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Fenton, Joseph Clifford


Priest, theologian, editor; b. Springfield, MA, Jan. 16, 1906; d. Chicopee Falls, MA, July 7, 1969. He was the elder son of Michael Francis and Elizabeth (Clifford) Fenton. He received an A.B. from Holy Cross College (1926), an S.T.L. and J.C.B. from the University of Montreal (1930); and an S.T.D. from the Angelicum in Rome (1931). After his ordination as a priest for the diocese of Springfield, MA in 1930, he was a curate at Immaculate Conception Church, Easthampton, MA (193133) and St. Joseph's Church, Leicester, MA (193334). He taught philosophy at St. Ambrose College, Davenport, IA (193435) and theology at St. Bernard's Seminary, Rochester, NY (193638). In 1938, Msgr. James Moran Corrigan, the sixth rector of The Catholic University of America, appointed Fenton to the Department of Religious Education. A year later, he transferred to the School of Sacred Theology where he served as dean from 1943 to 1945. He taught fundamental and dogmatic theology at the University until his retirement in 1963 owing to poor health. That same year he was named pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Chicopee Falls, MA. Three years later he died.

Msgr. Fentona very large man well over six feet tallwas a familiar figure with his cassock and biretta on the campus of Catholic University for 25 years. His students remember him as an imposing person who lectured dramatically and often intimidated them with unexpected questions. Fenton's colorful expressions and trenchant observations became legendary.

In the 1940s and 1950s Fenton was very active in the American Church. As a charter member of the catholic theological society of america, he became its first secretary (194647) and the recipient of the Society's Cardinal Spellman Award for Theology (1958). He published six books: The Theology of Prayer (1939), The Concept of Sacred Theology (1941), We Stand with Christ (1943), The Calling of a Diocesan Priest (1944), The Concept of the Diocesan Priesthood (1951), and The Catholic Church and Salvation (1958).

Serving as editor of The American Ecclesiastical Review (194463), he wrote over 150 articles on a variety of topics: the nature of theology, biblical scholarship, membership in the Church, the teaching authority of the Church, and the necessity of the Church for salvation. His writing was clear, often polemical, and, at times, intemperate. He wrote with conviction and, on occasion, with humor. A committed traditionalist and passionate defender of magisterial teaching, he vigorously opposed any idea that even suggested liberalism or Modernism. As a controversialist, he is best remembered for his aggressive opposition to John Courtney Murray, S.J., on religious freedom and on the relationship between Church and state.

During his career, Fenton received many ecclesiastical honors from Rome. The Holy See named him a papal chamberlain (1951), a domestic prelate (1954), and a protonotary apostolic (1963). Recipient of the papal medal, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (1954), he belonged to the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy and served as a counselor to the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities (195067). During the first years of the Second Vatican Council he was a member of the preparatory Theological Commission, the Doctrinal Commission, the Commission on Faith and Morals, and also a peritus.

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