What is Theology? With a review of Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton ‘What is Sacred Theology?’

“What can we say as we survey the smithereens of this ‘Catholic intellectual landscape?'”

“The strong adherence to God which alone can save our people demands the full force of revealed teaching on our life in God. The weak and emotional pietism which is expressed by some non-theological books of devotion is not enough.”

Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology[1]

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In this essay I want to draw our readers’ attention to Mgr Joseph C. Fenton’s book The Concept of Sacred Theology , which was a great help for explaining things in our series Learning Sacred Theology. mentioned above. It is now republished by Cluny Media as What is Sacred Theology?

Anyone who is starting out to develop a serious understanding of theology needs something like this book to give them an overview of the discipline.

But before we look at this text, let’s consider the man himself.

Fenton – and his relationship with Fr Garrigou-Lagrange

Fenton was born in 1906 in Massachusetts, USA. He studied for the priesthood in Canada and was ordained for his diocese in 1930.

Fenton is on the right, with the other officers of the CTSA. Cover photo source

In 1931 he attained his doctorate, supervised by Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, from the Angelicum in Rome. The book which we are reviewing originated as his doctoral thesis, and was published in 1941 as The Concept of Sacred Theology.

Fenton called Garrigou-Lagrange “one of the foremost minds of our generation,”[2] and some today go so far as to call him the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. However, without detracting from Garrigou-Lagrange’s brilliance, such platitudes are perhaps less to do with his actual status, and more to do with him being the greatest widely known pre-conciliar theologian of the twentieth century. Certainly, few of us today are competent to make a judgment on who was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century.

However, there is no doubt that Garrigou-Lagrange was significant, he was involved in interesting controversies and wrote on a wide range of topics. One of his accomplishments was his synthesis of Carmelite spiritual theology with that of St Thomas Aquinas. It is also received wisdom that he was instrumental in the drafting of Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis.

Interestingly, Mgr Fenton was not the only prominent student of Garrigou-Lagrange. The Dominican also supervised a very different figure – Karol Józef Wojtyła, later John Paul II.

Fenton was himself a professor of Dogmatic Theology, the editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, an early officer of the Catholic Theological Society of America, a member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy, and a counsellor of the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities. He received several Roman honours and was Cardinal Ottaviani’s peritus at Vatican II. He died in 1969.

So what is this book which I am reviewing?

The Concept of Sacred Theology / What is Sacred Theology?

As I mentioned, The Concept of Sacred Theology was based on Fenton’s doctoral dissertation. Fr Cajetan Cuddy, the editor of the Cluny Media edition, writes:

“It summarizes an essential aspect of [Fenton’s] identity which preceded and abided throughout the controversies to which his name is associated. Msgr Joseph Clifford Fenton was a theologian. And his concept of sacred theology informed his conception of ecclesial ministry and inspired his literary industry.”[3]

The purpose of the book, Fenton tells us, is “to aid those who are professionally and culturally interested in the science of sacred theology better to appreciate the nature and the characteristics of this discipline.”[4] For us, reading in the first half of the twenty-first century, it gives us an overview of the state of affairs right before the second Vatican Council.

There are other books like this available, and some will have considerably more detail. Nonetheless, this is a useful introduction to the topic.

The book begins by considering the function of theology. Fenton emphasises the teleological and unified nature of this science in an elevated way: theology, he says, contains:

“those lessons which will tell man how he can attain an everlasting and ineffable happiness in the next world and possess the justice, peace, and security so tragically lacking in this world.”[5]

He then considers the subject matter of theology and, by describing the structure and content of St Thomas’s Summa Theologica, he shows that:

“Theological truth expresses the very meaning which can be proved to belong to the body of revealed doctrine rather than merely a teaching connected with the divine message.”[6]

His chapters on the “Light” and the “Certitude” of theology describe how theological conclusions are demonstrated, and explain some of the theological notes and degrees of certitude.

