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The Great Joseph Clifford Fenton

Many are the great American theologians that have suffered our forgetfulness. Among these surely ranks the great Joseph C. Fenton.

Fenton wrote on many and sundry topics of dogmatic theology. However, one of his areas of focus was ecclesiology. His work is deep. Indeed, he uses Scripture with great dexterity while engaging in the theological enterprise with the acumen of the scholastics. For instance, he suggests that one ought to contemplate the presence of Christ in the Church by analogy with his presence with that early band of disciples. Very incarnate presence. Also, he wants us to read even the Synoptics with that Eagle’s eye of John, so that we realize that when Christ is speaking to this or that person as narrated in the Synoptics, we recognize that he is at once Illuminating the mind of that person, that he may receive him.

Hence, “he spoke with authority.”

Fenton also engages the very thorny, but absolutely crucial, issue of the Necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation. Here, he has much to teach us. Before future posts, I’d like to cite an important point he makes regarding the watering down of this dogma:

“As a matter of fact the lax or ‘liberal’ interpretation of the dogma concerning the Church’s necessity for salvation is essentially a screen for a tepid or non-existent missionary spirit” (essay on “Theological Proof of the Necessity of the Church for Salvation, Part II).

Precisely here, he notes, is a double problem. As a matter of actual fact, the Church IS necessary. Hence, failure in missionary activity is depriving souls of the grace God wills them to receive. We are in it together, as many say. Part of this means that we must go out, if we have been blessed. Lord, give us strength to spread your word, and your Kingdom, which is the Catholic Church.

Whether Judgment and Condemnation Accord with the Gospel?

Objection: It seems that judgment according to works, especially condemnation of the evil-doers, conflicts with the Gospel. For the Gospel seems to preach only mercy and to condemn pharisaical self-righteousness.

On the contrary: St. Paul preaches, in Rom 2:

Who will render to every man according to his works. To them indeed, who according to patience in good work, seek glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life: But to them that are contentious, and who obey not the truth, but give credit to iniquity, wrath and indignation. Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek. But glory, and honour, and peace to every one that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

St. Paul preaches that this judgment is according to his Gospel. Furthermore, our Lord himself is the source behind the Gospel, and he preaches that he will judge the living and the dead. We confess this, furthermore, in the creed.

Judgment is the good act of the righteous ruler doing his duty. To fail in judgment is rebellion against the law. “But who cares about the pharisaical law”? Not all law is pharisaical. Rather, true law is the right ordinance of reason, directing those who must reach their end towards that end. Thus, it is an act of loving concern to lay down and point out the law, for those who are not already the end must achieve it by their actions. If they fail to achieve it by their actions, they will remain in the loneliness of their sin. Not to preach to them, to awaken them from darkness, to illumine their path towards true righteousness, not to apply the salve, not to dress the wounds, not to move them towards the good, is an act most hideous.

“But it is more hideous to yell at them about how guilty they are.” That too would be a cruelty. But listen: We do not achieve the proper virtue by a falsely balanced caricature. We achieve it by the correct via media. And that is this: The one unbreakable law is the way and condition for salvation. The medicine is informing the sinner how destructive are his wicked deeds, and how powerful is the remedy of grace, available in the saving Mysteries Christ left his Church.

Not to avail oneself and not to open to the poor sinner these saving remedies is a crime most vile, a cruelty than which a greater is difficult to fathom.

On Amoris Laetitia

One sound principle – practically a truism for Catholics – is that no Catholic whatsoever has any grounds whatsoever for holding X when X has already been proscribed infallibly. Further, no Catholic has any grounds whatsoever for not holding Q when Q has already been taught infallibly. All are under this obedience of faith, including members of the hierarchy. These principles cannot be brooked by anyone.

Now, some are concerned about whether or not doctrine has been overturned, directly or indirectly, by the recent papal document Amoris laetitia.

In addressing questions such as this, I call the above unquestionable principles to mind. No one will disagree with that principle, however they choose to address this question concretely But, in order to retain this non-negotiable principle, different people facing an apparent difficulty are drawing up different strategies.

One strategy is that of Cardinal Burke. Burke suggests the following in the National Catholic Register:

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching.

