Doctrine, Truth & Imprimatur


I understand that the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur stamps that Catholic books bear simply mean “let it be printed”, i.e. none of it contradicts Catholic doctrine.

All the same, is there a difference between the Imprimatur on Aquinas’ Summa and, say, the Imprimatur on the work of Christopher West or Scott Hahn?

Is there some way of knowing what Catholic writing is doctrine, what is an exposition of doctrine, and what is just a nice idea?

So far, with the exception of the Catechism, I’ve been reading it all as if it’s just human wisdom and human ideas, using my own discernment to decide what’s right and what’s not. I have begun to realise that this is maybe too Protestant an approach to theology though. How can I know for sure?


Personally I feel that the Imprimatur has been watered down in modern times. So, personally, I would say that yes, there is a difference between the Imprimatur on the Summa vs. an Imprimatur on some modern theological works. Not that I have anything against Scott Hahn, or Christopher West. From reading their books I would have to say that they are certainly deserving of the Imprimatur. The Imprimatur is only as good as the Bishop who grants it…and Bishops have been known to disagree.
I would say that you are correct in reading some works as human ideas, opinions and wisdom. I have found further enrichment by actually comparing some books I have read to actual Church doctrine. I have found that some authors have a gift for explaining teaching and doctrine in a way far more enlightening then the explanations of the Catechism.


Catholic ecclesiology does not bind you to assent to the writings of Catholc authors, even if they were to have an imprimatur. It is their opinion, and opinion is not binding.

Catholic doctrine comes from the lawful pastors of the Church, either by solemn or extraordinary exercise of the magisterium or by the ordinary exercise of the magisterium. Those vested with magisterial powers to which you must listen and submit to include the magisterial teachings of the Roman Pontiff and your local ordinary (eg. your diocesan bishop). To the extent that they appoint other lawful pastors to teach you in their name, you also must listen to and submit to their teachings insofar at they are congruent with the Roman Pontiff and the diocesan bishop.

In other words, your parish pastor, your diocesan bishop, and the Roman Pontiff are those you are obliged to listen to and submit to (cf. Heb 13:17). Other Catholics, even if they are clergy, but have no sacerdotal authority over you cannot bind your assent, unless they’ve been given the authority to do so by these three.

Is there some way of knowing what Catholic writing is doctrine?

Yes. Ask your pastor, your bishop, or if needed, the Roman Pontiff. Not all their communication (either written or oral) to you will be “doctrine” (certain teaching of the Church). If there is confusion, you can simply ask them. That’s the beauty of having a LIVING magisterium–two-way communication. :wink:


Is there some way of knowing what Catholic writing is doctrine, what is an exposition of doctrine, and what is just a nice idea?

Like you, I like things cut and dry.

The one book that is black and white, and that is Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Dr. Ludwig Ott. I think every Catholic should own this book.


Ott tells you in the preface and introduction the meaning of Dogma, the different levels of dogma and the difference between dogma and doctrine.

Example: A “De Fide” dogma is written in granite. You are required to believe this as a Catholic. De Fide means “of faith” or “from faith.” On the other hand, a dogma labeled “Sent Certa” is not written in granite, but slate. Sent Certa means "it is certain, and so it is certain that you are required to believe this as a professed Catholic. It’s not as certain as a dogma written upon Granite though. De Fide is a higher level Dogma.

Anyway, this book tells you all the Dogmas in bold print and their level (De Fide, Sent Certa, etc…). It also gives an explanation of the dogma and what heresies it opposes. It gives references from Scripture and from the Church Fathers.

I REALLY like this book!

If you want to do Apologetics, buy this book! I’ve used it so much that I’ve already spilled iced tea and root beer all over it (my favorite things to drink while blogging).

I do believe Catholic Answers Forum sells this book in their shop! Do a search on it.

God Bless!


I like Dr. Ott’s text too. However, it is a book of well supported opinion. It does not include all dogmas. For example, Cardinal Raztinger in his Professio Fideidescribes the “the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts” as "de fide." Yet Dr. Ott does not even discuss it. See here: Catholic Dogmas and Doctrine

Dr. Ott’s text is a pretty good book, but it should be understood as a theology book, not a exhaustiive and definitive commentary of the teachings of the Catholic Church.


I also wonder about reliability of the “Imprimatur”.
An example follows illustrating how Imprimaturs may appear to favor opposing positions on what I’d previously assumed to be a settled Christological question.
Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (in OUR SAVIOUR AND HIS LOVE FOR US; Imprimatur; published by TAN) allows for no ignorance whatsoever in the human nature of Christ, relying on the consensus among the great scholastics of yore and upon papal teaching up to Pius XII. Yet a moral theologian who is highly regarded among American Catholics who desire to adhere faithfully to the “Deposit of Faith”, Germain Grisez, (in THE WAY OF THE LORD JESUS/CHRISTIAN MORAL PRINCIPALS) casts doubt on the traditional teaching (that we cannot safely attribute ignorance to Christ) in the first volume of his multi-volume work on Moral Theology (which has an Imprimatur).
Dr. Ludwig Ott’s work also has an Imprimatur, and supports Fr. R. Garrigou- Lagrange’s position.

ANOTHER PROBLEM---- Since the scriptures themselves are subject to the interpretation of the magesterium, shouldn’t we assume also that all the rest of the church’s documents since the times of the Apostles are also just as subject to magesterial interpretation? Given this, when can the individual Catholic layman be satisfied that his/her understanding - - of a scriptural passage, a dogmatic statement of an ecumenical council or pope interpreting that passage, or an encyclical clarifying that dogmatic statement - - is correct?


I think your question is answered best by St. Ephraim…

St. Ephraim the Syriac, 4th century:
***Lord, who can grasp all the wealth of just one of your words. What we understand is much less than what we leave behind. Like thirsty people who drink from a fountain, for your word, Lord, has many shades of meaning, just as those who study it have many points of view. The Lord has colored his word with many hues, so that each person who studies it can see in it what he loves. He has hidden many treasures in his word, so that each of us is enriched as we meditate on it. The word of God is a tree of life that from all its parts offers you fruit that is blessed. It is like that rock that is open in the desert, which from all its parts gave forth a spiritual drink. He, who comes into contact with some share of its treasure, should not think that the only thing contained in the word is what he himself has found. He should realize that he has only been able to find that one thing from among many others. Nor, because only that one part has become his should he say that the word is void, empty, and look down on it. Because he could not exhaust it, he should give thanks for its riches. Be glad that you are overcome and do not be sad that it overcame you. The thirsty man rejoices when he drinks, he is not downcast because he cannot empty the fountain. Rather let the fountain quench your thirst, than have your thirst quench the fountain. Because if your thirst is quenched and the fountain is not exhausted, you can drink from it again whenever you are thirsty. But if, when your thirst is quenched, the fountain also is dried up, your victory will bode evil for you. So be grateful for what you have recieved and don’t grumble about the abundance left behind. What you have received and what you have reached is your share. What remains is your heritage. What at one time you are unable to receive, because of your weakness, you will be able to receive at other times, if you persevere. Do not have the presumption to try to take in one draft what cannot be taken in one draft. And do not abandon out of laziness what you may only consume little by little.

*[St. Ephraim, cited by Dr. Scott Hahn, *The End: A Study of the Book of Revelation, (St. Joseph Communications, audio series)]


Thanks Dave for the St. Ephraim quote. It would then seem that any lack of diligence whatever in seeking truth (or TRUTH) would be a sin, while any lack of humility in accepting our ignorance would also be a sin. – Jer


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit