Book Review: The Church of Christ

Source: District of Asia

The Church of Christ, a collection of essays by Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton. Edited by Christian D Washburn, Seattle, Cluny media, 2017, Pp XVIII + 322. Price $25.95.

The Church of Christ is a collection of writings by Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton, a distinguished American theologian of the 20th century. Indeed, he was one of the best Ecclesiologist America ever produced. He taught ‘De Ecclesia’ at the Catholic University of America. And also assumed editors’ cap of the American Ecclesiastical Review from 1944 to 1963. The book under review has 18 brilliant articles from the American Ecclesiastical Review. The 18 articles are classed under 5 sections: the nature of the Church (5 articles), Magisterium (4 articles), the Church and Salvation (3 articles), Notes of the Church (5 articles) and the Church - State relation. Coming from the pen of one of the most talented writer and teacher, all articles are highly enlightening. We cannot summarize each article but we will attempt a few to show that this book is worth-reading nay, worth-studying. In the 1st article, the author after situating the treatise of de Ecclesia within the framework of theological treatises, argues that it still needs to be developed. He suggests that 2 aspects of the Church should also be focused in our text-books: the corporate charity as one of the notes of the Church and the intrinsic agitation between the 2 cities. The best suggestion, as also mentioned by St. Augustine and Pope Leo XIII (Humanum Genus) is timely. The second article is on ‘Our Lord’s presence in the Catholic Church’. “The Central, the most important fact about the Catholic Church, that which primarily differentiates it from every other religious organization on the face of the earth, is the living presence of Jesus Christ Our Lord within it (p.20)”. And then the author takes the task of defining what sort of Union exists between Our Lord and the Church. Again, this article gives much light especially in this day and age where ‘even the elect’ are forgetting the promise of Our Lord.

The third article (the Mystical Body and the definition of Catholic Church) explains the teaching of Pope Pius XII. In it he wrote, “if we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ… no expression more noble, more sublime or more divine than the phrase which calls it “Mystical Body of Jesus Christ” (AAS XXXV, p. 199). What kind of definition is this and how does it fit with ‘other’ definitions. He then develops the argument that it does not clash with the previous ones but rather ennobles it. From this article on, the author strives to show the point of Ecclesiology that is much denied these days: the visibility of the Church. For him, it is entirely unacceptable. It would have been better if the editor would have added “the Scholastic Definitions of the Catholic Church” (AER III (1944), pgs 59-69, 131-145, 212-228) before this one. Article 4 explains how to understand the term ‘body’ and ‘soul’ as regards to the Church. He argues how St. Robert Bellarmine is quoted constantly out of context and thus misunderstood in the modern ecclesiology. Here he reproves many modern ecclesiologists (esp. Card. Journet without naming him).

Article 9 also catches our interest as it answers an important question. If the Pope has personal infallibility then why do we need an ecumenical council? What is the use of it? Very interesting indeed.  Articles 10 – 12 presents the theological proof for the necessity of the Catholic Church regarding salvation of souls. What do we mean by ‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus?’  What does ‘church’ as a visible entity have to do with salvation? It purposely stays on the level of principle without entering the level of polemics. A must read for all priests!

The last article is a very refreshing one, especially coming from an American clergy. The so-called ‘Americanist’ mentality has pervaded the minds of many and causes an eclipse of true doctrine. In this article, he attempts to show the principles underlying traditional Church – state doctrine and he explains with great ardor the position of Pope Leo XIII that the ‘American situation’ is definitely not the ideal to hold. And it is not charity to remain indifferent about the salvation of our fatherland…

Overall, it is a great book. One word about the editor – His biography about Fenton does not bring out the whole truth about him. His combat against the Neo- modernists (Fr. Murray, Congar etc.) is not mentioned and the fact that he died heart-broken (cf his diary) is not mentioned. The bibliography at the end is not complete and we also notice a few minor slips. Of course, this does not touch the essence of the book.

Here is a man who knows the Church and above all loves the Church. We cannot but wish that this book be read and studied by all priests especially those who have responsibility to teach ‘De Ecclesia’. And the others will also find ample material for their catechism and also for their ‘combat’ against the modern error. The get up and presentation of this work makes its use as attractive as it is profitable.

Fr. Therasian Babu SSPX