When Does a Catholic Book Need an Imprimatur?

Q: I have questions regarding books that are supposed to have Church approval on them.  If a book deals with religion/morals and is being sold in a church, does it only need the Imprimatur, or does it need the Imprimatur AND the Nihil Obstat together?

Would it be sinful (under canon law) to read a book that deals with religion/morals that doesn’t have authorization, but is displayed at churches or is a prayer book?  I’ve seen a couple of examples of Catholic books being displayed in churches that don’t have the authorization on them.

I have been confused about this and not read some books I have because of my confusion. –Neil

A: Neil isn’t the only Catholic out there who is perplexed about the rules regarding official approval of Catholic books.  One big reason for the confusion is that not all books about the Catholic faith are created equal!  The Code of Canon Law outlines the sorts of permissions which are required for various types of books on religious subjects; but first it provides a general explanation as to why these requirements even exist, and who grants the necessary approval.

Canon 823.1 tells us that the pastors of the Church have both the duty and the right to ensure that religious writings have no ill effect on the faith and morals of the Catholic faithful—because it’s their job to safeguard the integrity of the Catholic faith.  Consequently, these pastors likewise have the duty and the right to insist that written works about faith and morals be submitted for their judgment—and if they determine that these writings can cause harm to Catholic faith and morals, they can condemn them.

Who exactly are these “pastors of the Church”?  That question is answered in the very next paragraph: the duties and rights mentioned above belong to bishops, both as individuals governing their own dioceses, and when gathered together in councils or Episcopal Conferences (c. 823.2; see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for a discussion of what an Episcopal Conference is.)  Note that in the context of canon 823.1, “pastors of the Church” does not refer to parish priests, even though they are commonly referred to as “pastors” in some parts of the world.

As a general rule, if a Catholic has written a book on the Catholic faith, it is his own diocesan bishop who should be approached for the necessary permission/approval (c. 824), and it is the bishop’s permission/approval which constitutes the imprimatur—meaning “it may be printed”—that is mentioned in Neil’s question (more on that in a moment).  This requirement applies to the prayer books which Neil asks about; they are specifically mentioned in canon 826.3.  And if a church wishes to sell Catholic books or give them away for free, the books must either have been published with permission from the competent ecclesiastical authority, or have been approved by that authority after printing.

Authorization by the appropriate authorities is, as per canon 829, valid only for the first edition of a book; if the book is edited and reissued in a new edition, it’s necessary to obtain permission once again.  But this brings us back to Neil’s first question: what permissions and approvals are needed?  As was already mentioned, the answer is complicated by the fact that not all “Catholic books” are the same—and the following canons reflect that, as they proceed to lay out the requirements for different sorts of books and make exceptions in particular cases.

Books of Sacred Scripture, for example, are in a class by themselves (c. 825.1).  As anyone who’s familiar with the history of the protestant reformation can tell you, the Catholic Church has long held that assuring the theologically accurate and linguistically faithful translation of these texts into modern languages is a delicate business!  It’s perilously easy for even a well trained linguist to mistranslate words or expressions which can lead the reader to draw erroneous conclusions about our faith.  For this reason, the Church requires that any book of Scriptures intended for use by the Catholic faithful must first be approved by the Apostolic See or by the Episcopal Conference.  We can see that in this particular case, even the approval of the local bishop is insufficient.

Another unique category involves liturgical books—including those which are to be used in the celebration of Mass and the sacraments.  Canon 838.2 states that it is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, and this includes the publishing of liturgical books and review of their translation into the vernacular.  While it is the job of individual Episcopal Conferences to prepare translations of these books, these translations must be reviewed by Rome first, before they can be published (c. 838.3).  Once again, an individual diocesan bishop cannot approve these types of books on his own.

What about catechisms, and other books specifically designed for use in teaching the Catholic faith to students?  These sorts of works require the approval of the local bishop, as per canon 827.1.  On a related note, those books which might perhaps have been written with a more general audience in mind—such as (but not limited to) books about Scripture, theology, canon law, or church history—cannot be used as textbooks at any academic level unless they have been approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority (c. 827.2).  The “competent ecclesiastical authority” can vary, depending on the type of school in question.  A diocesan high school, for example, is under the authority of the diocesan bishop; a pontifical university is not.

