One day, Bob [a fictional character] went to the hardware store to buy a table saw. Bob is a fine craftsman and he only uses quality tools. The salesman showed him a nice saw, but he was unfamiliar with this particular brand of table saw, so he was a bit concerned about its quality. But when he observed the saw’s trademark, i.e., its “seal of approval,” and the warranty that came with it, he was relieved. This seal of approval told him that this table saw was indeed of good quality. When a company uses a seal of approval, it is to assure the customer that their product is truly dependable.
It is a similar situation when dealing with written documents. If a document has a seal or stamp, it is normally considered “legal” or “official.” The seal verifies the truth claims of the document, for instance, as when a document is notarized.
Enter Catholic Seals
The Catholic Church also uses certain seals to authenticate its documents, and to approve certain books and articles, as well. Two of those seals include the Nihil Obstat (Latin, meaning “nothing hinders”) and the Imprimatur (“let it be printed”).
Catholic book, for example, is submitted to the
Church, and the author wants to receive the Catholic seal of approval, it typically first goes through a “censor.” A censor is generally a knowledgeable Catholic appointed by the bishop, who examines the book for errors. If the censor finds no errors, the book can receive the Nihil Obstat, since there is now “nothing to hinder” the book from being printed. It is now up to the bishop to determine if the book is worthy of receiving the Imprimatur. The bishop has the final say and he can “let it be printed.”
I’m not aware of any symbols representing the Nihil Obstat, but you can sometimes find (along with the Imprimatur) a Maltese cross ✠ before the bishop’s name.
According to the Catholic Code of Canon Law:
“In order to preserve the integrity of the truths of faith and morals, the pastors of the Church have the duty and right to be watchful so that no harm is done to the faith or morals of the Christian faithful through writings or the use of instruments of social communication. They also have the duty and right to demand that writings to be published by the Christian faithful which touch upon faith or morals be submitted to their judgment and have the duty and right to condemn writings which harm correct faith or good morals.” (Canon 823, paragraph 1)
The seals are supposedly a sign that the “integrity of truth” has been preserved. They are about ecclesiastical (Church) approval. See the Code of Canon Law 824, paragraph 1; 827, paragraph 1 and 2; and 829.
So, what is the benefit for the average Catholic of having these Catholic seals before he ever reads this book? The “advantage” is that the seals tell him that the book is officially approved by the Church. It is to give him a greater sense of certainty about the truthfulness of the contents in the book.
But how much certainty do these seals actually provide for the average Catholic? Do they provide infallible certainty for him? No, the Catholic Church does not claim that its seals provide infallible certainty (although they do claim to have it elsewhere).
But these seals of approval can certainly cause confusion, since two different books, each having the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur, can have vastly different ideas from each other. How can this happen? How can this be considered a safeguard?
Preserving the Integrity of Truth?
But Catholics will say that the censor is not making a statement as to whether or not he personally likes the book. These seals allegedly mean that the book is free of doctrinal and moral error only, that is, there is nothing in the book that would be damaging to the Catholic Church’s doctrines or its moral teachings. The seals are not necessarily an endorsement of what’s in the book – it’s just about what is NOT in the book, that is, doctrinal error. They’ll say that it is specifically designed this way, that is, as a “negative safeguard.”
Ok, so what about non-doctrinal things like names, dates, places, and other information that could be wrong or misrepresented? Does that not matter? Is it ok to get these things wrong and still receive the Imprimatur? It certainly seems so.
I’m not saying that a book needs to be perfect to be published, only that the accuracy of the non-doctrinal and smaller details is also important. Now, I’m not talking about a few misspelled words. That’s not really an issue, but it appears that you can have the Catholic seal of approval, and yet still have a collection of false information in the book. The “integrity of truth” that the Code of Canon Law speaks of is certainly not here.
Ok, so the Imprimatur and the Nihil Obstat tell us that the book has been reviewed, examined, proofread, critiqued, and double-checked. But so what? This should happen to all books before being published!
Someone could say, “Yeah, but these are experts in Catholic teaching who are reviewing this book! That makes a big difference.”
But what about the times that these seals were retracted and withdrawn from certain books and the author had to go back and change something inside? It has happened several times before. So having experts to examine them doesn’t really prove anything.
Catholic apologists love to talk about the certainty they have about their teachings compared to Protestants. But, in this case, it can only be one bishop’s opinion – another bishop may reject this same book! So, the Catholic has no more certainty in these cases than what the Protestant has in his writings. We should test the truth of any religious articles, documents or books by the Scriptures, which are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The supposed certainty of a Catholic book’s truthfulness that comes from these seals offers no advantage at all for Catholics. So these seals are essentially merely judgment calls.
There is not just one aspect to any book. Books are multi-faceted and their content is a “package deal.” As a whole, either the book is trustworthy or not. You either want your seal on it, or you don’t. Remember, when you put your seal on it, you’re taking the credit or blame for the whole thing.
The seals of the Church only guarantee faithfulness in doctrine and morals. But they are incomplete seals. I would agree with the Catholic Church that doctrine and morals are indeed the most important part of the book, but the rest seems to be irrelevant to them.
What if the manufacturer of the table saw in our story above had a seal of approval like the Catholic Church does? Suppose they said, “Well, our seal guarantees the quality of only the most important components of our table saw, like the frame, which is made of the strongest alloy steel. Also, the saw blades are carbide-tipped and super sharp, and are the finest available!” Yet, when the rest of the table saw is inspected, one finds the bearings to be rusty and rickety, the belts are the wrong size, the wheels are lopsided, its motor is weak and below-standard, and its bolts and screws are made of aluminum and they quickly fail during vibration.
No one would think that’s acceptable! Each of these weak links reflects the quality as a whole. And so do the non-doctrinal errors and mistakes in certain books and articles that contain the Catholic seals.
Knowingly putting your seal of approval on a document that has wrong dates/places/facts, etc., is self-destructive. It doesn’t help your case for assurance or certainty at all. But it seems that it really doesn’t matter to the Catholic Church, as long as Catholic doctrine is promoted. And in doing so, the seals allow Catholic doctrine to be contaminated with sloppy “facts.” They seem to care more about promoting uniquely Catholic ideas than the full truth.
Therefore, the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur are effectively just for show, as many things are in the Catholic Church. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance, flowing robes, respectful titles, and outward religious display. No, Protestants are not immune to this, but Catholic leaders seem to have it down to an art.
The Catholic Church’s leaders are modern-day Pharisees. Out of all the people Jesus dealt with, He hated the deeds and attitudes of the Pharisees the most, and reserved the strongest rebuke for them (Matthew 23).
Doctrine and morals are extremely important, but to throw everything else to the wind is not wise. Truth is truth, whether doctrine or data. One would be better off just saying, “The book is interesting and even informative, but I can’t put my seal on it!”
If a book containing the Imprimatur was actually biblical… if the seal protected ALL its contents, that is, all its doctrine, its morals, its dates, times and places, etc. THEN I could respect such a seal… one that is not vague or ambiguous. Such a seal would actually mean something.