The Diaries of Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton

Some Insights into the Man and His Times

by Fr. Jacob Peters

Few traditional theologians at the Second Vatican Council more antagonized the majority of progressivists among the periti (theological experts) than Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton. Those familiar with the issues debated at the Council will easily recognize his name and the subject with which he is most closely associated: religious liberty; his intellectual duels fought with his adversary, Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., were legendary fare within Catholic academia in the 1950s.

As more histories of the Council period are available, one may be more than mildly surprised that the clerical opponents, in addition to their scholarly antagonisms, not infrequently harbored strong personal feelings about each other as well. Msgr. Fenton has left for posterity a treasure trove of diaries chronicling more than two dozen trips to Rome from the period of 1948 to 1966. In them we learn much about the man who played a major role at Vatican II as a member of its Central Preparatory Commission; and we also attain insights into how he earned the enmity of progressive theologians such as two of the titans of the 20th century: Fr. Henri de Lubac, S.J. and Father Yves Congar, O.P.

After a particularly heated meeting in Rome during March of 1962, one graphic clash was recorded in the diary of Fr. Congar: “After some time, Fenton is so vile, so foolishly negative, so aggressive, so entirely out of his senses, that Msgr. Philips [Gerard Philips, a theologian at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium] stands up and says, with emotion, strongly and calmly: Under these conditions, it is impossible to work, and I retire. Because (addressing Fenton) you accuse everybody of heresy.” Fr. de Lubac’s diary offers a substantially similar account. Msgr. Fenton’s recollection of this incident in his diary is very brief: “At the afternoon meeting, Philips launched a verbal attack against me, and I replied in kind.”

While Msgr. Fenton’s six-foot plus, full-sized frame and strong personality probably contributed toward his proclivity to attract powerful and outspoken enemies, they weren’t the major reasons. At the age of 38, 13 years after his ordination to the priesthood, he became the editor of what was at the time one of the most prestigious theological journals in the United States, the American Ecclesiastical Review. From 1939 until his retirement in 1963, he taught fundamental and dogmatic theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He was the first secretary of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Though often portrayed by the victors at the Council as a theological lightweight (Congar actually had tried to prevent his appointment to the Central Preparatory Commission on the grounds that he had little following in the United States), his decade-long debate with Fr. J. C. Murray should have been sufficient to solidify his theological credentials and reputation, even among his opponents both in the United States and Europe.

Such vitriol as exhibited toward Fenton both before and after the Council should provoke a curiosity of a different stripe: what was the personality of the man who so prominently manned the lonely post of safeguarding Catholic theological tradition as it was assaulted from after the Second World War until his sudden death at the age of 63? Who was this man behind the uncompromising orthodoxy that was being abandoned by so many during the height of his priestly life?

A New England Yankee in the Papal Court

In no small degree, resentment toward Fr. Fenton was more than likely nurtured by the fact that he was a Roman “insider” for most of his life as a Catholic educator and theologian. This would have rankled the halls of Catholic academia due to the growing rebellion in the U.S. and Europe against what was considered to be heavy-handed Roman control and discipline over theological matters. His journals begin with his first airplane voyage to the Eternal City in May of 1948. He is picked up at the airport outside Rome by the driver of the then Msgr. Domenico Tardini, who headed the foreign desk at the powerful Secretariat of State. During this stay in Rome, he lists various other powerful personages with whom he had contact and conversations: Cardinal Giovanni Mercati (Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives), Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo (Prefect of the Congregation for Seminaries and Universities); Msgr. (at the time) Alfredo Ottaviani, an already influential figure at the Holy Office, Msgr. Giovanni Montini, the head of the Ecclesiastical Affairs desk at the Secretariat of State who, together with Msgr. Tardini, was among Pius XII’s closest collaborators.

Fr. Fenton’s diaries indicate, however, that his relationships with some of the most prominent figures in the Holy See were far from static. For instance, while his first several trips to Rome between 1948 and the early 1950s are dotted with references to dinners with Tardini, by the summer of 1958 (shortly before the death of Pius XII and the elevation of Msgr Tardini to be Secretary of State by John XXIII), Fenton writes that “Tardini is one of the world’s prize bores,” and criticizes him for “trying to milk Americans. I want as little as possible to do with him.”

Near the end of the Council (summer of 1965), Fr. Fenton remarks that, when he first arrived in Rome during that particular trip, he was invited to dine with Cardinal Ottaviani at his home. Enigmatically and in a cheerless yet distant tone he remarks, “O has lost a lot of his energy. I think he has wasted a lot of his life and has canceled a great deal of his value to the Church by reason of his attachment to a political group.” (This may have referred to Ottaviani’s staunch opposition to any progressive Italian political reforms or compromise with the Communism Party.)

Roman Realpolitik

One of the obvious curiosities regarding all of Fr. Fenton’s high Vatican contacts is whether there appear any indications of “career aspirations” in his diaries. Many priests who had such high ecclesiastics as friends might have been expected to offer evidence that they were anticipating a promotion (such as to the episcopacy). Fr. Fenton’s diaries offer very few such hints, and these insinuations mostly occur within a very short span of time during his visit to Rome in the summer of 1956. The first was an indirect allusion; he refers to being at dinner (it would appear to be at the residence of Cardinal Ottaviani) and having someone suggest that “I should bring the C [Cardinal] to the USA after I am in a position to do so. There is of course only one such position.”

A few days later, however, he indicates a sober realism concerning his prospects for advancement: “Personally I don’t think a promotion is going to come...under the present circumstances. It seems that [he refers to someone whom he considers able to make such decisions] . . . is a bit out of step at the moment, and the Murrayites [the devotees of Fr. J.C. Murray] have him firmly under control.”

This assessment is further evidenced by a diary entry during this same trip.

“I must say that I’m somewhat shocked at the attitude of Coffey [Fr. Edward Coffey, S.J. who directed the future Cardinal John Wright’s doctoral dissertation]. . . . I have known for quite some time that a very considerable number of Catholic teachers and men who are teachers of theology ...were off the beam. From what Coffey said, they have strayed farther from Catholic truth than what I had believed. If the nonsense these people were saying (again, according to Coffey) is generally accepted in the Church, we are certainly on the way to a terrible apostasy. It’s obvious that men like Coffey are in control of the Pope at the present time. Yet I am proud and privileged to be one of those called by the Lord to combat the errors propounded by these individuals. It seems clear that I shall never obtain any promotion or real recognition. . . . Yet is at a time like this that a man can realize that he is working for our Crucified Divine Lord and not for any of his instruments in the Church. It has served to strengthen my faith.”

Finally, at the very end of that same summer visit in 1956, he reports that he stopped by the offices of Cardinal Pizzardo to say goodbye. Fenton, with a tone of delight, relates that as he arose to leave, “he [the Cardinal] took off his red zucchetta and placed it on me, saying that this was a prophesy.”

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Another factor which probably impeded his rise in the ecclesiastical ranks relates to what a friend with contacts in the Roman Curia had told him in the summer of 1956: Fenton had enemies. Though it was certainly true that his theological views drew most of the hostility, his tendency toward frank expression (even concerning non-combative matters) no doubt contributed to the personal animosity of his opponents. For instance, in the mid-1950s during a Roman visit, Fr. Fenton pens in his journal that he had dinner with Cardinal Ottaviani. Various other personages were in attendance as well, among them Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (who was the guest of honor). Fenton records his impression of the man: “Sheen is the original Narcissus. He talked loudly and enthusiastically and at length about himself.”

In another entry, not long after this, at a much more informal dinner, he remarked that the name of the powerful German nun close to Pius XII came up during the conversation. Fr. Fenton relates that, “I am afraid I was unable to hide my disgust at [Sister] Pasqualina and all her doings.”

Yet Fr. Fenton was just as apt to display charity and humorous, sardonic observations. After hearing the ultra progressive Cardinal Suenens address a Council session, he commented, “Suenens gave a fine speech in which he complained of the fact that 90% of the canonized saints are Italian, French or Spanish. I have always said that this is a scandal.” Another time while on a visit to the Angelicum University he crossed paths with one of his major Conciliar nemeses (of previous mention), Fr. Yves Congar. Fr. Fenton observed, “Met Congar. He is 57. He is or tries to be quite pleasant.”