The fact that Catholic instructors can often choose to use books in their courses which were not originally written as academic textbooks brings up an important point.  It is quite common for an author to write a book about religion or church history which is intended for general use.  Let’s imagine, for example, that a scholar specializing in the history of India writes a biography of Saint Francis Xavier, who spent years of his life engaged in priestly ministry in that country.  The book might very well be of tremendous interest to Catholics, and it may end up encouraging devotion among Catholics to this great missionary-saint.  But technically, such a book does not require any sort of ecclesiastical approval, from the diocesan bishop or anyone else.  In fact, the scholar-author might not even be a Catholic himself, so he wouldn’t be bound by canon law on this subject anyway!  Authorization for a book like this must be obtained, only if it will be used by a Catholic teacher/professor in a course on the Catholic faith—and that authorization would generally be requested by the instructor or the school where the book is going to be used in class.  The author himself has no obligation in this regard.

That said, as canon 827.3 points out, it is recommended that such books be submitted to the judgment of the local bishop, even if they aren’t being used as course textbooks.  But as we all know, a recommendation isn’t a requirement.

Now that we’ve seen which types of Catholic books require approval, and who has the authority to grant it, let’s take a look at how the process of getting that approval generally works.  A diocesan bishop can, if he wishes, appoint someone(s) whom he considers to be particularly competent to read and give him a judgment about Catholic books.  Such a person is known in Latin as a censor librorum, and is naturally expected to be knowledgeable about theology and related subjects.  Alternately, an Episcopal Conference can draw up a list of competent censors for the diocesan bishops who belong to that Conference—or the Conference can even establish a commission of censors whom the bishop can consult if he wishes (c. 830.1).  Regardless, the censor librorum reads the book, and gives the bishop a written opinion on whether it should be approved or not.  It is important to note that the censor librorum is not making a statement as to whether or not he personally likes the book, or would wish to encourage Catholics to read it; rather, the job of the censor librorum is simply to determine whether the book contains anything that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals, as per canon 830.2.  The censor librorum might actually dislike the book and/or its author intensely—but if it is theologically sound, his written opinion should be positive.  It is this written opinion which constitutes the nihil obstat (literally, “nothing stands in the way”) which Neil mentions in his question.

If the censor librorum informs the bishop that there is nothing theologically objectionable about a particular book, the bishop can give his permission for the book to be published—the imprimatur already mentioned above.  But the bishop is not bound by what the censor librorum has decided; it’s quite possible for the bishop to decline to grant permission for other reasons (which he is obliged to explain to the author), in accord with canon 830.3.

The current (1983) Code of Canon Law contains an important change on this subject, which is partly to blame for Neil’s confusion.  The previous code, from 1917, stated that all dioceses were required to have an official censor librorum, and that in turn meant that every approved Catholic book would necessarily end up with both a nihil obstat (from the censor) and an imprimatur (from the bishop).  But as we’ve just seen above, canon 830.1 indicates that a diocesan bishop may appoint a censor librorum, but is not obliged to do so.

If a diocesan bishop today has, for whatever reason, chosen to dispense with the services of a censor librorum, this means that he can grant approval (the imprimatur) for the printing of a Catholic book without it having a nihil obstat.  It could be, for example, that the bishop himself is a former theology professor, and is perfectly capable of making decisions about Catholic books on his own, without the help of a censor.  Or perhaps the diocesan bishop might already be well acquainted with the writings of a particular Catholic author, and knows full well that any book that author writes is automatically going to be theologically rock-solid.  In any case, there’s nothing wrong with a Catholic book that has an imprimatur, but not a nihil obstat.  After all, if a bishop has decided that a Catholic book can be printed, that naturally implies that nothing stands in the way of its publication!

Neil asks whether it would be “sinful (under canon law)” to read a book that lacks the required approval.  This is a very easy question to answer: nothing is “sinful under canon law,” since canon law makes no assertions as to whether something is sinful or not—that’s the realm of moral theology.  If Neil comes across a Catholic book which legally should have been approved by ecclesiastical authority and wasn’t, maybe the best thing to do is ask the bookseller (if applicable) or his parish priest for more information.  It could be that Neil is misinterpreting the law, and the book in question doesn’t require approval; or alternately, Neil might be doing the Church in his locale a big favor by drawing attention to a problem that nobody else has noticed.

So now Neil has the answers to his questions.  As we’ve just seen, the Church has a system in place to ensure that certain types of Catholic books are not printed/disseminated without first obtaining certain types of permissions; but it’s wrong to assume that every single book dealing with a subject connected to Catholicism requires this.

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