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The Church of Christ:
A Collection of Essays by Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton

by joseph clifford fenton
edited with an introduction by christian d. washburn
cluny, 362 pages, $25.95

Laying the Foundation:
A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics and Fundamental Theology

by joseph clifford fenton
emmaus, 516 pages, $27.95

The Theology of Prayer
by joseph clifford fenton
cluny, 290 pages, $25.95

For a moment it seemed that Joseph Clifford Fenton (1906–1969) would be remembered as one of the men who determined the course of Catholic thought. As one of the brightest students of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, he had full command of the neoscholastic thought that had been magisterially recognized as the Church’s perennial philosophy. As editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review during its mid-century heyday, he guided one of the more influential theological journal in English. When Fr. John Hugo and Dorothy Day advanced novel theories on Catholic pacifism, Fenton refuted them. When Fr. Leonard Feeney said that only faithful Catholics could be saved, Fenton wrote a book against his error. When the Jesuit John Courtney Murray began to question the Church’s opposition to religious liberty, Fenton rose to the challenge. When the Second Vatican Council was called, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani invited Fenton to Rome to serve as his peritus at the council. Fenton was appointed to the preparatory Theological Commission, the Doctrinal Commission, and the Commission on Faith and Morals. But the preparatory work of these commissions was set aside. Fr. Murray, who had been summoned to Rome as Francis Cardinal Spellman’s peritus, would help draft Dignitatis Humanae. Fenton, his work wrecked and his health failing, quietly resigned his professorship at the Catholic University of America in 1963 and went to work as a parish priest. In six years he was dead.

Fifty years later, Fr. Fenton’s reputation is enjoying an unexpected revival in some segments of American Catholicism. Two of his six books have been put back into print, alongside a new collection of essays. These books reveal the strengths and limits of his neoscholastic approach. Like many Roman theologians working between the Vatican councils, Fenton believed that the scholastic method of theology and even its terminology were constants that would not change and could not change without threatening the authenticity of the Word of God. Throughout his career as a professor and as an editor, he appealed to the authority of Vatican I, the papal encyclical tradition, and other ecclesiastical pronouncements as the sources of his theological argumentation. For him, the appeal to these authorities was the surest way to ward off the dangers of a modernism that was as threatening to divine revelation as were Gnosticism, Montanism, and Arianism in the early Church.

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Fenton upheld the thesis-hypothesis tradition on separation of church and state (i.e., union between church and state was the ideal relationship, but where that was impossible, as in the United States, the Church could accept the condition of separation as licit and expedient). Fenton followed Leo XIII’s Longinqua Oceani (1895) in this regard. The American separation of church and state was not the ideal relationship, but it could be tolerated. Fenton, interpreting what he called traditional Catholic principles, held that societies as well as individuals had a religious obligation to worship God: “If they fail to make that acknowledgement, their conduct is objectively lacking a good which it should include.” The state had an objective obligation to worship God, and therefore the ideal relationship was one of the union of the Catholic Church and the state. Longinqua Oceani stated “that in some cases the non-profession of the Catholic religion by the civil society was a definite moral wrong.” Separation ultimately was not ideal or even satisfactory because it tended to deny or neglect the fundamental superiority of the spiritual over the temporal. Most of what Fenton wrote on this score was in opposition to the Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s innovative approaches to religious freedom. Murray’s theology of church and state, according to Fenton, manifested the so-called heresy of Americanism, a movement condemned by Leo XIII’s Longinqua Oceani and Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899).

Though Fenton was a manualist, he frequently criticized the weaknesses of the manuals and sought to improve them. He warned that the scholastic treatises on the Church that were used in many seminaries were “tragically inadequate,” and they were not sufficiently informed by the biblical narrative, biblical images of the Church, or the biblical emphasis on mutual love as a characteristic of the Church. Many of those manuals, he saw, were excessively preoccupied with the external dimensions of the Church, following Robert Bellarmine’s stress on the visible elements: profession of the same faith, celebration of the same sacraments, and subjection to legitimate ecclesiastical authority, especially the successors of St. Peter. He lamented their failure to incorporate the theology of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943), which would have balanced the excessive emphasis on the visible dimension of the Church. Fenton’s Laying the Foundation copiously quotes from Scripture to emphasize the biblical source of the Catholic theological and apologetical tradition. Fenton’s pre–historical-critical approach to the Bible and his collection of biblical texts might provide those in the Catholic tradition, who are also pre-critical in their approach to the Bible, an introduction to the biblical foundation for basic Catholic doctrines: the Trinity, Incarnation, redemption, and the Church.

By the 1950s, the manual approach to teaching theology in the seminaries came under increasing criticism. The Jesuit moral theologians John C. Ford and Gerald A. Kelly, for example, noted in Contemporary Moral Theology (1958) the widespread clerical and seminarian discontent with the manual theologies and the emerging theological critiques of the manual tradition. The neoscholastic framework in which the manualists operated had failed to address the issues already raised by the European and American Catholic revival movements in liturgy, the Bible, history, and social justice—all of which had significant bearing on the manner of framing theological issues. By the time I started studying theology in the early 1960s at St. John’s University in Minnesota, the traditional manuals of theology were no longer used.

