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What are Imprimi Potest, Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat?

January 18, 2016 by  
Filed under Books, Church Authority, Fr. Bartunek

Imprimi Potest, Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat:
What are they?

Dear Father John, Do the terms Imprimi Potest, Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur guarantee that some document, some prayer, etc, is approved by the Church and that we should follow it? Do they guarantee there are no errors? I've seen some of these designations on some questionable looking StillLifeWithBibleCropmaterials; so, I need to know. It seems that these are not as strictly given as they used to be in the past. Are they only as good as the approving authority? In other words, if the approving authority, or staff, doesn't have strict guidelines on these things, could questionable things get by them? Would you please explain these terms exactly? Thank you.

“Imprimi Potest” is Latin for “it may be printed.” This refers to the official permission a member of a religious orders receives to publish a work on a religious subject. It implies that the religious superior approves the writing as worthy of publishing. Members of religious orders have a vow of obedience, so they submit major written works to their superiors for approval as part of their vow.

Imprimatur.NihilObstatSepia“Imprimatur” is Latin for “let it be printed.” This indicates the approval of a religious publication by a bishop. According to canon law, the bishops have the duty and the 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). As a result, books that deal with faith and morals need to receive the Imprimatur. Authors can seek this approval either from the bishop where they reside, or from the bishop where the publisher resides.

“Nihil obstat” is Latin for “nothing stands in the way.” This is the stamp of approval given by an official censor to a publication having to do with faith and morals. If a bishop himself doesn’t review a manuscript, then he will delegate a censor to do so. The “nihil obstat” is the censor’s judgment that nothing in the work stands in the way of its being published.

So, in general, yes, having these approvals should assure the Catholic faithful that the content of the books will not cause harm to their faith. Books or other writings approved in this way should not contradict the doctrines of our faith.

Nevertheless, many books that deal with issues of faith and morals also address issues besides simple doctrine. Sometimes they will make recommendations or express opinions that even faithful Catholics can disagree on – the role of emotions in prayer, for example, or how best to prepare children for the sacrament of Confirmation. An Imprimatur doesn’t indicate that these recommendations and opinions are infallible, or even that the bishop agrees with them. It just indicates that the work as a whole is in full harmony with official Catholic doctrine regarding faith and morals.

I guess it is possible (at least in theory) that a religious superior, a censor, or a bishop could make an imprudent judgment about a particular work. One bishop, for example, may give his Imprimatur to a work that another bishop would not. This is because there is always a variety of ways to express or explain our faith – different aspects to emphasize, different characteristics to highlight. I imagine, however, that it would be very rare for a book with an Imprimatur to teach any doctrine that is actually contrary to our faith. If you run into doubtful cases, you can always consult the Catechism or get another opinion from someone you trust. If you find that a book has wrongly, in your opinion, received an Imprimatur, you may want to write to the bishop and alert him, although I think this would be a rare occurrence.

I hope this has helped, at least a little bit. God bless you! In Him, Fr. John


Art: Still life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh, 1885, PD-US, PD-art; Modified sepia of Een voorbeeld van imprimatur en nihil obstat in een boek (An example of imprimatur and nihil obstat in a book), Fouquet, 16 August 2005, PD-US copyright expired; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • ThirstforTruth

    Father….this is especially important today for me when shelving donated books for our parish Catholic library and gives me a “good excuse” when I feel morally bound to discard some items. This raises the question: should all books on the shelves of a parish library contain one or more of these sanctions? Thank youfor you helpful guidance.

    Also Father, if I may ask another question. Perhaps it really does not belong in this blog but I really do not know where else to get reliable information on this subject. I have gone online but information there scanty and not necessarily authentic.
    I think it is a question that would be helpful to many as this is occurring in many parishes in keeping with the call to all regarding the new evangelization programs. Could CSD write on some of the programs being offered to parishioners, such as the CHRSTLIFE series or Discovering Christ, as it is called in many parishes. I recently participated in the pilot program which was given to members directly invited by our Pastor. Following the dinner and the video we watched, we were
    asked to commit to a 7 week series of 3 hour meetings of what seemed to be a training program for becoming discussion leaders for a future program which would be opened for the entire parish. My question regards the actual Catholic content of the program. It seemed to me very Protestant-esque for want of a better term. What we were given in the video was more structure than study material but the central idea seemed to be to help people, through prayer and discussion as well as a shared meal (that seemed very important), to grow closer to Jesus…to develop a real relationship with him. We would learn to pray, as the video demonstrated, more from the heart, like our Protestant brethren, who seemed better at this type of prayer. One was given the impression that as Catholics, we have been praying ” the wrong way” for centuries with our vocal prayer. prayers others have given us, traditional prayers all Catholic know by rote. The idea I received was that Jesus would listen more earnestly if we could make up our own “from the heart prayers” and thereby know Him better and feel a real relationship with Him. As a Catholic, I have always been taught, there is no better way to know Jesus substantially than through our sacramental life, especially through reception of His Holy Body and Blood, the Eucharist!