The next three chapters give a detailed overview of what Fenton calls “the equipment of Sacred Theology.” These are commonly called, in the language of Melchior Cano, the theological sources or the loci theologici. Fenton provides a standard list as follows:

  1. The authority of Holy Scripture
  2. The authority of Holy Tradition
  3. The authority of the Catholic Church
  4. The authority of Councils, especially general Councils
  5. The authority of the Roman Church
  6. The authority of the Fathers
  7. The authority of scholastic theologians (and canonists)
  8. Natural reason
  9. The authority of philosophers following the natural light of reason
  10. The authority of history, from trustworthy authors or serious national tradition.[7]

Fenton gives a detailed explanation for each heading, explaining its role in the science of theology, and its relationship to the teaching of Christ himself. This relationship – between theology and Christ’s teaching – really is the central theme of Fenton’s book. As he treats each aspect of theology’s methodology, he reminds us that it is not something separate to the Gospel, and explains how aspects of the science of theology manifest particular aspects of Christ’s teaching.

Moving to other branches of theology, Fenton tells us that moral theology is not some dry branch of rules and regulations, but rather the statement “of that teaching which God has revealed to men through Jesus Christ […] what God has taught us as demanded by that life of grace which he conceded us in this world.”[8]

The teaching of Holy Scripture, he says:

“is that which comes from God as His message. It is not merely the divinely guided interpretation of that message. […] The man who begins the study of the sacred doctrine will advance more perfectly in so far as he is aware of this. Thus, for example, the scientific perfection of that portion of the Summa Theologica which deals with the processions and the relations in God can be seen in all of its beauty and in all the perfect profundity of its meaning only when a man realizes that it is meant to explain the significance of the words of our Lord, contained in the Gospel according to St. John. ‘I have come forth from God.’”[9]

Even the study of Canon Law, Fenton says, is an opportunity to see “an expression of that directive force which orders Christians toward the attainment of their final end.”[10] Canonists are charged with the task of “authoritatively and competently to show how the precepts and the counsels of our Lord are made manifest in the society which He founded.”[11] They are not to be seen as dealing something extraneous to the Gospel, but rather with something “indicative of the actual content and meaning of the message which God gave to the human race through Jesus Christ.”[12]

Theology as a Science

Following his treatment of the equipment of theology, Fenton addresses its scientific character, along with more discussion of its methods, argumentation, dignity and relationship with other sciences. He then expands on earlier material on the various theological notes and the levels of opinion, along with the different systems and schools of theology (e.g., Thomism, Scotism and Molinism).

In its etymology, theology means “talking about God.” In popular terms today, even the most casual and imprecise discussion of religious matters is treated as theology: and I have commented elsewhere on how even the least of online personalities are now apparently “theologians.” Because of the great confusion of our age, it is necessary to establish exactly what is theology.

Theology is intrinsically linked to the Catholic Church’s teaching by a relationship of dependence. Fenton writes:

“Because the revealed teaching is proposed to men in the authentic magisterium of the Catholic Church, and is not to be acquired independently of that magisterium, sacred theology must also be the Catholic theology.”[13]

Given the centrality of the doctrine of the Faith to this science, the theologian Nicolau teaches that the theologian’s first task is to know this doctrine, as proposed by the correct proximate rule of faith:

“The proximate, immediate and supreme norm or rule of faith for a Catholic is the teaching of the living Magisterium of the Church, which is authentic and traditional. For, this magisterium gives the whole revealed teaching, its genuine meaning and true interpretation, and it takes care that at all times and everywhere it proposes the infallible, authentic and revealed doctrine.”[14]

In other words, theology just is the systematic, scientific presentation of the teaching of the magisterium, teaching Christ’s message with his authority.

Calling theology “scientific” is not some pretentious attempt to make it sound like it is on the same level as the natural sciences, such as physics. Rather, in classical terms, a science is an ordered and connected structure of certain knowledge, known from causes and principles, and from principles derived from other sciences. In this sense, it is in fact even more certain than physics because its principles are derived from the authority of the revelation of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. For this reason, theology enjoys a certainty beyond that of all other disciplines.

Now, theologians certainly sometimes speculate about less certain aspects of doctrine: and individual theologians can indeed err. But in a sense and taken as a whole, Catholic theology is not just based on divine revelation and the Church’s teaching, but rather is that teaching, expressed scientifically and systematically.

