Fenton Returns

By Carey, Patrick | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 2018 | Go to article overview

Fenton Returns


Carey, Patrick, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


FENTON RETURNS

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 XlII'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. …

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