Fr. Fenton’s diaries indicate that, besides his dining with high ranking churchmen, he enjoyed regular priestly camaraderie, and some of the names of his dinner companions in Rome over the years would surprise not a few. They included Fr. Hugh O’Flaherty (the Irish priest who was to be lionized in the movie, The Scarlet and the Black), as well as a number of clerics among whom would become some of the most notoriously progressive theologians in the post-conciliar Church: Fathers Richard McCormack (moral theology), Frederick McManus (canon law), George Higgins (labor activist), and many more.

Of Premises and Prayer

His eclecticism regarding culinary compatriots did not extend to his intellectual disposition. In various places throughout his diaries he displays an unwavering direct and uncompromising perspective on both the world and the Church. In his 1948 journal regarding the former, he offered convictions as crisp as they were sober:

“People imagine that the human race is as it were benevolent/neutral with reference to God—ready to be convinced one way or the other—false—the race as such is hostile to God and His Church. . . . Objectively: hostility to the Church is hostility to God.”

He presupposed that the Church was inimitably destined to cross swords with evil, requiring militant opposition:

“[S]ome people would make the Church merely a factor; albeit perhaps the main factor in a worldwide fight against an evil like communism or for social and economic betterment. This is a complete misconception of the Church. The Church alone is the Kingdom of God on earth. God’s fight is its fight.”

There are passages in his diary (even as early as 1948, 11 years before the summoning of Vatican II) that eerily anticipate future themes of theological controversy such as false ecumenism.

“Some hate to think of the Church standing alone. They want not specifically Catholic principles, but principles accepted by all P J + C of good will. [Note: believed to indicate Protestant, Jews, and Christians of good will.]

The doctrine on the Church and the world shows there can be no cooperation in religion.”

In 1951 he contemplated writing a book on the Church, and among his notes is found a list of evils that must be avoided in its exposition:

Using the Church as primarily a natural entity or merely a natural entity
Theological minimizing
Historical minimizing
Cutting away of Tradition

Though a staunch ultramontane, Fr. Fenton’s approach to Roman policies was neither reflexive nor lacking in prudence and practicality. Sometime during May of 1954, he met with a French scholar who was already sounding an alarm regarding the resuscitation of modernism that he sensed was advancing throughout the Church. His name was Father Raymond Dulac, who was to become a professor in the early years of the SSPX seminary at Ecône. He and Fr. Fenton were to develop and share a fond friendship. But at this meeting (Fr. Fenton’s diary records it lasted three hours) the subject of the Sodalitium Pianum was brought up and discussed. This was a group of theologians who, during the pontificate of Pope Pius X, formed this organization to be an unofficial counter-intelligence agency whose purpose was to collect from around the world reports on those who were suspected of propounding the heresy of modernism. It was quite controversial at the time. Evidently, Cardinal Merry del Val intervened and prevented it from attaining a canonical status. Fr. Fenton writes with appealing candor and level-headedness:

“There was talk of an exchange of information, something which I thought might be on the line of the old Sodalitium Pianum. I did not favor such a move, not because I had any objection against it in principle; but only because, under the circumstances, I could see no way in which this procedure would be effective.”

Fr. Fenton, throughout his diaries, relays evidence of a very traditional and simple Catholic spiritual life. In many daily journal entries, he begins by mentioning where and at what time he had offered Mass that morning; he makes a passing reference to a missing alarm clock and that he had asked the Holy Souls to awaken him at the proper time in the morning; he remarks about visiting St. Peter’s and, “I knelt at the confessional.” He mentions being with a priest, and matter-of-factly states, “We said our beads together.”

The diaries of Fr. Fenton offer a delightful anecdotal history of the times and present him as an autobiographical raconteur. They are written in a style that is neither self-conscious nor pretentious. If one reads through them several times, there is an air of wistful melancholy as he increasingly perceives that modernism was emerging victorious throughout the theological landscape of the late 1950s and 1960s, despite the best efforts of him and other priest scholars. Intellectual integrity was at the heart of his self-identity, nowhere better reflected than in a letter he penned in 1950 (as a ghost-writer for Cardinal Pizzardo’s Congregation) to Dwight Eisenhower while he was President of Columbia University in New York City. One pithy sentence summarizes the effort of Father Fenton’s life as a priest and as a man: “The world today needs to be reminded that freedom to teach the truth is an inherent right.”

As Fr. Fenton might say today while summoning his best French intonation: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme choses.