In this book, Fenton defines theology as “that science which works towards the clear and unequivocal expression of the divine message.”[15] Specifically, all of theology’s methods, tools and conclusions are all united in being ordered towards:

“The work of explaining the content of that teaching which God has given to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord, and which is proposed for the belief of men in the infallible magisterium of the Catholic Church.”[16]

Theology is not, therefore, a discipline which is primarily about speculating on uncertainties – but, as I said, it is Christ’s teaching itself, expressed in the way mentioned above. Understanding this allows us to see the danger of what Fenton calls the movements to “get away from the scientific complexity of scholastic literature” and to return to what is claimed to be “the limpid simplicity of Christ’s own doctrine.”[17] On the contrary, the whole work of theology has been “concentrated on the work of expressing our Lord’s teaching exactly as He gave it”; to get away from that is to get away from our Lord’s teaching itself.[18]

The complexity, syllogisms and structure of theology are not ends in themselves, or intended to distract us from our Lord: they are ordered towards the definite purpose of expressing clearly the Christian revelation. Seen in this light, “theological problems” are questions about particular parts of God’s revelation through our Lord Jesus Christ: and the resolutions of such problems (or “theological conclusions”) are not mere speculations, but rather “a statement of what our Lord meant and what the Catholic Church understood Him to mean from the very beginning of her existence.”[19] 

The task is not just in drawing implications out of the doctrine, but rather setting forth their correct and objective meaning.[20] This is the intention and function that dominates the whole of theology.

The remainder and summary of the book

Towards the end of the book, Fenton gives an account of the principal courses of theology, which formed the basic education for seminarians and other students. We used this schema for our series on Learning Sacred Theology. In this book, Fenton listing and describing the principal courses – the basics, dogmatic theology, Holy Scripture, and so on – and explains how each of them form a unified discipline, and again, how each relates to the teaching of Christ. We have seen some of that above, with regard to canonical and biblical studies – and there are many more such texts in the series mentioned.

The last four chapters deal with the history and development of theology, focusing on the Patristic, Medieval and post-Tridentine periods, before finally focusing on the history and possible future of theology in America.

All in all, we could summarise the whole message and utility of this book with Fenton’s own words:

“The message which God has revealed to man, and which is taught and expressed in the science of sacred theology constitutes an organized body of doctrine. It must not be considered as a collection of disparate and unconnected statements, but as a real teaching, offered to accomplish and definite function and possessed of a definite organic unity.”[21]

The very clear typesetting on the new edition.

Why is this sort of book important?

Many of the errors amongst people of good will, even committed traditionalists, seem to arise from a disordered theological method. For example, we see the Döllingerist tendency of those who treat history as a source of theology, or who turn to arbitrarily chosen saints or theologians in support of pre-conceived theories. There can be no substitute for starting at the beginning with a book like this, and spending time understanding the state of the various questions in traditional, pre-conciliar theology.

A good overview of the methodology, as Fenton provides in this book, will assist us in this study, and in avoiding various pitfalls.

We can see the importance of this sort of book if we consider the typical trajectory of Catholics interested in learning about their religion in the twenty-first century. Many of us raised in the Novus Ordo received minimal instruction, and only later found ourselves awakening to the importance of the supernatural and of the Catholic Faith.

Many first turn to websites, which can indeed give a reasonably good understanding as to how to defend doctrines disputed by Protestants – but (leaving aside the problems of Vatican II) they cannot help but present the faith as a piecemeal set of debating tools. They are not intended to present a unified view of the Catholic faith.

Those who want to go deeper and read more developed texts can feel lost. Where should they turn?

This is indeed the reason we put together The WM Review Reading List.

However, rather than being directed to something that will initiate them into the Catholic doctrinal tradition, many are often pointed instead to the great spiritual works. Such texts as St Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life or St Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary are undoubtedly good things to read. Perhaps they will provide more efficient means than theology for reforming our lives and becoming pleasing to God. After all, Thomas à Kempis writes in the Imitation of Christ:

“What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.”[22]

Despite this true and good advice, it is not wrong to develop one’s understanding of our religion – and some persons’ dispositions or qualities clearly oblige them to do so. But even if they manage to get beyond “merely” pious works, such persons are often still only directed to modern, popular works – or perhaps to books by G.K. Chesterton, or to “the Fathers,” or perhaps to St Thomas Aquinas. Others find themselves inspired by Ratzinger, von Balthasar or John Paul II, and decide to focus on such writers.

