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On Fr. James Martin’s book and canonical approval

To tout a religious superior’s imprimi potest as proof of one’s personal or authorial orthodoxy is to misconstrue what that certification is and what it means.

Fr. James Martin, S.J., is the author of "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity" (Image: YouTube)

Defending his book, Building a Bridge (2017), Jesuit Father James Martin claims that its consistency with Church teaching is attested to by (A) his own good standing as a priest, and (B) the canonical approval the book received from his Jesuit superior.

Martin’s first claim, that he is a priest in good standing, is neither contested nor relevant to the question of whether his book is doctrinally sound or pastorally trustworthy.

Martin’s second claim, that his book enjoys canonical approval, requires some context before one can appreciate what that means—and doesn’t mean.

The Roman Catholic Church’s canonical discipline on publishing materials related to faith and morals is found chiefly in Canons 822-832 and focuses on two well-known markers of doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral suitability, namely, the “nihil obstat” (a theologian’s certification that nothing obstructs faith or morals per 1983 CIC 830 § 2) and the “imprimatur” (a local ordinary’s determination that the writings may be responsibly published per 1983 CIC 830 § 3). The nihil obstat does not imply that everything in a text is stated correctly, but rather, is concerned with whether anything is stated wrongly; the imprimatur does not imply that a book is actually good or helpful, but rather, asks whether it is a bad idea to publish it. Throughout the process, authors and their works are generally, and understandably, viewed benignly (e.g., 1983 CIC 212).

Martin’s book, though falling within the categories for which a nihil obstat and an imprimatur are expressly recommended (1983 CIC 827 § 3), does not, in my opinion, require such certifications and he is within the law to have published it without them. Of course, the lack of these common certifications is hardly evidence of the soundness of his work.

Martin’s book does have what it is required to have, namely, a religious superior’s “permission to publish” (imprimi potest), a clearance all members of institutes of consecrated life must obtain prior to publishing these sorts of materials. Instructions issued in 1992 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expect religious superiors, prior to issuing their permission for publication, to consult with at least one trustworthy theologian about whether anything in a book such as Martin’s is harmful to the faith or morals. Martin himself might or might not know whether this prior theological review was actually carried out but Fr. John Cercero, sj, the superior who granted permission for Martin to publish his book, would certainly know.

But let’s assume that a qualified censor cleared the content of Martin’s book whereupon his superior concluded for its general prudence. Does that mean that Martin’s opinions and views are, as he seems to claim, necessarily acceptable in the Church?

No.

First, there are notorious examples of quite unworthy books boasting ecclesiastical approval until the faithful’s consternation over such aberrations finally gets someone’s attention somewhere and the approvals are withdrawn. The decade-and-a-half argument over Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us (1968), which lost its imprimatur in 1984 after Roman intervention, lingers in Catholic conscientiousness to this day.

Second, and more importantly, and notwithstanding some “hyperbole” (CLSA New Comm. at 984) in the CDF instruction about ecclesiastical approval constituting a “juridical and moral guarantee”, the nihil obstat, the imprimatur, and the imprimi potest are, in the end, judgment calls made by ecclesiastical officers about how authors have presented their views on important (and often complex) Church teachings and practices, and are not themselves infallible exercises of the Church’s teaching office. One would like to think, of course, that all Church officers are qualified for and committed to performing their duties in this area but, even without reaching the extreme cases recalled above, differing analytic approaches can be followed and old-fashioned mistakes can and do happen in the course of such reviews.

So, Martin’s book apparently does not have a standard nihil obstat orimprimatur; it might or might not have a Jesuit theologian’s in-house certification of its avoidance of doctrinal error; it does have a Jesuit superior’s indication that, in his view, the book can be prudently published.

Thus, in short, to tout a religious superior’s imprimi potest as proof of one’s personal or authorial orthodoxy is to misconstrue what that certification is and what it means.

