Rorate Caeli

Book Review: The Church of Christ by Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton

The Church of Christ: A Collection of Essays by Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton. Ed. with an introduction by Christian D. Washburn. Tacoma, WA: Cluny Media, 2016. 362 pp. Paperback. $24.95. Publisher's page / at Amazon.

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. The needed renewal urged by the Second Vatican Council 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, committed to the unchanging dogmas of the Church but open to new insights and corrections in matters purely speculative or hypothetical. 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. This collection of essays is absolutely essential reading for any serious student of ecclesiology. It will serve as a corrective to the misbegotten attempts at renewal 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 Catholic and non-Catholic Churches simply in the fact that the former 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, but Fenton rightly stresses that that difference is derivative of a much more fundamental difference, that Christ dwells, as in his One Mystical Body, in the Catholic Church alone, not in any other 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. For four decades or more, misinterpretations of the enigmatic phrase “subsists in” (Lumen gentium, art. 8) have thrown us two removes from Fenton’s observation. First, the best theologians have simply contented themselves with the statement “The Catholic Church has the fullness of truth,” as though one can be the Church of Christ in degrees, Protestant communities approaching it to some extent and Orthodox all the more so. This was the first forgetfulness of dogma. Second, numerous theologians went further, claiming that the Catholic Church does not even have the fullness of truth. Or they pass this truth over in silence, as though it is embarrassing to claim too much for the Church. However, scholarship is now on the rise that defends the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. 

Washburn is among the protagonists of this good effort, as are Stephen Hipp, Guy Mansini, et alia. I have attempted to weigh in on this discussion as well. That the Catholic Church (the Universal Church consisting of Rome and all the churches united to Rome) is the only Church of Christ is, in fact, dogma, which no council could ever overturn, nor did any council (including Vatican II) overturn it. In order to return back to solid foundation in ecclesiology, one does a great service by reading the likes of Fenton and Journet. It is not Catholic practice to raze the foundations laid of old and erect new ones out of one’s head or on the basis of one’s own slanted reading of the “origins,” as though organic development pruned over centuries had been a complete abandonment of the Church by Divine Providence -- indeed, as though one’s own Zeitgeist were the rule of faith.

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.

I would note also that Fenton’s weaving of Scriptural data in his dogmatic and systematic approach to ecclesiology provides a wonderful model that should be imitated. Due to the excesses of historical criticism, recently revived scholastic practices of theology can tend to shy away from an appropriation of Scriptural data. Fenton reads the Scriptures responsibly, in a manner both reasonable and also indebted to the eyes of faith, and thus enables one to appreciate the mystery of the Church in an unexpected manner. For instance, he draws an analogy between the way our Lord is present to the Church today and 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 (which does not mean that “historical criticism” ought to be its soul).

I highly recommend this book, and anything else by Fenton you can get your hands on.

Dr. Christopher J. Malloy
University of Dallas