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Prayer Intentions for the Month of August, Dedicated to the Most Pure Heart of Mary

“O pure and Immaculate Virgin… rescue us from every necessity that presses upon us and from all the temptations of the devil; …deliver us from the fire that is not extinguished and from the outer darkness.” (Raccolta 339)

(First Friday and Saturday this week)

ATTENTION: Please see the beautiful Catechism video on our home page that has been generously contributed to this site by an anonymous donor. In a separate article coming soon, we will add our comments on this lovely work. Narrated in a voice especially appealing to children, this video will also serve as a suitable introduction to the faith for adults who are either just now converting or wish to refresh their knowledge of the faith as they first learned it from parents and teachers.


In presenting this excellent piece by Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton on the charity that must characterize theological debate, I would first like to make a few distinctions. Monsignor Fenton is speaking here of the charity that truly Catholic theologians, dedicated to defending, preserving and explaining the truth to others are to observe in the course of their written debates. His article was written not long after the Americanist and ecumenist, John Courtney Murray, wrote a scathing denouncement in the American Ecclesiastical Review of the Review’s editor, Rev. Francis Connell’s position on Church/state relations. At the time Murray was not yet publicly sanctioned by Pius XII for his views, so Fenton was holding back. But once such sanctions are no longer necessary because the pertinacity and intent of the writer is unmistakably apparent, one need not hesitate to lower the boom on heresy. This Fenton effectively did in later articles, but by then Murray was actually gaining ground.

Today those attempting to defend the Church and papal teaching rarely, if ever, enjoy the company of dedicated Catholic colleagues well educated in the faith who are also writing to champion the same unchangeable truths. Instead one is surrounded by those who are either critical of everything written or who actively challenge the Church’s teaching contained in such writings. The theologians Msgr. Fenton speaks about here were fighting in an arena that enforced rules and engaged referees but we, today, do not enjoy such a luxury. There is no one to call the final play; no court of final appeal. It’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, when simple obedience to papal teaching would have settled everything.

And this is exactly what Msgr. Fenton was fighting as he explained in an October 1961 article where he exposes Murray’s misuse and deliberate misapplication and misinterpretation of papal encyclicals, something that Traditionalist pseudo-clergy are wont to do. What Murray taught was basically that all men had the inherent right to embrace error and that no country or its leaders have the moral obligation to discern the truth and promote it. Nor should the Catholic Church be allowed to actively evangelize and proclaim that it is the only possessor of the truth. And in essence, Murrays views are reflected in the attacks made by so-called Catholics on writers insisting on strict obedience to the Roman Pontiffs and Canon Law. For they are saying in so many words that all are allowed their opinion on these matters and cannot be sanctioned, when the popes declare otherwise, as Fenton notes below.

In this first part of Msgr. Fenton’s article, he explains how the “modernist spirit” as defined by Pope Benedict XV, had already permeated the clergy and infected Catholic writers. And most particularly he points out the damage done to Catholic unity, which can be achieved today ONLY by faithfully following and obeying all the teachings of the continual magisterium. Fenton writes below: “Theological discussion is meant to contribute towards unity in the line of thought by reason of its accuracy. It attains that accuracy through the faithful adherence to the teaching of the Church’s magisterium… It is meant to serve the unity of charity within the true Church of Jesus Christ by showing Catholics how and why they must consider and treat each other as brothers in Christ precisely by reason of their membership in God’s household, the Church. Obviously any theological discussion, oral or written, which treats A FELLOW-MEMBER of the Church contemptuously and which works to bring others to despise or to dislike an opponent militates against this unity of charity within the Catholic Church.”

