Approval from author’s superiors doesn’t mean a book is good.

03_05_14_Gesu_Zwingli_book_detRecent controversy has brought canonist Ed Peters to shed some light on the meaning of some technical terms which are being bandied about.

Lately some dust has been stirred up by the homosexualist activist Jesuit Fr. James Martin, who published a slithery book about homosexuality. When challenged about the veracity and propriety of some of the things he wrote, Martin repeats that the book was approved by his superiors. That’s holds water about as effectively as a screen door on a submarine.

Let’s have a look at what Peters says about ecclesiastical approval of texts for publication. My emphases and comments.

About Fr. Martin’s Book

Defending his book, Building a Bridge (2017), Jesuit Father James Martin claims that its consistency with Church teaching is attested to by (A) his own good standing as a priest, and (B) the canonical approval the book received from his Jesuit superior.

Martin’s first claim, that he is a priest in good standing, is neither contested nor relevant to the question of whether his book is doctrinally sound or pastorally trustworthy. [There’s also Peters’ emphasis there.]

Martin’s second claim, that his book enjoys canonical approval, requires some context before one can appreciate what that means—and doesn’t mean.

The Roman Catholic Church’s canonical discipline on publishing materials related to faith and morals is found chiefly in Canons 822-832 and focuses on two well-known markers of doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral suitability, namely, the “nihil obstat” (a theologian’s certification that nothing obstructs faith or morals per 1983 CIC 830 § 2) and the “imprimatur” (a local ordinary’s determination that the writings may be responsibly published per 1983 CIC 830 § 3). [NB] The nihil obstat does not imply that everything in a text is stated correctly, but rather, is concerned with whether anything is stated wrongly; [That’s an important distinction.] the imprimatur does not imply that a book is actually good or helpful, but rather, asks whether it is a bad idea to publish it. [and not whether it ought to be published.] Throughout the process, authors and their works are generally, and understandably, viewed benignly (e.g., 1983 CIC 212).  [Any decent censor librorum (the guy appointed by a bishop or an order to read stuff and check for doctrinal errors will tell you that it’s not their job to clean up style or make improvements.  They have a narrow job.]

Martin’s book, though falling within the categories for which a nihil obstat and an imprimatur are expressly recommended (1983 CIC 827 § 3), [not “required”] does not, in my opinion, require such certifications and he is within the law to have published it without them. Of course, the lack of these common certifications is hardly evidence of the soundness of his work.

Martin’s book does have what it is required to have, namely, a religious superior’s “permission to publish” (imprimi potest), a clearance all members of institutes of consecrated life must obtain prior to publishing these sorts of materials. Instructions issued in 1992 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expect religious superiors, prior to issuing their permission for publication, to consult with at least one trustworthy theologian about whether anything in a book such as Martin’s is harmful to the faith or morals. Martin himself might or might not know whether this prior theological review was actually carried out but Fr. John Cercero, sj, the superior who granted permission for Martin to publish his book, would certainly know. [See below.  Apparently the SJs released a statement about this.]

But let’s assume that a qualified censor cleared the content of Martin’s book whereupon his superior concluded for its general prudence. Does that mean that Martin’s opinions and views are, as he seems to claim, necessarily acceptable in the Church?


First, there are notorious examples of quite unworthy books boasting ecclesiastical approval until the faithful’s consternation over such aberrations finally gets someone’s attention somewhere and the approvals are withdrawn. The decade-and-a-half argument over Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us (1968), which lost its imprimatur in 1984 after Roman intervention, lingers in Catholic conscientiousness to this day.

Second, and more importantly, and notwithstanding some “hyperbole” (CLSA New Comm. at 984) in the CDF instruction about ecclesiastical approval constituting a “juridical and moral guarantee”, the nihil obstat, the imprimatur, and the imprimi potest are, in the end, judgment calls made by ecclesiastical officers about how authors have presented their views on important (and often complex) Church teachings and practices, and are not themselves infallible exercises of the Church’s teaching office. One would like to think, of course, that all Church officers are qualified for and committed to performing their duties in this area but, even without reaching the extreme cases recalled above, differing analytic approaches can be followed and old-fashioned mistakes can and do happen in the course of such reviews.

