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book censorship, Royal censorship during the Ancien Régime, prior restraint, Censor Librorum, Imprimatur (novel)

An imprimatur (from Latin, "let it be printed") is an official declaration from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church that a literary or similar work is free from error in matters of Roman Catholic doctrine, and hence acceptable reading for faithful Roman Catholics.

No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions or statements expressed. Ordinarily an imprimatur is granted by the bishop of a diocese (after a declaration of nihil obstat has been granted by a theologian in regard to the work). On rare occasions, a bishop's imprimatur may be overruled by higher authorities within the Catholic Church; this happened twice in 1984 and again in 1998.

The term is also used more generally to mean any official endorsement (not necessarily by a church).



The Index librorum prohibitorum was announced at the Council of Trent in 1564 and the following books were issued with the papal imprimatur: the Profession of the Tridentine Faith and the Tridentine Catechism (1566), the Breviary (1568), the Missal (1570) and the Vulgate (1590 and then 1592).


In Roman Catholic theology the bishop of a diocese has the authority and obligation "to teach, to sanctify and to govern" the faithful: he is therefore the governor of the local church, the chief dispenser of its sacraments and ultimately in charge of religious education. As such, from the early days of mass distribution of printed books, approval had to be sought from the local bishop who could authorize the printing of a book and thus certify that it was unlikely to damage the faith or morals of the reader.

Over time, as church and state became less intertwined, this power was restricted to specifically religious books. Today a book which treats of theology in any aspect (dogmatic theology, sacraments, ecclesiastical history, etc.), or which is for use in religious instruction, books of prayer or about the saints, must receive the imprimatur to be acceptable for use in Catholic schools or to be eligible for publication if the author is a member of the clergy or other Catholic. In short, if a book is to be used as part of Catholic education or purports to contain officially acceptable versions of Church teaching, it must be approved by the Church, normally the bishop of the place where it is published (i.e., today, the place where the publishing company has its official office). Such a requirement is civilly unenforceable, but the Church may take internal sanctions against authors or publishers who fail to seek such approval or who publish even though they are denied the imprimatur. (See Code of Canon Law, Canons 822 through 832.)

It is of the greatest significance in works directly addressing Roman Catholic theology and doctrine, and was introduced as a measure to reduce exposure, particularly of the laity, to heresy. The presence of the imprimatur was at one time a matter of the greatest concern to many Roman Catholics. (In fact, in some officially Roman Catholic countries, nothing could be legally published without such an imprimatur. This was a form of prior restraint or censorship.)

A Roman Catholic imprimatur can require up to four steps:

  • If the work is produced by a member of a religious order, a Nihil obstat (Latin, meaning "nothing hinders") from two censors appointed by the order. This indicates that the work has been examined and approved by the delegated censors and that they both find it free of doctrinal or moral error. The censor is appointed either generally or for a particular work, and is often a scholarly priest and/or one who has expertise in the field. It is the censor's task to work back and forth with the author of the work to correct any inaccuracies, ambiguities, easily misunderstood passages or other problems. The nihil obstats of two censors from the order were formerly required by universal canon law; today, they may be required by an order's own canstitutions.
  • If the work was produced by a member of a religious order, an Imprimi potest (Latin, meaning "it can be printed") from a superior within the order. This indicated that it had first been examined and approved by the religious superior or head of the religious order (or a duly appointed representative). The imprimi potest was often given by the provincial superior of the author. This was given only after the two nihil obstats mentioned above. Today, such approval is still needed but the process is less specific.
  • In all cases, whether a lay person or cleric, a nihil obstat from the censor of the diocese in which publication takes place was, and still is, always necessary to obtain the imprimatur itself. The censor in this case is appointed by the bishop and again may be a priest given general authority for this or assigned specifically for an individual book. Even if the above nihil obstats had been obtained, and the imprimi potest, this diocesan nihil obstat was also always necessary. Today, most books need just this nihil obstat.
  • Imprimatur (Latin, meaning "let it be printed") — This is the actual final approval by the bishop of the diocese where the work is to be published, or by other ecclesiastical authority. It is given under the bishop's role as chief teacher of the faith within his diocese.

Following this, some works may also include the following 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."

While at first glance this statement might seem contradictory, it indicates the purpose of the imprimatur: theologians and other writers are free to discuss various theories, ideas, approaches, or positions on theological topics - even if the bishop does not agree with the author's positions - provided they do not actually contradict Catholic doctrine and are not likely to harm the faith or morals of the reader. Within Catholic doctrine, therefore, a breadth of possible opinions may be freely discussed.

Imprimaturs are not automatically transferrable to later versions of a work. Any new edition also requires a new imprimatur to be obtained.

The imprimatur can be revoked if, upon further examination, any doctrinal or moral error is found to be contained in the work.


In the 1990s some controversy arose over the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a Roman Catholic translation agency. In 1998 the Church insisted that American bishops lift their imprimatur of a collection of Psalms produced by the commission, and in 1998, Church officials required staff and advisers for the commission to receive a nihil obstat in order to obtain and to keep their jobs.

Other uses of the term

By metaphor or analogy, the term "imprimatur" has come to be used informally in a broader sense, often to indicate official approval by whatever authorities or powers are pertinent to the field in question. For example, a political work or action might be said to bear the "imprimatur" of a certain politician or political party, indicating their approval or authorization.

This term is also often used in regular commercial printing process as an approval by a customer's authorised person to finally send the job to the print house, for example after a test copy has been reviewed and approved.

Another example of modern usage of the term outside of Catholicism is digital imprimatur.

Imprimatur is also the name of a thriller novel by the authors Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti (2002).

The term imprimatur must not be mixed up with the term imprimatura, a term used in painting.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Imprimatur" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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