And this is especially true when one opponent insists on obedience to papal pronouncements and Canon Law, and the others insist on ignoring these laws and teachings or misinterpreting them, as in Murray’s case. Notice above that I have capitalized Fenton’s term, FELLOW-MEMBER.  I do not consider the opponents usually addressed here as true Catholics, (with a few exceptions), particularly Traditionalists openly defying papal authority and those who pretend to be pray-at-home-Catholics while embracing the Feeneyite heresy, Liberalism, or some other error condemned by the Church as heretical. Under Can. 2200, in our present situation, such people must be considered material heretics, hence non-members of the Church, especially if they have been sufficiently warned and notice of their errors has been provided to them. To protect our own faith, we have no choice  but to avoid them and leave any final decision to God Himself. Only a public retraction of their error, three years of penance and good behavior can readmit them to the Church per se, as taught by Canon Law.

That being said, we proceed to Msgr. Fenton’s article, which provides all true Catholics of good will the key to charity and unity in these times. (All emphases below is the editor’s.)

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Pope Benedict XV and the rules for theological discussion

(Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton, American Ecclesiastical Review, July, 1956)

One of the more interesting and important phenomena in the Catholic life of our time has been the emergence, here in the United States, of a rather considerable controversial literature in which Catholic writers have taken issue with theological views expressed by other Catholics. Unfortunately, along with the increase in the quantity of theological controversy, there has sometimes been more than a suggestion of quite untheological acerbity. In most instances, the men who lapsed from the standards of proper theological discussions were not the theologians themselves, but rather over-enthusiastic admirers of some real participant who succumbed to the temptation of trying to exalt their hero by trying to discredit a theologian who opposed some of his views. Nevertheless, all of those interested in the work of theological discussion should profit greatly from a consideration of what a great twentieth-century Roman Pontiff taught about the proper norms for such discussion. The Pontiff was Pope Benedict XV, and he included this material in his encyclical letter Ad beatissimi, issued Nov. 1, 1914.

The section of the document dealing with our subject is a rather long one, but it must be cited in its entirety. This knowledge of the entire section of the Ad beatissimi will give us the opportunity to see the immediate context of the various admonitions given here by Pope Benedict XV. It should prevent anyone from making or accepting any interpretation of an individual command or statement which might be incompatible with that context. The pertinent passage reads:

“The first element on which the success of any society of men depends is the concord of its members. We shall therefore make it one of Our chief cares to do away with, and to prevent, dissension and discord amongst Catholics, and thus to secure unity of plan and of action. The enemies of God and the Church clearly see that a way to victory over us is opened, whenever our defence is weakened by divided counsels; hence they are ever on the alert, when they find us united, to divide us by craftily sowing in our midst the seed of discord. Would that their scheme had not so often been successful, to the great detriment of religion.

“For this reason it is wrong that anyone should set aside the commands of lawful authority on the pretence that he does not approve of them; let each submit his opinion to the judgment of authority, and then obey as a duty of conscience. No private person is allowed, by the medium of books or of newspapers, to put himself forward as teacher in the Church. All know to whom God has given the teaching authority of the Church; to him it belongs to decide when and how he shall speak; the duty of others is to receive his words with reverence and obedience. In matters about which the Holy See has not given a decision, and in which, without injury to faith and ecclesiastical discipline, there may be differences of opinion, each may lawfully defend his own.

“But in such disputes there must be no offensive language, for this may lead to grave breaches of charity; each is free to maintain his own opinion, but with propriety, and if others do not accept his view, he must not cast suspicion on their faith or spirit of discipline. We desire that the practice, lately come into use, of using distinctive names by which Catholics are marked off from Catholics, should cease; such names must be avoided, not only as “profane novelties of words,” that are neither true nor just, but also because they lead to grave disturbance and confusion in the Catholic body. It is of the nature of the Catholic faith that nothing can be added to it, nothing taken away; it is either accepted in full or rejected in full: “This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and steadfastly, he cannot be saved.” There is no need to qualify by fresh epithets the profession of this faith; let it be enough for a man to say: “Christian is my name, Catholic my surname”; only let him take heed to be in truth what he calls himself.

