What To Do When Your Church Changes on You

Joseph Fenton was born in Springfield, MA in 1906. By 1931, he was ordained to the priesthood and had obtained his Roman doctorate in theology – from the Angelicum. On the question of religious liberty, he stood solidly with the church. And the official teaching had been expressed repeatedly:

  • In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI called the idea of religious liberty “absurd” in an encyclical.
  • In 1864, Pope Pius IX listed both religious freedom and separation of church and state in his Syllabus of Errors.
  • In 1888, Pope Leo XIII called religious liberty “false” and “greatly hurtful” in an encyclical.
  • In 1906, Pope Pius X said the idea of separation of church and state is “eminently disastrous and reprehensible.”

The official position was held well into the 20th century. In April 1948, an article in the Vatican-approved Civiltà Cattolica stated that the Roman Catholic Church is “convinced of being the only true church,” and hence she alone has a right to freedom. Other religions “shall not be allowed to propagate false doctrine.” When the majority of people in a country are Catholic, “the Church will require that legal existence be denied to error, and that if religious minorities actually exist, they shall have only a de facto existence, without opportunity to spread their beliefs.” Protestants should understand that the Catholic Church would betray herself “if she were to proclaim … that error can have the same rights as truth.”
As the reader perhaps knows, it was Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, who did the most important work in the development of doctrine regarding religious liberty in the decades before the Second Vatican Council. Limited by the accepted theological constrictions of his time, he was forced to argue that the condemnation of religious liberty was not really the “traditional” Catholic teaching (though it was taught repeatedly and emphatically by popes). He claimed that it merely was, as Barry Hudock puts it, “an adaptation … the church had made in a specific historical context, a specific set of circumstances that were true in a particular time and place.”
Fr. Joseph Fenton emerged as the primary opponent in battle against Murray. Fenton was a theology professor at the Catholic University of America and a close associate of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). If Christ is King, as Fenton pointed out that the Catholic liturgy calls him, then it is obligatory that nations follow and worship him in their laws. In an article in the American Ecclesiastical Review, Fr. Fenton wrote:
‘In the event that Fr. Murray’s teaching is true, then it would seem that our students of sacred theology have been sadly deceived for the past few centuries. They have been told that the state has an obligation to worship God according to the precepts and the rites of the true religion…. It is hard to believe that any Catholic could be convinced that an entire section of Catholic teaching about the Church itself could be so imperfect.’
Cardinal Ottaviani for his part said in 1953 at a talk at the Lateran University in Rome, “The enemies of the Church in every time have opposed her mission….” It’s not surprising when those outside the church do this, but it’s even worse when those inside it “attempt to snatch the weapons of truth and justice from her hands.” But that it was he saw happening then. He then went into the dispute between Fenton and Murray, and cited Murray’s thinking almost verbatim as it had been presented in a recent Fenton article. The church’s principles, he said, are “firm and unmovable.”
By 1954, Fenton was in Rome submitting secret reports about Murray to Ottaviani. Fenton wrote in his diary, “There is a good chance that I have taken a leading part in an action which may turn out to be one of the most important in the history of the Catholic Church in the USA. There seems to be ample evidence that the big boys over here are working in the right direction.”
Then, later in 1954, the Holy Office condemned four errors:

  • that the Catholic confessional state is not the ideal;
  • that full religious liberty can be considered as a valid political ideal in a truly democratic state;
  • that it is sufficient for the state to guarantee the freedom of the Catholic Church by a general guarantee of religious liberty; and
  • that the teaching of Leo XIII on the obligations of states to God is not applicable to the democratic state.

