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Sunday, January 22, 2017

A NEW BOOK BY MSGR. FENTON: One of America's Greatest Theologians

By:   Christopher Malloy
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A NEW BOOK BY MSGR. FENTON: One of America's Greatest Theologians

A Remnant Book Review

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to publish the following review of the excellent new book by Dr. Christian Washburn. Many thanks to Dr. Malloy (whose website is for sending us his excellent review of a book we heartily recommend. MJM 

This collection of essays from one of the greatest American theologians, Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton, makes an urgent and marvelous contribution to the renewal of Catholic theology today. The hermeneutic of rupture has been utterly disastrous in just about every field of theology. Modernists have succeeded in putting bushels over the lights of so many life-giving dogmas, that the darkness draws its heavy curtain over the minds of the young, not knowing better because ignorant of Tradition. These dogmas indeed give life and light: They are clarity in the darkness of confusion, water in the desert of ignorance, sustenance on our weary journey. Because of the triumphalism of the modernists, the needed renewal urged by the Second Vatican Council has been derailed. The renewal must be pursued once again.

The thoughtful, balanced, orthodox, and acute analysis of Msgr. Fenton serves as a prime example of the kind of renewal that was and remains desirable, one in organic continuity with the great Tradition, one committed to the unchanging dogmas of the Church, one that is open to new insights and corrections in matters that theologians legitimately dispute. Fenton is also clearly a man of prayer, a theologian on his knees yet one who truly practices the rigorous scientific discipline of dogmatic theology. (Let not “theology on the knees” be used as excuse for woeful heresies, dressed in fanciful and mythical rhetoric. The theological poets have gotten away with heresy because of the ‘beautiful’ way their works seem to read. But what is false is not beautiful but a sham mockery of truth.) This collection of Fenton’s essays is absolutely essential reading for any serious student of ecclesiology. It will serve as a corrective to the countless misbegotten attempts at renewal, all of which suffer from an unwillingness to embrace all the unchanging dogmas of faith. It will also invite a return to that thoughtfulness and nuance which in fact informed pre-conciliar theology, a thoughtfulness open to legitimate development.

Fenton also exhibits the knack of getting to the real heart of the matter. For instance, he laments that too often ecclesiologists present the chief difference between the Catholic Church and other churches and ecclesial communities simply in the fact that the former alone has the “fullness of truth” whereas the latter have only a “portion,” even if a large one, of that truth. Such a difference does exist. Only in the Catholic Church is found, and can ever be found, the “fullness of the truth”. Indeed, so disastrous is the current state of ecclesiology, that many never even mention this difference, binding others to their own blindness (wittingly or no, it matters not, as far as the common good of the Church goes).

Back to Fenton. He rightly stresses that this difference—fullness of saving truth in the Catholic Church alone vs. partial appreciation of saving truth in other communities—is derivative of a much more fundamental difference, namely, that Christ dwells, as in his One Mystical Body, in the Catholic Church alone, not in any other church. That is, the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church is the Only True Church founded by Jesus Christ; no others are this Church. Anyone familiar with post-conciliar theology will recognize that such an insight is almost completely passed over in silence, inevitably distorting the true portrait of the landscape that the theologian has the duty to depict if a true ecumenism is ever to achieve genuine union. Why? True ecumenism aims at the union of all ecclesial bodies in the One True Church. True ecumenism aims at the incorporation into the Catholic Church of any community claiming to be a Christian church. (In a recent essay in the Josephinum, I argue this point out among others.)

I would note also that Fenton’s weaving of Scriptural data in his dogmatic (aka, “systematic”) approach to ecclesiology provides a wonderful model that can be discipled. Due to the excesses of historical criticism, recently revived scholastic practices of theology can tend to shy away from an appropriation of Scriptural data. This is a problem. Fenton, by contrast, reads the Scriptures responsibly, in a manner both reasonable and also indebted to the eyes of faith. Thus, he enables one to appreciate the mystery of the Church in unexpected and edifying ways. For instance, he draws an analogy between the way our Lord is present to the Church today from the very incarnate way He was present to a band of men two millennia ago. This marvelous comparison can be contemplated with perusal of attention and yield considerable fruit. It is neither inimical to nor indebted to historical critical approaches; it transcends them. Indeed, it already anticipates the call of the Second Vatican Council to render Scripture the “soul” of theology. (Again, let not that call be considered a call to make historical criticism the soul of theology. That would be a monstrous misreading.)

Washburn’s presentation of Fenton makes one want to read not only the essays in this volume but Fenton’s other essays and books as well. It is splendid.



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Last modified on Sunday, January 22, 2017