Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton on Membership in the Catholic Church: Questions and Discernments De Ecclesia

Dr. Robert Hickson

10 February 2021

Saint Scholastica (d. 543)

Muriel Agnes Hickson (d. 2009)

Epigraphs

“The ecclesiastical magisterium, in teaching and guarding this dogma [as of 1958], insists that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church and at the same time likewise insists that people who die without ever becoming members of the Catholic Church can obtain the Beatific Vision.” (Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation, page x—my bold emphasis added)

***

“Ultimately the process [of obtaining salvation in eternal life] is achieved and perfected when the person saved comes to possess the life of grace eternally and inamissibly [i.e., incapable of being lost], in the everlasting glory of the Beatific Vision. There is genuine salvation, however, when the man who has hitherto been in the state of original or mortal sin is brought into the life of sanctifying grace, even in this world, when that life of grace can be lost through the man’s own fault.” (Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation, page 134—my bold emphasis added)

***

In 1958, there was, in lucid prose, a timely and timeless, historical and theological book published just before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) by Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton. Its main title is The Catholic Church and Salvation and its partly explanatory subtitle is In the Light of Recent Pronouncements by the Holy See.1 From the outset, Fenton makes us aware of one developing accent in modern theology as it would soon again show itself more fully and mercifully—if not vaguely and laxly and even equivocally–at the Second Vatican Council:

Any person who is at all familiar with what the great mass of religious and theological writings of our times [up to 1958] have had to say about this dogma is quite well aware of the fact that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, these writings have been mainly, almost exclusively, concerned with proving and explaining how this dogma [“irreversible doctrine”] does not mean that only members of the Catholic Church can be saved. (ix-x—my emphasis added)

Throughout his searching book, Fenton even discusses the challenging matter of an “implicit desire” as well as the comparable matter of a person’s somehow being “in”—or “within”—the Church, but not “a member of the Catholic Church.”

Therefore, we now specifically ask, even at the outset of our commentary, just how one may be in the Catholic Church, but not be a member of the Church? (We must certainly, and always fittingly, acknowledge that we must never set limits to the Omnipotent Mercy of God!) We must, moreover, always consider how, as professed Catholics, we are practically and prudently to conduct ourselves amidst non-Catholics—especially as a Catholic missionary today. And we should thus be well grounded, but on what kinds of fundamental doctrines and on what theoretical premises, lest we be too superficial and have an incomplete presentation of the proportionate truth?

At one point of his final chapter on “Some Sources of Misunderstanding” (165-189), Fenton says:

The teaching that man could be in the Church only in intention or desire and not as a member and still attain eternal salvation “within” this society is, of course, tremendously important. It is a part of Catholic doctrine about the nature of God’s ecclesia. (170)

In his earlier chapter entitled “Salvation and the Basic Concept of the Church” (145-164), Fenton makes another important note in passing:

If a man really fights for truth and virtue, if he really works to serve and to glorify the Triune God, then he is fighting on the side of, and in a very real sense “within,” the true Church itself. (163)

Shortly afterwards, Fenton clarifies his own deeper opinion, by way of contrast:

If, on the other hand, a man is not working to please God, to glorify and serve Him, this man does not really love with the love of charity.

The situation of the person who is not a member of the Church, but who is “within” it by intention, desire or prayer can be understood best in comparison with the condition of a Catholic in the state of mortal sin. Despite the fact that he is a member of the society which “steadfastly contends for truth and virtue,” this individual’s will is turned away from God and strives for objectives opposed to those sought by the Church. He is one of those “who refuse to obey the divine and eternal law, and who have many aims of their own in contempt of God, and many aims also against God.” In other words, in spite of his membership in the supernatural kingdom of God on earth, he is actually working and fighting for the things the kingdom of Satan seeks.

The ultimate orientation of a man’s activity comes from the supreme intention of his will. For the man in the state of grace, this supreme intention is the love of charity. It is the desire to please God in all things. The man in the state of mortal sin has some other supreme objective. There is some end he seeks in contempt of God. Even though some of his acts are good in themselves, ultimately his life is directed to the attainment of that end, which is the purpose of the kingdom of Satan.

If a member of the Church should die in the state of mortal sin, he will be condemned forever to hell, the homeland of Satan’s kingdom. He will, in other words, be assigned forever to the social unit in which and with which he was fighting at the moment of his passage from this life. In exactly the same way, the non-member of the Church who dies believing God’s message with the assent of faith, loving God with the affection of charity, and sincerely willing and praying to enter God’s ecclesia, will live forever in the social unit within which he willed and prayed to live and for which he was fighting at the moment of his death. (163-164—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Msgr. Fenton had also earlier made two other formulations:

If a man really fights for truth and virtue, if he really works to serve and to glorify the Triune God, then he is fighting on the side of, and in a very real sense “within,” the true Church itself. And, if a man really has divine charity, he is actually fighting this battle for the Church. (163—my emphasis added)

When a man desires or prays for entrance into the true Church of Jesus Christ, even when this objective is apprehended only in an implicit way by the person praying, the first two of these conditions are necessarily fulfilled….In order that this prayer for entrance into the Church may be effective for salvation, the prayer and the intention behind it must be enlightened by faith and motivated or animated by charity. And it must also be a persevering prayer. (162—my emphasis added)

CODA

As exemplified by this short introduction and its serene citations, one would fittingly and very fruitfully read—and read again and closely—and always with a deeply savor—Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton’s thorough and well-written 194 pages on The Catholic Church and Salvation (1958). Then contrast the comparable words of the Second Vatican Council. The contrast will clarify the mind.

–FINIS–

© 2021 Robert D. Hickson

1Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation: In the Light of Recent Pronouncements by the Holy See (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1958—some 194 pages in the hardback edition). All further references will be to this edition, and placed above in parentheses of the main body of this essay.

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