QUAERITUR: When a bishop writes a book, does it need an “Imprimatur”?

From a reader:

When a bishop/cardinal writes a book (e.g. Cardinal Wuerhl’s “Seek First the Kingdom”, is an imprimatur required, and if so, who is the ecclesial authority for that imprimatur. If no imprimatur, does that mean doctrinal/moral error in the book is possible?

What does the law really say?

The Code for the Latin Church currently in force no longer uses the term “imprimatur.”

Canons 823-832 now speak of “approval” and “permission”. The Eastern Code retains “imprimatur” (can. 661), and states that it expresses “ecclesiastical permission.”

Our old friend canon 17 says that in the interpretation of laws that are doubtful we areto seek “parallel places”. We are therefore free to continue to speak of an “imprimatur” (which everyone understands).

So!  An imprimatur is to be sought from either the local ordinary of the author, or the local ordinary of the place where the book is published.

Can. 134 tells us what we need to know about local ordinaries.  Local ordinaries include the Roman Pontiff (whose ordinary jurisdiction extends everywhere and is therefore also local), the diocesan bishop (or administrator, or apostolic vicar, or apostolic prelate), the vicar general, and the episcopal vicars (for those areas entrusted to their vicarious vigilance). Not included are ordinaries who are superiors of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life (they are ordinaries, but not local ordinaries).

If the book is written by a local ordinary, it need not have an imprimatur. Since he has the authority to grant an imprimatur, it wouldn’t be logical for him to approve of his own work.  “I’m Bishop Zuhlsdorf and approve this message.”  I think not.

In the case of a vicar general or episcopal vicar, it would be prudent (but not necessary) to seek approval from the diocesan bishop.  Besides, any good author will ask someone to check over the work before publishing it.  “Next, Monsignor Zuhlsdorf, let’s look at this chapter on the secret Vatican vampire assassins….”

Can. 830 speaks of the conference of bishops having a list of censors available (who knows if the USCCB has done so) and, of course, each bishop has the authority to appoint his own censors.  Every diocese needs them.

That said, not every book requires ecclesiastical permission to be published.

Canons 825-827 go through the layers of authoritative works and the permission required. Sacred Scripture, of course, is the most important, and requires approval either from the Holy See or the conference of bishops.

Liturgical books and prayer books – for public or private prayer – require permission from the local ordinary. Catechisms, text books for the sacred sciences destined for use in elementary, middle, high schools, and colleges and universities must have ecclesiastical approval before publication and use as works “on which instruction is based.” Books dealing with catechetical instruction or the sacred sciences that are not intended to be used as text books need not have approval, though approval is recommended.

Finally, books dealing with religion or morals that lack permission may not be exhibited, sold, or distributed in churches or oratories, unless there is specific permission to do so. Pastors of souls ought to go through their parish book rack thoroughly and eliminate anything that lacks ecclesiastical approval.

This is the pastor’s job, by the way.  No one should appoint herself to do this.

Just the other day, in New York at Holy Innocents, a zealous kookburger had left kooky photocopied literature in a mound on one of the tables in the back of the church.  There were some pretty crazy things therein, I can tell you.  One of the layman active around the place removed it… BUT… he confirmed that he had the knowledge and consent of the pastor.

If you see something, say something.  Don’t just trashcan it… unless it is the National Schismatic Reporter or The Tablet (aka The Bitter Pill).  Those are special cases requiring special treatment.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. norancor says:

    Bishop John Zuhsldorf … it flows off the tongue well. [Blech! It”ll never happen, so I can make light of it a little. Although imagine the fury it would provoke in some circles. Heh.]

  2. teomatteo says:

    When the Commander -in- Chief walks by a mirror does he have to salute himself?

  3. Sonshine135 says:

    Why do I get the feeling, especially concerning some of the “Catechism”, that the Fox is often times guarding the Hen House? The same could be asked about “Hymnals” and the Protestantized “Sacred Music” (Spirt & Song 2 comes to mind) .

  4. TC says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but aren’t imprimatur and nihil obstat fairly low levels of approval, sort of “Guaranteed: Not Heresy”.

    If you dislike Bishop Zuhlsdorf how about Cardinal Zuhlsdorf, Prefect of the CDF?

  5. Pax--tecum says:

    Bishop Zuhlsdorf? I thought you were going to become Pope Sixtus the Sixth: the first blogging Pope… Just joking!

  6. The Byzantine Bandit says:

    How does this work for books from Ignatius? It seems that very few of them have approval, notably “Jesus of Nazareth.”

  7. Roguejim says:

    Yes, I wish I knew exactly the significance of an imprimatur or nihil obstat. Certainly, there are doctrinally questionable books that contain these “approvals”. “They Fought the Good Fight” comes to mind, which contains the late Fr. Leonard Feeney’s beliefs regarding “baptism of desire”.

  8. Marc M says:

    “If you see something, say something. Don’t just trashcan it…”

    Oop! A couple of weeks ago I found a sheet stuck under a statue in an Adoration chapel with a “novena to St. Peregrine” or some such on it, embellished with clear chain-letter superstitious nonsense about THIS NOVENA HAS NEVER FAILED and your prayer will be granted after X number of days IF you make Y copies of this and leave them in churches and yadda yadda…

    So it was wrong for me to take that and trash it? It seemed prudent at the time.

  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Any other readers who enjoyed the censorship theme in Bruce Marshall’s A Thread of Scarlet?

  10. Marc M says:

    Roguejim: I have been wondering the same thing for a while. My wife is in RCIA at the moment and the textbook for the class, imprimateured and nihil obstatified, contains a statement that the priest identified as heresy, some modernish historical-critical statement to the effect that “scripture actually contains errors, but it’s okay.” I also came across in an apologetics book the claim that the writings of Doctors of the Church are infallibly true.

    They (imprimatur and nihil obstat) clearly carry no magisterial weight. As far as I can tell, it’s essentially a statement that “someone who has authority and really ought to be an expert has looked at this and says, in his opinion, it’s okay,” but shouldn’t be taken to mean more than that.

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