So, Martin’s book apparently does not have a standard nihil obstat or imprimatur; it might or might not have a Jesuit theologian’s in-house certification of its avoidance of doctrinal error; it does have a Jesuit superior’s indication that, in his view, the book can be prudently published.

[NB] Thus, in short, to tout a religious superior’s imprimi potest as proof of one’s personal or authorial orthodoxy is to misconstrue what that certification is and what it means.

Update (same day): Martin’s superiors have just released a statement indicating that his book did go through a theological analysis. They do not identify who performed that assessment, but then, the new law does not require disclosure of that name, as was generally required under the old law. The canonical commentary I offered above applies as I indicated.

So, now you know a little more about the technical terms that are in the wind right now.

Bottom line: Just because there is a nihil obstat or an imprimi potest, that doesn’t mean that what’s between the covers is good.  As a matter of fact, it could be dreadful.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Fr Martin’s invitation to speak at the Theological College Seminary was just rescinded.
    Excellent to bend Fr James’ overgrown ego

  2. rayrondini says:

    I had two thoughts regarding this “defense” of counting supporting prelates:
    1) Card. Sarah at least has been publicly critical. I’m sure Card. Burke would echo the sentiment. If it’s a sheer nose count one wants, I expect Fr. Martin might be surprised. And even if not…
    2) …who else had the majority of people on their side in their time? Arius. Just sayin’.

  3. Mike says:

    I know some of the priests who are alumni of this seminary. They are most assuredly not in the mold of Fr Martin. Very solid.

  4. Joseph-Mary says:

    The superiors in this instance are still modernist Jesuits. Need anything more need be said?

  5. Joseph Revesz says:

    If the Pope endorsed Fr. Martin’s book , and His Holiness might, it would still be heresy.

    [Let’s be careful with “heresy”. I haven’t read it and I don’t know for sure that there is “heresy” in it.]

  6. Cranky Old Man says:

    There is an interesting if perhaps inadvertent commentary on Dr. Peters’ observation that competence and commitment among censores librorum and Imprimatur-granting prelates can be hoped for but not necessarily assured. A couple years ago University of Notre Dame Press published a long and somewhat tedious collection of letters between Thomas Merton and his New York editor, Robert Giroux. There were several instances in the letters of plotting and scheming to get the required approvals, both from the Abbot General in Rome and from local ecclesiastical authorities. The efforts in the United States involved a good deal of what the legal profession might call “forum shopping”: how long will this take, how detailed will the questions be, how likely is it that changes will have to be made? All of this was considered not from a moral/theological or even literary/aesthetic perspective; the only things that mattered were composition schedules and galley proofs.

  7. hwriggles4 says:

    To second Mike, I heard that the Theological Seminary in Washington, DC is now a solid place, and has been for quite some time (I heard that during the 70s and 80s, that seminary wasn’t very good – Goodbye Good Men dubbed it the Theological Closet, and the seminary in Baltimore was called The Pink Palace).

    My diocese and my neighboring diocese have been sending seminarians to the Catholic Theological Union within the last five years. There is also a newer college seminary there named after St. John Paul II that opened circa 2011. That too seems to have a good rapport.

  8. Cantor says:

    I don’t necessarily mind if a book is dreadful. I’ve read more than a few over the years. But if the Imprimatur and/or Nihil Obstat of a publication dealing with the Catholic faith cannot be nigh on infallible, just what use are they at all outside the fact that the author AND reviewer share an opinion?

  9. Aquinas Gal says:

    Since growing up in the late 60s, it was painfully apparent that all too often an imprimatur meant nothing. Some dreadful books had imprimaturs.

  10. Pingback: Growing Fr. James Martin Scandal | Big Pulpit

  11. Echoing Aquinas Gal above.
    Back in the 1960s or early 70s, my mother noticed that the precious imprimatur, and the like, started appearing on works that were not always doctrinally sound. Inconsistent. She was shocked to observe that in some cases these declarations, meant to keep the sheep safe, were not the same caliber as those awarded before the 1960s. So unfortunately, she grew to mistrust any newer imprimatur and learned to discern on her own, and following that, published without considering a bishop’s approval for her own works. Back then bishops and superiors were weakening and generally untrustworthy – though there were still more good ones then than there are today.

    In spite of Father’s technical descriptions here, the Catholic pretty much understood these bishop’s declarations as a statement that the work included nothing against Faith and Morals. Yes, Father is explaining this in better detail – but that was the old general impression.

    Today’s current Catholic publishing and writing atmosphere has become chaotic and doctrinally undependable, falling into myriad opinions in publications and blogs. From time to time, an author might echo real Church teaching but most cannot differentiate between the good and the dreadfully [much louder, more abundant] wrong. Which of course is the purpose of authority and obedience: to protect the simple sheep. Now this Authority has fallen silent and the sheep follow anyone that ‘leads’, right over the cliff.

    And the infiltrators make our suffering Holy Mother Church look complicit.

    Reading very old Catholic works, one finds everything written by clergy within the structure of obedience to superiors. Sometimes a plain religious – if a nun, the author would be anonymous, eschewing vainglory and reputation. Lay-authored works were almost unheard of. And everything good had imprimaturs, nihil obstats, approbations, etc. A work with the merest whiff of confusion, deceit, or error either went unpublished or lacked this declaration of safety.

    Consider the confusion that masonic bishops caused with the message of Our Lady of La Salette. Melanie’s good and holy supportive bishop gave every single word of Our Lady’s message his Imprimatur. This bishop’s evil replacement persecuted Melanie, made her look insane [when he himself died insane] and worked to remove that critical message of Our Lady [Rome as the seat of the anti-christ] and had her words put on the Index. Consider condemning the desperate loving words of Our Lady. … and THEN the Index was removed by PPVI that identified danger such as de Chardin, arguably the most destructive heretic of modern times [imagine mixing Our Lady’s words with evil heretics]. So now we have Our Lady’s words freed from the censure of the Index, but also opening the Pandora’s box of heresy and error in all other cases.

    A long history. Gee, its almost like this confusion is on purpose to weaken the Faith and the Church itself. The sheep can’t discern poison from remedy. Seems diabolical –do I hear dark laughter?

  12. Uxixu says:

    The biggest issue with Fr. Martin has always been by my reckoning that his superiors seem to condone what he does and says instead of reprimanding him. Such a stark contrast with the huge injustice done to Fr. Fessio, for example…

  13. TonyO says:

    Cantor says

    But if the Imprimatur and/or Nihil Obstat of a publication dealing with the Catholic faith cannot be nigh on infallible, just what use are they at all outside the fact that the author AND reviewer share an opinion?

    I suspect that one of the main problems – starting somewhere in the 1960’s, probably with Vatican II – is that the process of examining a work for the nihil obstat and imprimatur went from being viewed cautiously to “being viewed benignly”. That is, instead of looking at the work from the point of view of “is this or that statement likely to be misunderstood or lead to erroneous opinions” to instead a filter of “is there a way this or that statement can be understood as not definitively and in every sense contradictory to Catholic faith?” At least since the 1960s, many books that have either stamp have been damaging to faith, sometimes gravely so and even notoriously so, merely because there was (in the mind of the reviewer) some tangential sense in which the theses were potentially compatible with the faith, even if TAKEN AS A WHOLE nobody who read the book would take them that way.

    The whole concept of “approved” works has now been so badly poisoned that it is hard to imagine how the process might be corrected. Other than, you know, making sure that every new bishop is sound, and making sure that every sound bishop chooses a sound theologian as censor, and ALSO re-instituting the old lens that a book that might be “true in some sense” can still be rejected if it is too likely to lead men to error. Oh, and of course this would also require bishops who thought that canon laws were – you know – LAWS, meant to be enforced, with PENALTIES and such. Naaaahhhh, we could never have bishops like that, could we?

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