Nihil Obstat

Intolerance within religions has been on my mind lately.  Every religion has a history and the study of that history demonstrates that religious leadership reflects the rise of dominant personalities to the top.  Once that dominant personality reaches the zenith of leadership, he (and it usually is a he) decides what it is proper, or orthodox, for others to believe.  I was thinking about this while seeing a book with an imprimatur.  There is a wide range of belief within Catholicism.  Books which teach official doctrine, or which are used for educational purposes, require an imprimatur for widespread use.  An imprimatur requires a review process and includes a designated bishop to declare the work “without error.”  In the context of scholarship, this practice makes certain assumptions—that humans of a certain rank can declare a statement an error or fact.  A theological fact.

Theological facts don’t really exist.  If a fact is something that has empirical measures to determine its truth or falsity, theology falls outside the pale.  Ultimately it will come down to the word of one person outweighing that of another.  And as doctrine changes over time it would seem that old imprimaturs might expire.  The idea is that when something is declared without error, it is without error at that time.  As centuries progress, new empirical facts are discovered that impinge on theological “facts.”  The idea that any one word is final seems hopelessly time-bound.  I’m not picking on Catholicism here, because many religions have official teachings that rank as non-Catholic nihil obstats. It’s merely a convenient example.

The fact hidden in plain sight in cases of religions not permitting diverse views is that censorship stands behind it.  It’s no wonder that in a world increasingly supportive of diversity that “one size fits all” theology has come to be questioned.  Religions, however, lose their authority if they can’t declare the truth or falsity behind a proposition.  Bishops come from priests.  And priests come from seminarians.  I used to teach seminarians—I don’t know if any of my former students have become Episcopalian bishops or not—opportunities are about as rare as teaching posts.  The point is, those who make such doctrinal decisions had to learn them partially from the academic community that grants degrees.  As the academy opens up to new ways of looking at things, future imprimaturs will reflect the realities of their times.  Religions—all religions—evolve and change.  What may be an error today might look quite different in a future light.  Perhaps tolerance now will anticipate where we’ll eventually be, in the truth of the time.

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

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