His counsel is wisely ordered to the clear retention of the actual teaching of Holy Mother Church. Thus, he is wisely shepherding souls. Confusion is harmful to souls. It takes the wind out of the spirit’s sails, and thus hinders our pursuit of God. It alienates and frustrates. It obscures the truth from those who might be good willed and are trying to seek it, but are tempted by near comforts and habits of sin. The weak – those weak sheep who most need our love – can be tempted to remain astray if the path of return is not clearly announced and laid out.

And so, we come back to Burke’s advice. We must read the Tradition to know what it states and what it forbids. What does Holy Mother Church teach?

The Church teaches that the Laws of God are not suggestions, not “ideals” that cannot be lived. Rather, they are true laws, universal commandments. Further, the Church teaches that grace is actually offered so that God does not command the impossible but indeed gives what he commands, as that Glorious St. Augustine said long ago.

“It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”. But what are the “concrete possibilities of man” ? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: thereality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit”. Veritatis splendor, art. 103, by John Paul II

Indeed, as John Paul II reiterates, it is heresy to suggest that the laws of God cannot be obeyed. Obedience can be agonizing at times, truly trying, life-taking. But God gives what he commands:

Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent: “But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (cf. 1 Jn 5:3); his yoke is easy and his burden light (cf. Mt 11:30)”, art. 102

Cardinal Brandmüller reminds us of a particular law of God, the indissolubility of marriage:

It is the Catholic Church’s teaching (Dogma) that a validly contracted and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any power on earth – also not by the Church. Jesus says: ‘What God has bound, man may not separate.

No one on earth can dissolve a valid and consummated sacramental marriage. This is the law of God. This brings solace. This is a boon, not merely a burden. This indissolubility is a firm rock on which to rely. It anchors society. It is stability. It is life-giving. Thank God for his wisdom and goodness in shepherding us in so many ways with wise laws and abundant grace. Help us, Lord, in our weakness.

What is Scandal?

Cheeky people will sometimes say, “You could read this, but you might find it scandalous.” This is a condescending remark. It is as though to say, “I’m man enough to take it, but I think you have a weak stomach.”

Scandal is not a threat to an effeminate man or weak-kneed woman. Scandal is occasion of sin. For an alcoholic to surround himself with drinkers is likely scandal, an occasion of sin for him. A seductive book or picture or person is a scandal for men because it can occasion thoughts not appropriate for them.

Scandal leads another, or self, to sin. The sin of scandal is very serious. It is mimicry of demonic leadership.

Steve Long and the Moral Object

I have been reading Steven Long of late. His account of the moral object seems urgent to consider.

In a moral act, the first thing we must consider is the “what it is” you are doing. The object of the act. Are you murdering or are you feeding someone? Etc.

Those who know, know that this is one very difficult topic.

One of Long’s crucial points, though, is lost on many, including many good Catholics. It is this: That the natural order of cause and effect in the sub-rational world already indicates certain truths about certain possible actions for our choice. This inherent order in certain natural lines of causality cannot be ‘ignored’ when I choose to act. Indeed, to choose intelligently to act requires adverting to these ordered structures. And these ordered structures determine the character of the actions which a rational agent proposes to commit.

Case in point. Say a given doss of pain-killer is known medically certainly to be lethal. Well, then, to choose to administer this doss is to choose death. Period. Of course, the doctor or relative will say to himself, “I only want the pain-killing side of the act. I don’t want the death-dealing side of it.” Ah, but you know that it does deal death. And you are to act intelligently. This is the kind of action the natural course of which necessarily entails death. (Let necessary = medically known sufficiently to cause, except in rarest of cases or miracles.) Then, for any intelligent agent to choose to administer it just is to choose death. One cannot – in GNOSTIC fashion – then claim that one interiorly (spiritually) only desires a certain aspect of this natural (merely material, he claims) act. If  one were to justify the action by saying that one only chooses the act under its desirability, one would be acting in Gnostic fashion. It would be the “intentionalist” fallacy. That my intention can – in the face of a naturally known telelogical order of a certain action – bypass this order and find some other reason for the appetibility of the act. That my intention finds what is appetible and chooses it only thus. This is what Long calls “intentionalism.”

Its effects are absolutely dire, and contrary to Catholic moral tradition. Another example is craniotomy. This is the crushing of a baby’s skull to save the mother’s life when otherwise both will die.

Remember: We must never do evil that good may come. Even if I only kill one little babe to stop WWIII, nonetheless, I would sin evilly in doing so. All good Catholics grant this basic point.