“As for those who devote themselves to the good of the Catholic cause, the Church now asks of them not to be over-eager about useless questions, but, following the leadership of him whom Christ has appointed guardian and interpreter of the truth, to use all their power to preserve the faith in fullness and freedom from error. There are still men, and these not a few, who, as the Apostle says: “having itching ears, when they will not endure sound doctrine, according to their desires will heap to themselves teachers, and will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.”

“Some there are who, puffed up and emboldened in mind by the wonderful advance of natural science — an advantage due to the gift of God — have gone so far in their rashness that, exalting their own judgment above the authority of the Church, they have not hesitated to reduce the deep things of God, and the whole revelation of God, to the measure of their own understanding, and to accommodate them to the modern spirit. Hence have arisen the monstrous errors of Modernism, which Our Predecessor justly declared to be “a synthesis of all heresies,” and which he solemnly condemned.

‘That condemnation, venerable Brethren, We now renew to the full; and since this so pestilential evil has not been altogether stamped out, but even yet secretly creeps here and there, We admonish all to be most carefully on their guard against its contagion; one can well say of it, what Job said of another plague: “It is a fire that devoureth even to destruction, and rooteth up all things that spring.” We desire that Catholics should reject, not only the errors of Modernism, but also its tendency—what is called the Modernistic spirit; a spirit that fastidiously rejects what is ancient and is ever on the search for novelties — novelties in the way of speaking of divine things, in the celebration of divine worship, in Catholic practices, and even in the exercises of private devotion. We desire, therefore, that the old rule be religiously observed: “Let nothing be introduced but what has been handed down” (a rule which, while being inviolably observed in matters of faith, must be taken as a guide also in matters liable to change; although even here the sentence holds good: “Not new things, but in a new way.”?!; AAS, VI, 19, Nov. 25, 1914).

The lessons contained in this section of the Ad beatissimi can be summarized under a comparatively few headings.

(1) The first, and perhaps the most needed, lesson inculcated in the encyclical is that of the intimate and essential purpose of theological writing and of public discussion within the field of this science. These things are meant to contribute to the advantage of the Catholic Church itself, and Pope Benedict describes the setting aside of the commands of lawful doctrinal authority as wrong because such conduct divides and thus weakens the teaching activity of the Church. Obviously there are other reasons why it is morally reprehensible to take no heed of authoritative teachings within the Church. The Ad beatissimi, however, reminds us that one reason why such an attitude is wrong is that it is definitely disadvantageous to the unity and the solidarity of the Church itself.

Here Pope Benedict XV repeats a lesson previously given by Pope Pius IX in his letter Tuas libenter. In this document, Catholics engaged in the speculative sciences were warned that they must give an assent of divine faith, not only to dogmas which had been explicitly defined by oecumenical councils and by the Roman Pontiffs, but also to those doctrines “which are taught as divinely revealed by the ordinary magisterium of the Church spread throughout the world, and which consequently are accepted with universal and constant consent by the Catholic theologians as belonging to the faith.” And the Tuas libenter insists that these Catholic scholars, and particularly the theologians with whom he is primarily concerned, must act thus “in order that, by their writings, they may bring new benefits to the Church.”*

The Ad beatissimi brings out the fact that unity among the Catholics themselves is one of the advantages or benefits which the Church has a right to expect from the theological writings of its own children. The unity Pope Benedict seeks in the Ad beatissimi is a strong and highly definite thing. This is brought out much more clearly in the Latin original of the encyclical than in the authoritative translation published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the one quoted in this article. Where the English version describes the Holy Father as working “to secure unity of plan and of action” among Catholics, the Latin text says that he is striving “ut… ii [Catholici] iam unum idemque omnes et sentiant et agant — so that… they [Catholics] now all feel and act one and the same.” Here the language and the thought of Pope Benedict closely parallel those of Pope Leo XIII in his Immortale Dei. We can gather the full meaning of what is taught in the Ad beatissimi if we compare it with the passage in the older encyclical in which the same ideas are set forth. Pope Leo wrote:

“If, in the difficult times in which our lot is cast, Catholics will give ear to Us, as it behooves them to do, they will readily see what are the duties of each one in matters of opinion as well as action (quae sua cuiusque sint tam in opinionibus quam in factis officia). As regards opinion, whatever the Roman Pontiffs have hitherto taught, or shall hereafter teach, must be held with a firm grasp of mind, and, so often as occasion requires, must be openly professed. Especially with reference to the so-called “liberties” which are so greatly coveted in these days, all must stand by the judgment of the Apostolic See, and have the same mind.” (oportet Apostolicae Sedis stare iudicio, et quod ipsa senserit, idem sentire singulos, DZ 1880).

