expressed.
What about private revelations and imprimaturs? In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, it was required that books of private revelations carry an imprimatur (cf. can. 1399 n. 5); however, this is no longer required.
In fact, very few books today require imprimaturs or other forms of ecclesiastical permission. These include translations of Scripture (can. 825), liturgical books, liturgical translations, prayer books (can. 826), catechetical materials, religious textbooks used in Catholic schools, books sold or exhibited in churches (can. 827), and collections of official Church documents (can. 828).
Since comparatively few books require imprimaturs, most books by Catholic publishers—including Catholic Answers—don’t carry them, and the same applies to books dealing with private revelations.
So, what does it mean if a book on an apparition gets an imprimatur? It does not mean that apparition is genuine. The Church has a separate process for investigating apparitions, and unless that process has been used, the apparition has not been approved as genuinely supernatural.
Even when the Church does approve an apparition, it does not mean that the faithful are required to accept it, only that they are authorized to accept it if it seems prudent. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained when he was head of the CDF:
Ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation has three elements: the message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals; it is lawful to make it public; and the faithful are authorized to accept it with prudence.
It’s also worth noting that, when the Church does investigate an apparition, it’s not just any bishop who can do so. Although the Vatican or the conference of bishops could intervene, the only bishop with the authority to conduct such an investigation is the one in whose diocese the apparition has been reported.
This means that an imprimatur issued by a bishop in another part of the world would be unrelated to the apparition approval process. Such an imprimatur would mean is that a bishop somewhere in the world has judged (based on the opinion that the censor gave him) that the work does not contain anything that contradicts Church teaching.
The work may not even express itself well. It may have ambiguous statements that don’t necessarily contradict Church teaching but that could be understood in an erroneous way. It also may contain theological opinions that are false but that the Church has not (yet) condemned. And it may contain statements about non-religious matters that are inaccurate.
Of course, an individual bishop might favor the book—and the apparition on which it is based—and he might recommend them to others. This would mean that he, personally, favors them, but his granting an imprimatur would not constitute an act of the Magisterium binding the faithful to give “religious submission of intellect and will” (Lumen Gentium 25) to the apparition or what it says.
Even if he were (very extraordinarily!) to issue a teaching document endorsing the apparition, it would at most bind only the faithful of his own diocese (can. 753), for an individual bishop cannot bind the faithful of another diocese by his personal magisterium. Such a bishop also would likely get in trouble with the Vatican for overstepping the apparitions approval process.
So, the implications for an imprimatur being given to a book of private revelations are the same as they are for any other book. It’s a judgment by an individual bishop that the work does not contradict Catholic doctrine. Nothing more.