Guest Columnists

Read Books But Beware of Bad Ones

By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD

Spiritual reading has made a lot of great saints. For instance, very instrumental to the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, is precisely reading books that would nourish the spirit well. We may know his story already, which happened 500 years ago.

On May 20, 1521, during the Battle of Pamplona, Iñigo Lopez de Loyola was hit by a cannonball which severely broke his leg. Recovering from the injury forced him to be homebound for a while. Finally, left without many options and confined to the four walls of his room, he was led into spiritual reading. Two books were available for him to read. One was about the life of Christ, and the other was a collection of the lives of saints. The readings of these books inspired him to be generous in his life to serve God and his Church.

While it is excellent to read books, we need to be always careful of the kind of books we read. I find very graphic the words of St. Josemaria to illustrate this point: “Books: don’t buy them without advice from a Christian who is learned and prudent. It’s so easy to buy something useless or harmful. How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arm, and it turns out to be a load of rubbish!” (The Way, n. 339).

A canonical system in the Catholic Church will help us know what books can be safe to read or harmful to the soul. This system has been practical and helpful when choosing what books to use in our spiritual reading. That is the canonical institution of the “imprimatur.”

As a control system, “imprimatur” dates back to the foundations of the first universities in Europe in the mid-14th century. Catholic universities used this system to examine books and their doctrine. Leo X (1513-1521) gave the first general norm on imprimatur in a document entitled Inter Sollicitudines. Such norms were further developed in time until the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) through the Apostolic Constitution Officiorum ac munerum.

The word “imprimatur” means “let it be printed.” After a thorough review, the imprimatur is granted to assess that the text contains nothing contrary to the Catholic faith. The review is usually done by a book censor — censor librorum — or by a delegated censor — censor deputatus — who will give their approval through a permit called “nihil obstat,” which means “nothing obstructs [its printing].”

In the case of authors who belong to a religious institute, their superiors must issue their consent through the declaration of imprimi potest or imprimi permititur, which means permitted to be printed. However, the final approval is still the responsibility of the bishop of the diocese where the author belongs or the bishop of the diocese where the book will be printed.   

The rule on imprimatur fulfills the responsibility of the shepherds to preserve the integrity of the faith and morals (cf. canon 823). But, on the other hand, Catholic readers, in general, should be responsible for their corresponding obligation to keep their faith intact by reading good books and being cautious about bad ones.

Having our Catholic faith as a great treasure, we must do everything to safeguard it.

Msgr. Achacoso is the author of ‘Due Process in Church Administration’ (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican City), and Administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, NY.

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