Sunday, November 01, 2009

Authority of Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur

One of the most puzzling things for new Catholics is sorting out the various degrees of authority within the Church and understanding from whence different "official" statements they come. This happens a lot with the media, as well, as when some Vatican official gives his opinion in an interview, which is later touted as the view of "the Vatican." For someone who really hasn't learned that much about the hierarchy and degrees of authority, how are you to react when somebody takes a questionable book and flashes its Imprimatur. To the new Catholic, this Imprimatur is impressive because it is an "official" statement that comes from "the Church." One reader came across this exact problem in an RCIA class. This following is from a question in the combox:

In the New American Catholic Study Bible, 2nd Edition, there is commentary in the reading guide that says that the taking of Jericho, Ai and Gibeon were not historical events. I was given this text along with a paragraph out of a New Jerome that I do not have handy since I do not have my own New Jerome. My question to you is, what exactly is Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur because this Study Bible claims both. I need to know if the Reading Guide in a Study Bible holds the same authority as a standard Bible or an Encyclical. If it does, then what? -Michael

The question originally came in the combox of the series on the Book of Joshua, and for the full context please see the comments after the post Genocide in Joshua Part 3 (the whole series is linked up on the sidebar). Basically, Michael's RCIA instructor told him that the Book of Joshua was not historical, citing certain battles that (according to this instructor) never happened. When Michael protested that he thought the Book of Joshua was in fact historical, he was referred to the NAB Bible commentary that says it is not and the instructor used the fact that the NAB has a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur as evidence to browbeat him into accepting the NAB commentary as Church dogma.

First off, the NAB has its own peculiar set of problems, specifically what my co-blogger in absentia Anselm has called a "poisonous" commentary - I recommend this article from 2007 on the NAB commentary and some of its errors. My own pastor, when he came to our parish, removed all the NAB's and stored them in a box because he didn't know what to do with them. On the one hand, the primary text was the (slightly mistranslated) Word of God, so he felt it would be wrong to destroy them; but ont he other hand, the commentary was heretical, so they were dangerous to leave out. He ended up actually burying them in the parish cemetery in their own plot! I imagine he had the verses from 1 Maccabees 4:44-46 in mind...

At any rate though, regarding Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. Any book dealing with theology, Catholic morality or anything written by a cleric is supposed to get these before going to print. Both of these declarations are given at the diocesan level under the competency of the local bishop. In brief, a Nihil Obstat is a declaration from a theologian called the Censor Librorum that a book is free from doctrinal or moral error - it literally means "Nothing Hinders." If the bishop's Censor Librorum grants the Nihil Obstat, then the Bishop, in his name and by his episcopal powers, confers the Imprimatur, which means "let it be printed." The Imprimatur is the result of the Nihil Obstat -i.e., "Nothing hinders", therefore, "let it be printed." Both can be taken as gurantees that the book is free from moral or doctrinal error, but because the Imprimatur comes directly from the Bishop and is the final step in the printing process, it is commonly considered to be more authoritative, though I'm not sure whether or not this is true.

Many works will include this statement:

"The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur agree with the content, opinions or statements expressed."

Notice the statement says only that it is free from doctrinal or moral error - this means that what is contained in the book may still be completely false; however, as long as it doesn't contradict faith or morals, the Imprimatur can still be granted. For example, a book on Church history might errantly and ignorantly report the commonly stated canard that 9 million people were killed in the Inquisition. This is a completely false statement, but it does not conflict with faith or morals (just common sense) and so the book could still get the Imprimatur.

Furthermore, we should understand that since these declarations come from the Diocesan Bishop, they can ultimately only be as good and reliable as the Bishop who grants them. This is the key principle to keep in mind with these declarations. They are not authoritative statements of the Magisterium, nor are they in the least bit protected by the charism of infallibility. They are the opinions of a private theologian (the Censor Librorum) and the official declaration of the Bishop, who in most cases is simply going along with what the Censor Librorum says.

If a Bishop is a solid theologian or good repute and orthodox disposition, then you have every reason to implicitly trust the Imprimatur - however, even that does not mean that what you find in the book is not errant, especially in your example (historical facts relating to archaeology). An Imprimatur issued by a very unorthodox Bishop would be suspect by that fact alone - remember, as stated above, these declarations are extensions of the Bishop's own ideas of what is acceptable and what is not. They are only as reliable as the Bishops who issue them and possess no inherent protection from error.

To bring it back to your case - the fact that the NAB has an Imprimatur does not in any way sanction the historical accuracy (or inaccuracies) of the commentary. It merely means that nothing in the commentary contradicts the official teaching of the Church - which might not even be the case depending on who granted it. Therefore, I would continue to protest the ignorant and dishonest ruse of persons who try to say that the historical books of the Old Testament are not historical. In general, denying the historicity of certain parts of the Scriptures is a method of modernists to undermine the spiritual authority of the Bible. Please see this post for more on these tendencies within Bible commentaries.

I hope this helps, Michael.


MEP said...

This helps a lot. I appreciate the thorough follow-ups you have been providing.


Anonymous said...

It has been stated by various persons that the Imprimatur on some Bible translations only includes the Scriptural text not the commentary. In one case discussed, the commentary was not even provided to the bishop. He should have asked for it but didn't. The commentary was heretical. I do not remember now which translation it was.

Dan Hatchen

MEP said...

Boniface, the RCIA leader has decided that he will no longer discuss this with me since he feels no need to defend himself or his interpretation on scripture.

He also gave me a compliment by calling me exhausting.

Take care.

Boniface said...