About Edward N. Peters 83 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

22 Comments

  1. Thanks for the explanations of the three forms of certification and the advice. Imprimi potest doesn’t match what Fr Martin claims and even there as you suggest it may not have been reviewed by a “noteworthy” theologian. As you suggest Fr J Martin is in error. Even if it were today not all theologians can be relied upon. With the divergence of views on LGBT on the highest levels I wonder if even the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat can be trusted. Perhaps, unless a respected ordinary like Chaput were available for an Imprimatur a Foreword [always signed by its author] by a known orthodox canon lawyer or theologian would be just as reliable.

    • Thanks for these explanations. Very illuminating to me, who was under the impression that an imprimatur and a nihil obstat were synonyms of good reading or fit for Catholics!
      I agree with Father Peter in his commentary.

  2. Fr. Martin’s superiors have just released a statement indicating that his book did go through a theological analysis. While they do not identify who performed that assessment, the new law does not require disclosure of that name, as was generally required under the old law. The canonical commentary I offered above applies as I indicated.

  3. Theological College (the National Seminary @ CUA) came to their senses and disinvited this heterodox Jebbie, thanks be to God. Remember: error has no rights!

    But President Garvey was at pains to distance CUA form the decision, recalling [fondly?] how he invited the heterodox priest to spread his doctrines last year, though they were contrary to Church teaching.

    Now don’t be too at ease yet! The Rector of the Theological College, Fr. McBrearity, wrote the following in his Rector’s Welcome letter to new seminarians: ““… the priesthood ceases to be the bridge, ‘the pontiff,’ and ends up as a mere function to be fulfilled.” In both these statements there is a challenge presented to the contemporary seminary. I believe that the contemporary seminary is challenged to prepare a future generation of diocesan priests who will be for everyone and everyday a “witness” and for everyone and everyday a “bridge.” At Theological College, this challenge guides and animates our formation program.”

    Now in the shadow of this Jebbie’s falsehood laden book, which also aims to build a bridge, what kind of bridge does Fr McBrearity desire to build at the Theological College at CUA? And is President Garvey on board with it?

  4. Looks like we are seeing the beginning of the unraveling of Father James Martin, media bully. First he gets his buddies at Twitter to shut down the account of someone who basically laughed at him. Now, all of his other media buddies are circling the wagons. He is proudly displaying letters of support from various other American Jesuits who no one in their right mind would trust. Then, Robert George sort of put a headlock on him – George tweeted that Martin rejected some church teachings. Martin tweeted back that he did not. Then George said, OK fine, can you verify that you believe that sexual relations are for a man and wife within a valid marriage? Martin fell silent. It seems he cannot bring himself to affirm church teaching. He won’t openly reject it, but it does appear that he will not affirm it. But of course, maybe in time he will affirm church teaching. We shall see.

    • You will wait a long time for that to happen. It won’t happen. It is likely he does not consider himself a heterosexual man. He has an agenda to change what should never be changed and he is given cover by the powers that be in the Vatican and in his Order to carry on.
      And he will.

    • A nice dream, but Fr Martin is much stronger than you think. He has the backing of non-Catholic billionaires to provide him all the money he needs to counter-attack on every level of social media. Admittedly, Robert George scored a touché in his tweet, but it will soon be forgotten in the Twitter-verse (crafty Fr Martin knows when to hold his tongue), and the onslaught of Martin’s LGBT… propaganda war will renew. This is very well planed as you can perhaps start to glimpse …

      And now we hear that “Vatican Whisks Another Alleged Pervert Priest to Safety—This One From Its D.C. Embassy.” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/vatican-whisks-another-alleged-pervert-priest-to-safetythis-one-from-its-dc-embassy ).

      Isn’t it clear to you and all which side Pope Francis and his minions are on?

  5. Martin enjoys high protection in Rome, al the way up to the top. That’s the real problem, and that’s the reason why so few stand up against him. The homo mafia in the Church is very powerful, as the Polish priest Fr. Dariusz Oko has extensively documented. It is time for a massive cleansing.

  6. Fr. Martin & ArchBishop Chaput (or Fr. Rutler) having a theological discussion – oh to be a fly on the wall! (With a tape recorder!)