The specific situation for traditionalists is not much better. As they start to become alive to the problems following Vatican II, they naturally turn to those works dealing with the problems. The criticisms in such works are usually strong, but many wind up also deriving all of their theological knowledge from them as well – as if post-conciliar polemicists are authorities for sacramental theology or ecclesiology. There is often little sense that these topics have been dealt with in an academic and accessible way by approved authors.

Lay video theology has also become popular, across the ideological spectrum. By no means do I want to condemn all lay use of video, but (with some notable and edifying exceptions) it does often seem to lose a sense of proportion. For example, we see this in the strange spectacle of some laymen calling themselves “theologians” or even “thomists” in their Twitter bios – when (again, with exceptions) the totality of their knowledge often derived from piecemeal texts and modern authors and partial reading of St Thomas, haphazardly assembled in a DIY synthesis.

And what are we to make of the very strange rules of engagement governing those who use or consume such things? For example, online theological bickerings are deemed to be lost by default if one does not accept an opponent’s challenge to debate on his livestream. This move is treated by such men as if it were an instant win, and obviously so. For some, video and rhetoric have attained a premium over researched and referenced essays, and theology has become a type of entertainment.

In any case, with the exception of St Thomas, none of these different sources of “knowledge” will impart a unified sense of how Catholic theology works, how it is structured and so on. Reading these works will impart various interesting details, but no overall “gestalt” of the Faith.

Even St Thomas has certain lacunae in the Summa Theologica – particularly for ecclesiology, which he does not treat in a discrete section. Those who become devoted to him sometimes act as if anything he did not directly address in that work is unimportant or uncertain – if they even realise such areas of theology exist.

What can we say as we survey the smithereens of this “Catholic intellectual landscape”? Do all of these factors and sources help laymen discharge their duties to study and spread the faith, as expounded by Pope Leo XIII? Do these sources come together to produce what Cardinal Newman desired, “an intelligent, well-instructed laity”?

Do they produce the following, as Newman wrote:

“I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”[23]

They do not. And why do they not? Because everything described is unmoored from theology as a science with its own proper method and ends.

And this is why, if we want to avoid such terrible pitfalls, books such as Fenton’s are so important.

Conclusions, and the spiritual life

All in all, we can be very grateful to Cluny Media for getting this book re-typeset and republished, at an affordable cost. It’s not without drawbacks: the editorial footnotes do become a little intrusive as the text continues, and not everyone will appreciate the post-conciliar bibliographies that provided for very many points throughout. Nonetheless, the editorial footnotes are marked with a sign rather than a number, and one can just ignore them after a while.

The classic text itself is so wonderfully clear, systematic, and continually keeping in view the purpose of theology itself.

Towards the end, Fenton considers what he hoped could be the future for theology in America, including its intersection with spiritual theology. He wrote the following:

“In the field of spiritual theology a great deal has been done, and much more is necessary. The strong adherence to God which alone can save our people demands the full force of revealed teaching on our life in God. The weak and emotional pietism which is expressed by some non-theological books of devotion is not enough.

“Only in the clear and unequivocal statement of sacred doctrine, as it has been stated in the works of St John Damascene, St Thomas Aquinas, St John of the Cross, St Teresa [and others] will the people of God find the enlightenment of which they stand in need.”[24]

This resonates deeply with the words of Dom Eugene Boylan, in his modern spiritual classic This Tremendous Lover. He writes:

“It must be remembered that although the spiritual life is a life of love, it is not a life of sentiment. On the contrary, love is based on knowledge given by faith and reason. In a word, devotion is founded on dogma. Now some acquaintance with the dogmatic teaching of the Church is essential for any Catholic. Quite a number of educated Catholics try to be satisfied with what they have learned of doctrine at school; this would seem to be a mistake. A man’s mind develops after he leaves school; his knowledge and experience increase, his view broadens, his judgment matures, and he meets many problems that require a doctrinal solution. […]