But those who confuse the moral object can’t see straight on craniotomy. How do they tackle it? They do this: They say that the doctor chooses the “reshaping” of the skull. He doesn’t choose the death. Only the reshaping, so it can fit the birth canal so he can save the mother.

Long’s counter: But crushing the skull necessarily entails death. Hence, to choose this action intelligently just is to choose death. And if the object is rational and innocent, then to choose its death is murder. But if you opt for intentionalism, you can wipe away this very serious, long approved condemnation of craniotomy. You can wipe it away with your good intention. Which now comes to supposedly “specify” the act and – voila! – you turn murder into salvation. This really is a vile consequence of a gnosticizing theory.

The order impressed in nature does not enslave us. It gets us going and serves as the partial determination – in some cases crucial determination – of the kinds of actions that are morally good.

Long’s tome on the subject is The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act. Long is a good friend, a compassionate soul, and a brilliant theologian / philosopher.

I highly recommend this text.

Fundamentalism of the Sources: A Problem with Some Practices of Source Criticism – Part 2

I’m sorry these posts have taken so long to get going. Have been enjoying good time with family.

Example of Source Criticism at work. Look at Genesis 1-2:4, on the one hand, and Genesis 2:5 through chap 3 on the other hand.

  1. In the first chapter, God is called God (Elohim in Hebrew). In the second chapter, God is called Yahweh God (Yahweh Elohim).
  2. In the first chapter, God is transcendent and almighty, not exactly distant but at the same time not intimate. In the second chapter, God is earthy, works with clay and walks, breaths, etc.
  3. The first chapter shares poetic affinities. The second is clearly narrative.
  4. The first mentions sabbath rest. The second doesn’t.
  5. God simply states in the first chapter. God and man interact in the second chapter.

We could go on and on. We can also observe these kinds of character differences in other parts of Genesis and in Exodus, esp. It is most useful to observe these differences in texts that treat the same topic, such as the flood scene, the creation scene, and the exodus scene.

We owe it to source critics for highlighting all these interesting features of the text, the “final product” as it is called. This insight is no small thing for which we can be grateful. Indeed, it is a thing of beauty.

Now, the motives of the source critics may not have been so lofty as our “spoiling” of the fruit of their labors may suggest. Indeed, we must study the roots of this method and of the eggs who constructed the method. I recommend Scott Hahn’s and Benjamin Wiker’s study, Politicizing the Bible for a detailed and responsible treatment. Numerous other scholars have written on this topic.

Back to the method. Suffice it to say that you have two sets of characteristics that show up again and again, and which are diverse. But what kind of diversity have they?

Fundamentalism of the Sources: A Problem with Some Practices of Source Criticism – Part I

Source Criticism is one of the three major “higher-critical” methods of reading scripture. The so-called “historical-critical” method is often used to refer to this or the other two major “higher-critical” methods, namely, redaction criticism and form criticism.

Here, we consider source criticism. The treatment is brief, while the tomes about the subject are immense and legion. But the treatment is also meant to go the heart of the matter in a suggestive, provocative way. It is the beginning of a question, an incisive interrogation.

Source criticism inquires whether the final product – say, the Gospel of Luke, or the Book of Genesis – was indeed always a single literary unit or rather a plurality of literary units put together. Source critics usually think in terms of written sources, although it is not alien to the method to think in terms of oral sources. If the final product is a construct of several, then these “sources” are primordial, anterior to the final product that we see.

There are numerous examinations one can undertake to ascertain answers to these questions. One of the most noteworthy examinations involves the question: Are there contradictions in the final account? In fact, this question analogically runs through every examination. Stated so baldly, it stands on its own. However, other interrogations presuppose this primary question. Such other interrogations include: Are there diverse names for God? Diverse conceptions of God? Diverse conceptions of man’s relation to God? Of the monarchy? Etc. Diversity presupposes the contradiction “this is not that.” Hence, the note of contradiction is primary.

Example. In reading Genesis, one can ask whether there are contradictory accounts of the flood. At first studied glance, it seems so. One set of texts reads “a pair” of animals while another set reads “seven pairs”. Since one is not seven, there seems to be a contradiction. But the same man cannot reasonably affirm a contradiction. We take it the man who wrote was reasonable. Ergo, there must have been more than one author.

more to come.