  7. Here is a quote from one of the greatest saints ever regarding homosexuality. St. Catherine relays words of Our Lord, about the vice against nature, which contaminated part of the clergy in her time. Referrng to sacred ministers, He said: “They not only fail from resisting this frailty [ of fallen human nature]…but do even worse as they commit the cursed sin agains nature. Like the blind and stupid having dimmed the light of the understanding, they do not recoginze the disease and misery in which they find themselves. For this not only causes Me nausea, but displeases even the demons themselves, whom these miserable creatures have chosen as their lords. For Me, this sin against nature is so abominable that , for it alone, five cities were submersed, by virtue of the jugdment of My Divine Justice, which could no longer bear them…It is disagreable to the demon, not because evil displeases them and they find pleasure in good, but because their nature is angelic and thus is repulsed upon seeing such an enormous sin being commited. It is true that it is the demons who
    hits the sinner with the poisoned arrow of lust, but when a man carries out such a sinful act, the demons leaves.

    St.Catherine of Siena, El diabolo, in Orbas de Santa Catarina de Siena

    “Who is going to save our Church? Not our Bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops like bishops and your religious act like religious” – Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

  8. I like to compare the nihil obstat, the imprimatur, and the imprimi potest to the UL listing on electrical appliances. That’s a bare minimum certification that you can plug it into an electrical outlet and it won’t burst into flames. One could make a completely useless electrical fidget spinner and get a UL listing on it, even if it falls apart in use, as long as no one will get hurt when it disintegrates. Unfortunately, it looks as though Fr. Martin’s work is hurting lots of people and probably isn’t even deserving of such bare minimum certifications.

    • Look at the photo atop this article.
      It is the face of the protected class wishin the Catholic priesthood.
      His agenda is the gay agenda. It has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth.
      The Vatican knows this. The Vatican supports him. This is where we are.

  9. Furthermore, this is an example of why priests with SSA should probably *not* be ordained despite their possible many virtues. They are impossibly compromised or heroically virtuous, one of the two. In Martin’s case, given his veneration of Colbert, I’ guess on the former. Even he and Jesus are by his own description very, very close…

  10. “Thus, in short, to tout a religious superior’s imprimi potest as proof of one’s personal or authorial orthodoxy is to misconstrue what that certification is and what it means.”

    Depends on the context. I’ve seen the man maligned as a heretic, a Protestant, a false priest, and the antichrist. Well, the last one, almost. I do enjoy reading all the elder siblings falling over themselves to discredit a book they haven’t read and don’t care about. They can’t seem to get as many people fired as they did before 2013. So there’s that.

  11. That any Jesuit superior would allow this assault on Roman Catholic men and women by a priest under their authority is perhaps a larger scandal than the content of the book.
    The Jesuits manifestly no longer serve any purpose.
    They require suppression.

  12. What outrages me the most about Fr.Martin, is that he, and the Vatican, dare to hire many gay priest for high offices, ESPECIALLY after the horrific, callous and most tumultous and suffersome of all events in Church history: the gay clerical abuse of young people. You’d think the Holy Father who likes to be the one of mercy, would back off for a number of centuries from gay men.. it was gayism behind the scandal.. only a small percentage was pedophile, and the records bear that out. This is outrageous, especially to the victims and their families, to immediately invite them to the VAtican, orgies have occurred etc. Something is very seriously wrong with the Church.. Pope Francis seems half baked in his judgements, very disturbing. This whole clerical thing was a GAY takeover.. now the Church is officially inviting them into high places more and more. Absurd! It can’t go on. it will not go on! No mercy for clerical abused people! massive bias.. very unCatholic

  13. Oh Please…to tout you or this page as having any authority is self serving and misleading. I would trust the bishops and cardinals who have endorsed the book before I would trust the judgement of anyone here. By the way, the warning in this page doesn’t seem to apply; I see a lot of hate talk, but I guess because they agree with the headline, it must be OK.

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