“Intellectual Catholics, therefore, have need of knowing something of theology and philosophy; and indeed all Catholics of any education would do well to keep their knowledge of the Church’s doctrine up to a sound standard. Where theology is read by the laity, it is usually rather from the point of view of apologetic argument than from that of a dogmatic foundation for true devotion. We would rather see the reverse. Granted that such meat is not for everyone, it is still quite true that there are a considerable number of Catholics who, if not starving, are at least undernourished for want of a proper diet of Catholic doctrine.”[25]

Boylan summarises his point: “Once educated, as we have said, one reads differently; in fact it is only then that one performs the exercise which we wish to prescribe as a daily practice of the spiritual life.”[26]

Things have not changed much since Boylan’s day: as he says, often even the best lay interaction with theology is more a preparation for apologetics than for contemplation of dogma. A book like Fenton’s is an excellent introduction and preparation for the sort of thing Boylan wants for our spiritual lives.

I very strongly recommend all Catholics interested in the Faith to read The Concept of Sacred Theology, or something like it.

Perhaps not everyone will go away and want to study theology further, but at least they will have gained an insight into what theology really is, and how it should and should not be studied.

My battered and well-used copy

Appendix: Cluny Media

Cluny Media publish some interesting texts, alongside some that many of our readers would find problematic. Nonetheless, here are a few:

Clérissac – The Mystery of the Church (and for UK readers). 

Fenton – What is Sacred Theology? (and for UK readers).

Fenton – The Church of Christ (and for UK readers).

Fenton – The Diocesan Priest in the Church of Christ (and for UK readers).

Garrigou-Lagrange – Philosophizing in Faith: Essays on the Beginning and End of Wisdom (and for UK readers)

Learning Sacred Theology

The full reading list in one place.

Part I: Preliminaries, Catechism, Latin, Philosophy and the Magisterium
Part II: Ecclesiology, Apologetics and Dogmatic Theology.
Part III: Holy Scripture, Moral Theology, History, Patristics and Canon Law

Theology Manuals – Why are they so important in the post-conciliar crisis?
What are the duties of laymen in studying and spreading the Faith? – Pope Leo XIII
Theology and History – Part II: Why understanding this relationship is crucial for avoiding shipwreck
Theology and the Interior Life – How do they help each other? Fr R. Garrigou-Lagrange, 1943


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[1] Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, published as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. (UK readers) p 279

[2] Fenton, i

[3] Fenton iii

[4] Fenton 4

[5] Fenton xix

[6] Fenton xx

[7] Fenton 91-2

[8] Fenton 227-8

[9] Fenton 106

[10] Fenton 158

[11] Fenton 158

[12] Ibid.

[13] Fenton 18

[14] Michaele Nicolau SJ, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IA (Introduction to Theology), Trans. By Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith, USA 2015. 6

[15] Fenton 4

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Fenton 7.

[19] Fenton 7

[20] Fenton 19

[21] Fenton 29.

[22] Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, version from iPieta. Book 1. Chapter 1

[23] John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, Longmans, Green and Co. London, 1908, pp 390-1. And for UK readers. Online here: https://newmanreader.org/works/england/lecture9.html

[24] Fenton 279

[25] Fenton 99, 102

[26] Fenton 103

One thought on “What is Theology? With a review of Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton ‘What is Sacred Theology?’

  1. Darrell Wright

    I’ve never read anything by Fr Fenton. Thank you for the informative introduction.

    If Catholics “find themselves inspired by Ratzinger, von Balthasar or John Paul II,” it’s largely because the Vatican II church puts other theologies besides that of St Thomas up as optional theologies to follow. Popes before John XXIII would have put all 3 on the Index as heretics. There’s a good reason why St Pius V put 2 books on the main altar during the Council of Trent: the Holy Scriptures & the Summa Theologiae, & why, since then, especially from Leo XIII to Pius XII, all popes have said “Go to Thomas.”

    I’m a student of the great Thomist Etienne Gilson, & highly recommend his writings on Thomistic theology. A good introduction, I believe, is The Spirit of Thomism, as well as The Philosopher and Theology. The best deals are at bookfinder.com.

    If I’m permitted to mention, I self-published Faith and Reason in St. Thomas Aquinas According to Etienne Gilson: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy,

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