Thus, according to both these encyclicals, the unity of Catholics is meant to involve, in the realm of judgment, an attitude of whole-hearted acceptance of the teachings of the Roman Pontiff by all the members of the true Church. The members of God’s supernatural kingdom here on earth must actually hold what the supreme teacher whom God has set in charge of the Church as the Vicar of His Son teaches them to hold. In the Immortale Dei this is presented as the duty incumbent upon all Catholics. In the Ad beatissimi, it is described as the objective which Pope Benedict XV is working to accomplish. It is likewise an objective towards which all theological writing is expected to contribute. Any public lecture or writing by a theologian which militates against this objective is by that very fact a failure. Thus, in the realm of judgment, not only the unity of Catholics in the acceptance of Catholic dogma, but that agree- ment by which all are of the same mind with the Roman Church must stand as a valid norm of acceptability for public theological discussion.

The Ad beatissimi shows also that the union of charity must be served if public statements or writings in the field of theological discussion are to serve the Church as they are meant to do. The encyclical insists that Catholics must not only think the same way, but that they must also do the same things (“unum idemque et sentiant et agant”’). The factor that unites men in their activities within God’s supernatural kingdom on earth is, of course, divine charity, the supernatural love for God which necessarily involves the love of our neighbors, and particularly of those who are closest to us as our fellow members of Our Lord’s Mystical Body. Theological discussion is meant to contribute towards unity in the line of thought by reason of its accuracy. It attains that accuracy through the faithful adherence to the teaching of the Church’s magisterium.

It is meant to serve the unity of charity within the true Church of Jesus Christ by showing Catholics how and why they must consider and treat each other as brothers in Christ precisely by reason of their membership in God’s household, the Church. Obviously any theological discussion, oral or written, which treats A FELLOW-MEMBER of the Church contemptuously and which works to bring others to despise or to dislike an opponent militates against this unity of charity within the Catholic Church. In doing this, it not only fails to bring any new advantages to the Church, but it actually hinders Our Lord’s cause in this world.

We would be very much mistaken if we were to think that this lesson of the Ad beatissimi is merely a commonplace, something which no Catholic had ever dreamed of denying. Unfortunately, in contemporary Catholic writings there have been some men, a few of them extraordinarily influential, who have deplored “Catholic solidarity” or “group-consciousness” among Catholics. What these individuals seem to want is to have Catholics in the United States primarily and enthusiastically aware of their membership in our American civil society. They seem to imagine that special attention to and pride in their membership in the true Church of Jesus Christ, and the recognition of their fellow Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ who must be given an eminent position in the order of divine charity, are factors which would militate against this awareness of membership in the American nation.

One of the more disturbing symptoms of the ills of our time was the quiescent acceptance by Catholic critics generally of a book which claimed that Catholics were free to like or to dislike their fellow-members of the true Church. This assertion actually constituted the most practical and absolute denial of the function of charity as a bond of union within the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. It was a flat contradiction of Our Lord’s basic commandment to His disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13: 34).

It is the special glory of the Ad beatissimi that it speaks to us in our own time to remind us of the essentially practical import of this urgent command of Our Saviour, and that it brings the implication and the application of this command into the field of theological debate. The theologians of our time stood in urgent need of this lesson. (End of Pt. 1 of Fenton article)

And those calling themselves Catholics writing on the Internet today are in desperate need of this important lesson! (To be continued next week.)

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