Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Publishing Whatever One Wants To: Rome's Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, and Current Trends in Catholic Apologetics
05/30/2008 - James SwanOver the last few years I've focused on current popular Catholic apologists, that is, those whose names you may hear on Catholic Answers, or find on The Journey Home. In order to be familiar with Catholic argumentation, the best way to do so is to actually hear them make their own arguments and interpretations of Catholic doctrine.
I purchase their books as well. I buy these books because not only am I interested in how they argue, I like to see how they document their claims. I'm sure there are much better well-trained Catholic scholars who present far better argumentation (in books that cost a whole lot more). But the books that sell, and the apologetic book your Catholic friend at work has is probably one of the many books of popular Catholic apologetics put out in the last twenty years.
I have a number of these books on my desk at the moment. For instance I've got Not By Scripture Alone by Robert Sungenis staring back at me. This book was dedicated to John Paul II, and was checked over for accuracy by two Monsignors. Hence, it obtained what is called the "Nihil Obstat" and the "Imprimatur." I'm assuming many Protestants have no idea what these two words mean.They typically appear on one of the first few pages of a Catholic book.
Nihil Obstat: "A Latin phrase meaning that 'nothing stands in the way,' the nihil obstat is a designation that must be given before a book receives impramatur, the Church Permission for publication" [Alfred McBride, O.Praem, Catholic Beliefs From A to Z (Michigan: Servant Publications, 2001), p. 117].
Imprimatur: "From the Latin meaning 'let it be printed,' an imprimatur is given by a bishop for books on certain scriptural or religious topics. It is required for all Catholic versions of sacred Scripture and liturgical texts as well as religious books that will be used as textbooks or for public prayer. Otherwise, an imprimatur is not needed for every religious book" [ibid., p. 86].
I can appreciate Rome's desire to keep some sort of official standard that Catholic writers should abide by. I can even appreciate that Sungenis took the time to obtain these stamps of approval, as well as any others within Rome's walls that do likewise. It was a recent comment in a discussion on Dave Armstrong's blog that got me thinking about this. In yet another episode of "When Catholic Apologists Attack Each Other" someone commented on a recent book by Sungenis:
"Not By Bread Alone didn't ever get an imprimatur, either. Sungenis said it was because of some technical issue, but that wouldn't have stopped him from getting one later."
Armstrong responded, "Sadly, the Imprimatur is not always a safeguard anymore. My books don't have them (except for The New Catholic Answer Bible, and my books are perfectly orthodox. And some that have them are not orthodox."
The same person then asked, "Yeah, imprimaturs don't mean what they used to. Did you submit and get turned down or just never submit them?" He then noted the Catholic Apologetics Study Bible by Sungenis was turned down, as was Not By Bread Alone.
Armstrong: "Sophia Institute Press, the publisher of my three main books, chose not to do it. It wasn't really in my hands. OSV did for the Bible: probably because that seems more 'serious': being a Bible and all."
I'll pass over Armstrong's comment that not all books with the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur are orthodox, which is an interesting Roman authority problem to say the least! Give Sungenis at least this much credit, at least he tried to get the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur (by the way, this Catholic blog has some sort of obsession over this issue, and spends ample time documenting every move Robert makes- they claim, "In the end, it is noteworthy that Sungenis has not received an imprimatur on any of his books over the last 10 years"). Armstrong on the other hand, simply puts a disclaimer on his blog, and pretty much stated above he doesn't even try to obtain them.
Well, what's the big deal? "An imprimatur is not needed for every religious book." Well, it could turn out to be a big deal for those apologists serious about their Catholicism. Say you're a Catholic apologist without the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, and a local parish has invited you to give your testimony or an apologetics lecture. You decide to bring some copies of your book to sell. The problem though is, Canon Law says leave them home if you don't have the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur:
Can. 827 §4. Books or other writings dealing with questions of religion or morals cannot be exhibited, sold, or distributed in churches or oratories unless they have been published with the permission of competent ecclesiastical authority or approved by it subsequently.
Canon Law also states:
§2. Books which regard questions pertaining to sacred scripture, theology, canon law, ecclesiastical history, and religious or moral disciplines cannot be used as texts on which instruction is based in elementary, middle, or higher schools unless they have been published with the approval of competent ecclesiastical authority or have been approved by it subsequently.
§3. It is recommended that books dealing with the matters mentioned in §2, although not used as texts in instruction, as well as writings which especially concern religion or good morals are submitted to the judgment of the local ordinary.
Read this whole section of Canon Law here.
One has to wonder how seriously the recent batch of Catholic apologists take the above statement (§3). I just looked through my shelf of Catholic apologetic books, and many of the recent volumes do not have the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, while the older ones typically do. If Canon Law recommends something, what seems to be the problem for these folks? I'm tempted to say for some of them, their continual claims of submission to Rome fall short when it comes to having a career as a Catholic apologist. Sure, they say they submit to Rome, but they don't submit all their books for ecclesiastical approval.
It's easy to pick on the failure of Sungenis to attain official approval, and let's face it, he's produced some eclectic material. On the other hand, it seems to me many Catholic apologists don't even try to follow Canon Law on this. Why is the failure of Sungenis such a scandal, while a multitude of Catholic writers not even trying to gain the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur not? It's easy to claim that one's books are "perfectly orthodox," but one wonders if these apologists ignoring Canon Law while complaining about the orthodoxy of a fellow apologist who at least makes some sort of attempt to adhere to it have the right to complain.
I'm not just picking on Armstrong. He simply serves as an example since he's put forth a lot of effort going after Sungenis recently (by the way, Armstrong explains the problem with Sungenis and Gerry Matatics: "'Insufficiently converted from Protestantism' more than amply explains Matatics and Sungenis, as far as I'm concerned. But it's not Protestantism per se: it is an extreme form of fundamentalist Calvinism"). There are many more besides Armstrong that publish books without the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. I'm simply asking why they don't follow the guidelines their teaching authority puts forth- this just happens to be the same authority they defend in their writings.