    Perhaps the program will present this but in the pilot Eucharist was never suggested as a way, let alone the best way, to know Jesus. is this program CHRISTLIFE really authentically Catholic? A nearby parish is offering for their new evangelization program a series called ARISE.

    Anyway, dear Father, could CSD please speak as soon as possible to the variety of programs being offered in parishes for the new evangelization all over this country, as to their validity and degree of Catholicity. I really wonder about the purpose and substance of many of these programs remembering how the ecumenism movement, following the hijacking of Vatican II, resulted in so many of the problems needing correction today: restoring the Blessed Sacrament to its rightful positioning in churches, return to devotions to Mary and the saints, and so many other lost traditions in order to reach union with our separated brethren. Please help us if you can, in determining which programs being offered can be considered authentically Catholic.

    Thank you and God bless you Father for your consideration.

    • LizEst

      Hi Thirst for Truth — just so you know RCSD has changed to CSD. Also, please familiarize your self with our FAQ (frequently asked questions) here, especially question number four and its subquestions: You will find that we ask that readers limit their comments to under 300 words and that we ask that folks refrain from using all capital letters in writing (except, of course, for acronymns). Thank you…and God bless you.

      • ThirstforTruth

        Thanks for the prompt reply as well as update on CSD. I will
        follow your suggestions( they were so helpful) and hopefully find some answers to the questions I raised. God bless you and CSD.

        • LizEst
          • ThirstforTruth

            Thank you for drawing my attention to the above article by Dan Burke, regarding the Christ Life Series, being offered in many parishes. While I appreciate what Dan has said about the program, I am still left with more questions than answers as to how this program is truly Catholic and will be ultimately successful in reaching its goals. From the material I have seen, the main point seems to evangelize our separated brethren through and by developing a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ through a deeper prayer life. … is that the Catholic way of growing closer to Christ and one another? The immense gift of the Eucharist is never mentioned as the most substantial way of developing a deep relationship with Christ. The most Catholic way. At best, if mentioned at all, it comes across as a secondary option as a way to grow closer to Jesus and not very clearly at that.
            As a cradle Catholic, I was taught from the days of my First Holy Communion, the Real Presence of God occurs in the transubstantiated Host, which becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And most important, that this was/is the way Jesus chose for us to be closest to Him until He comes again. Also, we are taught that this can only happen in the Catholic Church through Apostolic succession. In other words, there is a real reason to be Catholic and stay Catholic for there is no where else for us to go and receive this incredible blessing and gift. As all Catholics should, I believe this with my whole heart and soul. It is the Sacred meal of the Eucharist, not the profane church supper commonly known as fellowship meals in the Protestant church, that Christ has sanctified…
            Not to belabor the point, but any evangelization program that sets as its goal, new members in the faith or the return to the faith by former Catholics, must use as the main approach, a deeper relationship with Christ through the Eucharist…
            Programs that do not use this approach will fail for lack of true substance and fall short of the stated goals…
            I am not convinced that with the Christ LIfe series, we might not be once more repeating this disaster, albeit with all good intentions.
            I am not sure this will reach you Liz as the comment section for this blogspot seems for some reason to have been discontinued. I do hope it will as I do so want you to know how much I appreciate your continued effort to help me understand this approach to the new evangelization. God bless you Liz and may He continue to reach out to thousands through this wonderfully Catholic website.

          • LizEst

            ~Kindly please keep your comments within our guidelines as we’ve requested before in this thread. That is why your comments have been edited.
            ~The comments section on most posts remain open indefinitely, unless commenters get too contentious, or some other pertinent reason. We only show about the last week and a half or so of posts on our home page. You can always find a post by doing a search for it.
            ~Dan would not endorse something that is not in keeping with what the Church believes and teaches or something that is not faithful to the Magisterium and the Tradition of the Church. While the Eucharist is, indeed, the source and summit of the Catholic life, not every initiative focuses on that. I know many that don’t and are faithfully Catholic. Conversely, I know many that need to have the Eucharist be more of a part of a particular effort. I do not have first hand experience with this program, but I would not write it off.

          • ThirstforTruth

            It would be more helpful to me if in the future you would be more specific as to why my comments have been edited. The guidelines, while extensive, are like a small book and to try to figure out just where I erred sometimes difficult to decipher.
            Also, it seemed to me, that in this particular case, the closing of the combox to all commenters, rather curious. Certainly your choice but being curious, I noted and wondered why. As far as writing the program off? I do not have the desire nor the authority to accomplish such a feat, but I do continue to have concern for both its Catholicity and effectiveness as a program of evangelization. I respect Dan Burke and all who write here but do not consider any of them out of hand infallible and never subject to error.
            BTW…what’s wrong with the “old” evangelization? Why
            should there be two, old and new forms? How do they differ?
            I will leave it at that, not wishing to become a pest or thorn in your side.
            God bless!