In 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced the coming of an ecumenical council, most in the United States and elsewhere had no idea what a council might mean for the Church. Fenton, using Vatican I as his model for church councils, was fairly certain that a new council would do what Vatican I had done: condemn errors, define dogmas as infallible statements of Christian truth, and build up the body of Christ. He expected that nothing would change and that a council would only confirm the previous teachings of the Church. Past precedents were the key to future anticipations. Fenton told readers of his “The Ecumenical Council and Christian Union” (1959) that the council’s ecumenical work would amount to nothing more than the Church’s previous emphasis on a “return of dissident Christians to the one true fold of Jesus Christ.” Fenton’s predictions were off the mark and out of tune with what had been emerging in theological reform movements after World War II. Vatican II brought to an end the neoscholastic manual tradition in theology that was so central to Fenton’s work.

The republication of Fenton’s works reflects a revived interest in neoscholastic theology in some parts of American Catholicism. Certainly these texts have historical value. Fenton’s theology represents the major theological tradition of Catholicism between Vatican I and Vatican II, a period in which American Catholicism grew to maturity and developed strong ecclesiastical institutions and a religious and sacramental life that enjoyed widespread participation. Fenton’s theology reflected the confidence, security, and certainty of that era. The neoscholastic theological tradition, which Fenton upheld, attempted to present church teachings in a coherent and systematic fashion that emphasized the reasonableness and credibility of those teachings. In Fenton’s presentation, the Catholic Church proposes “doctrines in the same sense and with exactly the same meaning which they possessed when the Apostles and Jesus Himself enunciated them.”

Fenton’s work lacked a historical consciousness of the development of doctrine and suffered, like some other past and present theologies, from a theological amnesia, which requires the retrieval of neglected doctrinal or theological emphases. Fenton rarely engaged other Catholic (to say nothing of Orthodox and Protestant) theological traditions that were emerging in the twentieth century; failed to grapple with current philosophical perspectives (unlike Aquinas); and infrequently mentioned the contemporary liturgical, biblical, and historical theological revivals in Europe and even in the United States that were attempting to recover elements of the longer Catholic tradition that neoscholastics had either forgotten or neglected. Reading his theology also helps us understand why he and others in his theological tradition found it difficult to accept developments that were taking place at the Second Vatican Council.

Nonetheless, theological forgetfulness also influences those in the post–Vatican II era who have overlooked or neglected some of the enduring dimensions of the Catholic theological tradition that were so central to Fenton’s works. One sees some of these strengths in his Theology of Prayer. He begins each chapter in neoscholastic fashion with a series of theses that are subsequently demonstrated and developed. The text is not a how-to book, but a quasi-theological commentary on Aquinas’s question 83, on prayer, in the Summa Theologiae II-II. Fenton wants Catholics to understand what prayer is, what questions of universal concern arose on it in the tradition, and how it fits into a Christian’s life. After defining prayer as “the raising of the mind to God, or the petition of fitting things from God” in the words of St. John Damascene (who died in 749), Fenton distinguishes the various parts of prayer in order to get a deeper understanding of prayer itself (distinguishing in order to unite). He also raises questions about the reasons for prayer, questions that recur throughout the history of Christianity. If God is all-knowing and has a providential care of the universe, for example, why pray? Why pray if God’s mind does not change? Questions like these remind us that prayer is not just a pious practice but a serious intellectual affair—one of the real benefits of the scholastic tradition. Fenton, too, puts all prayer, individual as well as communal, in the context of public worship, maintaining that all prayer ultimately either leads to or flows from the Eucharistic celebration, the public prayer of the Church. Fenton’s Theology of Prayer is well worth reading, along with Aquinas’s question on the subject.

Fenton’s work in apologetics, Laying the Foundation (originally published under the title We Stand With Christ), has been superseded by the post–Vatican II theologians of fundamental theology, especially Avery Cardinal Dulles and David Tracy. Dulles, for example, considered apologetics part of a fundamental theology that presupposed faith. He criticized both those such as Fenton who used the biblical tradition as historical narratives that provided objective, credible evidence for belief and those value-free historians who critiqued the biblical tradition.

Fenton had a strong confidence in reason and its ability to uncover objective evidence for beliefs. In Laying the Foundation, he frequently draws attention to a Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, as that relationship was defined in Vatican I’s Dei Filius. There are reasons for faith—not that reason could lead to faith, which is a gift of grace—but reason could provide grounds for the credibility of faith and religious practice. Today, when generations of Catholics have very little understanding of Catholic doctrine, to say nothing of the intelligibility of faith, it might be helpful to revisit how neoscholastic theologians sought to provide American Catholics with reasons for the faith. Certainly something has gone wrong when large segments of the American Catholic population are ignorant of basic doctrine. Reasoning helps to make faith intelligible and not only a matter of trust and confidence in God. Making faith intelligible was one of the great achievements of the scholastic and neoscholastic tradition.

Fenton’s apologetic draws attention to traditional Thomistic arguments for the existence and attributes of God as a foundation for all apologetics. His treatment of the subject is cursory, and contemporaries would be better served by reading the questions on divine existence and attributes in Aquinas’s two major Summas. Nonetheless, Fenton highlights the fact that there are reasons for believing that God exists and ways of understanding the divine attributes. In view of the rise of a cultural or practical as well as intellectual atheism, Fenton’s approach may have some value. But even more important than the rise of atheism is a lack of a consciousness of God in people’s lives, something professors of theology encounter in many of their students. For scholastics like Fenton, one raised a consciousness of God by engaging the intellect in a search for reasons for belief in the existence of God and by examining the various divine attributes the tradition has identified. It is not enough, for example, to say, as some catechists do, that God is love or to present God as all-merciful. God is also just, and it is a serious intellectual and theological issue to reconcile divine justice and mercy. Examining the various attributes of the divine and trying to reconcile them to one another, as the scholastics did, makes faith in God more understandable; step by step in this intellectual discovery process, intelligibility can emerge, and intelligibility can lead to the contemplation of the incomprehensibility of God. The scholastics and their neoscholastic heirs understood that consciousness of God demands serious intellectual engagement.

The Church of Christ, a collection of Fenton’s essays on ecclesiology, shows the state of the neoscholastic theology of the Church prior to the council. For Fenton, as for the Baltimore Catechism, the Catholic Church was the one true Church established by Jesus Christ. He supported this contention by writing a number of articles on the marks or notes of the Church as they were articulated in the Nicene Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Those articles, although dated in the light of Vatican II, are still valuable for explaining the notes to Catholics who recite the creed every Sunday.

The relationship between the Catholic Church and salvation, a hotly contested issue in American Catholicism that was widely reported in the American press in the 1940s, drew forth from Fenton a series of articles on the subject, some of which are included in The Church of Christ. The Jesuit Leonard Feeney initiated the controversy when he asserted that the traditional theological dictum extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“no salvation outside the Church”) meant that only faithful Catholics could be saved. In 1949, the Holy Office’s Suprema Haec Sacra condemned Feeney’s interpretation, Boston’s Archbishop Richard Cushing removed Feeney’s priestly faculties, and his Jesuit superiors dismissed him from the Society of Jesus. After refusing to obey a Vatican summons to Rome, he was publicly excommunicated in 1953. Feeney and the religious community he formed after his excommunication were eventually reconciled to the Church in 1972.

Prior to the Roman condemnation, Fenton censured Feeney’s “blasphemous doctrine that men are blameworthy precisely by reason of their invincible ignorance.” Like Feeney, Fenton feared the increase of religious indifference in American society and saw the necessity of the Catholic Church as the instrumental or social means of salvation. Although Fenton upheld the “traditional dogma” of extra ecclesiam, he, unlike Feeney, interpreted that dictum in a way that allowed for the possibility of salvation through the Church for those outside the Church. This was, he held, the traditional Catholic interpretation of the phrase, one that acknowledged the possibility of salvation for those who were faithful to Christ but invincibly ignorant of the true Church.

After the Roman indictment, Fenton wrote several other articles on the subject and summarized his position in The Catholic Church and Salvation (1958). The extra ecclesiam doctrine meant that no one could be saved “unless he is within the Church either in re or by either an explicit or an implicit votum [desire for the Church].” Such was, Fenton claimed in “The Meaning of the Church’s Necessity for Salvation” (1951), the “standard terminology of most modern theologians on this subject.” This interpretation of extra ecclesiam had been asserted by Pope Pius IX’s Singulari Quadam (1854) and Vatican I’s first schema on the Constitution on the Church; it was at the heart of Pope Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), included in Suprema Haec Sacra (1949), and taught in Humani Generis (1950).

In Lumen Gentium, Vatican II referred to Suprema Haec and clearly articulated this ancient teaching: “Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it [the council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. . . . Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” But it then adds a broader qualification: “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” After the council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirmed the teaching, providing the standard qualifications of the doctrine.

In an American society of voluntarism and pluralism, Fenton, like many others in the American Catholic tradition up to his time, knew that Catholicism was a distinctive minority tradition and that its people needed to be aware of the doctrinal elements in that tradition that distinguished Catholics from all others. At the same time, he did not represent a sect mentality because he saw that Catholic doctrine was intended for all human beings and, through the Church’s apologetical function, needed to be made universally intelligible. That was his aim, though his neoscholastic means were increasingly unable to accomplish that goal in the waning post–World War II years.

The republication of Fenton’s work indicates a continuing interest in his theology in a segment of American Catholicism. Fenton’s theology still attracts, I presume, because of its clarity, confidence in reason, emphasis on the intelligibility of doctrine, call to intellectual engagement with the faith, support for magisterial teachings of the Church, and criticisms of what he regarded as doctrinal minimalism and dissent.

Patrick Carey is emeritus professor of theology at Marquette University and the author of Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918–2008.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our June/July 2018 issue.