Imprimatur: The Permission of a bishop to print books regarding the Faith [Source: A Brief Catholic Dictionary (Boston: St Paul Catechetical Center, 1985), 15].
The Nihil obstat and Imprimatur are a declaration that a book or pamphlet is considered to be free from doctrinal or moral error. It is not implied that those who have granted the Nihil obstat and Imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions, or statements expressed. This applies only after precensorship; it is not specifically applied to the permission of a major religious superior. [Source: Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia Revised and Updated (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 288.]
I bring up the Imprimatur because I was involved in a mini-discussion on the CARM discussion boards with a man who is not Roman Catholic, but spends a significant amount of time defending the Roman Catholic Church. He goes by the nickname “Walt”, and I believe he’s Anglican. He’s actually more knowledgeable than most Roman Catholics on Catholicism, and claims to simply be “Trying to keep Apologists honest…”
The discussion centered on the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 19. Of course in a discussion about “interpretation”, some non-Catholic is bound to bring up the fact that very few Bible verses have an official interpretation providing the “certainty” that Roman Catholics always claim to have. This is indeed a weighty criticism, and is generally ignored by Catholic laymen. The certainty they have is not in the text of Scripture, but in the doctrines infallibly put forth by the Roman Catholic Church.
The problem for Catholics is compounded even more, because the church also says that a doctrine can be defined, but the scriptural proofs used to support it utilized by the Church’s theologians might not actually support it. In other words, one can have certainty for a doctrine, but not have certainty in the scriptural proof texts for that doctrine. The infallibleness is in the decree, not in the reasoning to that decree. The Catholic Encyclopedia states,
“…the validity of the Divine guarantee is independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result. It is the definitive result itself, and it alone, that is guaranteed to be infallible, not the preliminary stages by which it is reached.”
Note the words of Roman Catholic theologian, Johann Mohler:
“Catholic theologians teach with general concurrence, and quite in the spirit of the Church, that even a Scriptural proof in favour of a decree held to be infallible, is not itself infallible, but only the dogma as defined.” [Source: Johann Adam Mohler, Symbolism: Exposition of the doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as evidenced by their Symbolic Writings, trans James Burton Robertson (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1997), p.296. I cited this quote from David T. King, Holy Scripture: The Ground And Pillar Of Our Faith Volume 1 (WA: Christian Resources Inc, 2001), 224].
But, Catholics boldly interpret and comment on the Scriptures all the time. How is this possible?
The well-informed non-Roman Catholic "Walt" at CARM had an answer. He stated,
“The _Imprimatur_ is ecclesial certification that a work does not violate the defined teaching of the Church on faith and morals; a Roman Catholic scholar who submits his interpretation of Matthew 19 for ecclesial review, and receives ecclesial permission to publish, is an *authentic* Roman Catholic interpretater[sic], even if it is not the *only* possible Roman Catholic interpretation.”
After talking with David King, (author of the most important book on Sola Scriptura written in the last 100 years) about this, he informed me of some difficulties with the above statement. The way the above statement is phrased it is impossible to refute because it's a "catch-all" disclaimer. It's a double standard. If the statement is true, Roman Catholics want to tell you that you need an infallible interpreter, while they only need an authentic possible explanation.
The statement also raises the idea of differing possible authentic Roman Catholic opinions. If doctrine develops, and one cannot know when a doctrine has completely developed, one must consider many differing Catholic opinions as possible authentic Roman Catholic opinion. In other words, Roman Catholics are far from having the certainty they always claim to have. Catholics claim Protestants need an infallible interpreter. We need that, but they have the freedom to read and hold possible authentic Roman Catholic opinions! Now, this is a vicious double standard.
But what of the Imprimatur? Jaraslov Pelikan has put forth an interesting overview, and if he’s correct, I have to wonder how Roman Catholics can create web pages on Catholic apologetics without such an approval:
“To prevent the incursion of opinions that conflict with the church's teaching, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, created in 1542, has the authority to ban books which it adjudges to be dangerous to the faith and morals of the faithful. The catalog of such books is called the ‘Index of Prohibited Books’ and Roman Catholics are prohibited from reading any book on the Index without permission.
In addition, the members of the church may not read or even sell any book that is dangerous to faith and morals, even if it is not on the Index. Wherever faith and morals are involved, the church claims the right of censorship over books. No Roman Catholic may publish a book dealing with doctrinal or moral matters without having it censored. The Imprimatur which appears at the beginning or the end of a Roman Catholic book is the official notice that the book has been censored and that permission for its publication has been duly granted. It does not mean that the church assumes responsibility for every statement of fact and opinion in the book, but only that the book does not contain anything inimical to the faith and practice of the church. The Index prohibits, the Imprimatur protects.
By these means the church exercises its authority over the thought of its members—or at least tries to. Prohibition of books and boycott of movies have ricocheted so often that thoughtful members of the church, both clergy and laymen, have expressed their doubts about the wisdom and effectiveness of the entire system of passing judgment upon the production of non-Roman authors and companies. Meanwhile the system still stands." [Source: Jaraslov Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, 92].