          • LizEst

            Hi ThristforTruth: Thanks for your response.

            ~The combox is not closed for this post…and has never been closed for this post. You probably think so because it doesn’t show up on the home (front) page of the site. We only carry about a week and a half to two weeks of posts there, and the most recent ones at that. We have had many posts since this particular post ran in January. So, that’s why it doesn’t show up there. To find any post on our site, just do a search for it by title or by putting the most important words of the document in the search box. As well, if the combox were closed for the post, you would not be able to leave a comment on the post at all.

            ~As to the reason it was edited, it was edited for the same reason we listed above: it was too long. We requested this from you after you first posted a month ago and you can check this above, just below your first comment where it says: “You will find that we ask that readers limit their comments to under 300 words “. This is exactly what we requested before…and what we are requesting again. You are welcome to repost in a summarized way (within 300 words).

            ~The new evangelization is really the same thing as old evangelization. It’s more a re-evangelization of what is often termed a post-Christian world which has little faith in God. The term has been around for quite a long time now.

          • ThirstforTruth

            God bless you…you have been most helpful. Especially regarding the new evangelization,which to me might imply there to be a difference from the “old” evangelization. I understand to be really the same thing, though still somewhat puzzled why use the term “new” should be applied to preaching the gospel of Jesus Who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Your term re-evangelization seems more fitting in this world which has changed in how it receives the message. As you say, post Christian. A world where God is no longer recognized or welcomed. As John tells us, “He came into the world, and the world knew Him not”. Sad indeed!
            As for Christ Life series, my limited experience does not encourage in my heart he hope spoken of here that much will be changed in spite of all the effort being put forth. For reasons that I previously stated, it seems flawed from its inception as a way to bring the Truth as it has been deposited in the Church, the Truth to be carried to the Nations, to the unbelieving and disinterested masses. But I am only a tiny grain of sand in this immense wilderness. I do believe that if God wishes this to succeed in meeting its goals, it will succeed, for with Him, all things are possible.
            Again, God’s blessings in abundance to you and CSD.

          • LizEst

            Dan has posted a response to you above!

          • Dan Burke

            Dear TFT: The program is designed to draw anyone, Catholic or non-Christian, into a living relationship with Christ. It begins with an introduction to the person and work of Christ and works through the sacraments, prayer, and all the primary aspects of how we are called to follow Christ. The session on Christ drew one parishioner back to confession who had not been for 20 years. Another session, last night, drew a non-Catholic to exclaim “This is what I have been looking for!” Your commitment to the truth is commendable but we must be cautious not to assume that because we don’t see something, that it isn’t there. Yours in Christ.

          • ThirstforTruth

            Thanks Dan, for sharing your experiences with me. While they are certainly an impressive witness to this program, I wonder if the program is being applied the same way everywhere it is being used? For instance, in the Discovering Christ program I am familiar with, only Baptism is mentioned. Furthermore, I have been told by others, where in this program the Eucharist is offered as another way to grow close to Christ, it is simply just that…another way….and not presented as the substantial way Jesus left us as a means of growing close to Him. This is what made the red flags go up for me when it was presented to me as a new evangelization program designed to help others grow closer to Jesus not particularly Catholic. In fact, the first video really makes a special point of stating that poor Catholics do not know how to pray from the heart like our separated brethren are wont to do…and then went into detail how this program would help us to rectify that “sad” situation. Really?
            I realize all programs for spiritual growth need not be only about Eucharist, but a Catholic program designed to help us grow closer to Jesus would seem the perfect place to promote an awareness of the Real Presence that is so lacking in our churches today, especially amongst Catholics who have been poorly catechized and now expected to evangelize others.
            I am aware there are other ways to grow close to Jesus but using mostly personal prayer as the central focus gives no reason to look particularly at the Catholic church, even though it might inspire some to become more aware of Jesus in their lives. Is this all the new evangelization is to be about? The point is the teaching that the truly Catholic way to grow close to Jesus is through the Eucharist seems purposely ignored for the reason perhaps it would be a roadblock for some …..especially for unbelievers. I cannot accept that as being evangelization for the Truth. As someone has said, it might bring in new members but it will not keep them there. I know personally of the many times when the Eucharist is all that has kept me Catholic, for like Peter, where else could I go to receive this tremendous gift.
            Enough, as once again, I have probably gone beyond the limit of words.
            Thanks Dan and may you continue the good work that has been started in you and all those posting at CSD!

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