Murray was ordered to submit his writings to the censors in Rome before publication. His Jesuit superiors ordered him to write no more on the topic of religious liberty, to which he acquiesced.
In 1957-1958, the Holy Office was preparing a document on religious freedom. A draft included a list of 21 errors, 14 of which were drawn from Murray’s writings. But then, on October 9, 1958, Pope Pius XII died. And on October 28, John XXIII was elected. He calledthe Second Vatican Council in 1959.
Fenton was present at the first session of Vatican II in 1962 as Cardinal Ottaviani’s peritus (theological expert). Murray was not invited to the Council. Fenton worked with Ottaviani to have the Council condemn religious freedom, and the Holy Office had been preparing a document to this effect. Meanwhile, the newly-formed Secretariat for Christian Unity was also preparing a document on religious freedom which took an entirely different and more positive approach.
Cardinal Spellman arranged to have Murray invited to the second session of Vatican II as his advisor. Murray received the invitation to Vatican II the same week he was barred, along with Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, from speaking at the Catholic University of America. Murray’s ideas were advanced vigorously by the U.S. bishops on the Council floor.
But not without vigorous opposition. When the Council fathers were presented a draft document affirming religious freedom,

  • A Spanish cardinal said that the proposed declaration: “certainly contradicts the explicit teaching of the Roman pontiffs up to and including Pope John XXIII.”
  • Another Spaniard said that the document “perverts the doctrine taught for centuries by the magisterium of the Church.
  • Cardinal Ottaviani said that it was “contrary to common [Catholic] teaching.”

As events progressed in the course of November 1965, near the end of the final session of Vatican II, it became clearer that the proposed document was moving toward approval. Fenton wrote in his diary, “We should, I believe, face the facts. Since the death of St. Pius X the Church has been directed by weak and liberal popes, who have flooded the hierarchy with unworthy and stupid men. This present conciliar set-up makes this all the more apparent.”
After much to-ing and fro-ing, with plenty of backstage politicking and what some would no doubt call “synod rigging,” the Council fathers eventually approved the declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae. The vote on December 7, 1965, the day before the close of the Council, was 2,308 in favor and 70 against.
Dignitatis humanae states in its opening paragraph what it is up to: “The council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person.” And here is the key sentence in the declaration: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” It is interesting how the declaration understands the source of its teaching:
This doctrine of freedom has roots in divine revelation, and for this reason Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously. Revelation does not indeed affirm in so many words the right of persons to immunity from external coercion in matters religious….”
The (new) teaching is not explicitly found in divine revelation, but it is enough that its “roots” are in divine revelation. This was enough to make development, indeed reversal, possible.
And where was Fr. Fenton at this point? Fenton left Rome in late November so as not to have to be present for the promulgation of Dignitatis humanae. He had resigned as editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review the previous December. He became pastor of a parish in Massachusetts, and no longer expressed himself on the issue of religious liberty. He died in 1969. One can only wonder what the final years and days were like for him.
Barry Hudock’s presentation, which formed the basis for this post, is based on his recent book from Liturgical Press, Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II. Pray Tell published the conclusion to that book here.

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  1. What an excellent and timely article, given what is going on in Rome at the moment. Many thanks to our moderator for putting it up on the site. Of course, doctrine has changed. I have fairly recently read Fr. John O’Malley’s marvellous book , “What happened at Vatican II” and you can be in no doubt that church teaching has changed having read it. However, in the comments following Gerard Moloney’s piece recently on this site, “The Church I long to see” Peter Shore was absolutely adamant that doctrine has never changed. In fact, we engaged in conversation on this issue as I, until that moment, was certain doctrine had changed. Then I wondered about the semantics involved– what is “doctrine” . Peter kindly gave me a link to a site which explained how doctrine, indeed, could never change.
    You would have to wonder who is responsible for sites like the one Peter gave me the link to. Most of my life I swallowed so much nonsense ,innocently and without question, that I am now very wary of whose word I should listen to.
    I suppose one of the greatest humdingers of all in terms of catholic doctrine about-turns arises from the absolute certainty of Pius IX’s exclamation in 1859 when he said “It has to be accepted as a matter of faith that no one can be saved outwith the apostolic Church of Rome.”

  2. Doctrine : Well I think all the mainstream Christian churches proclaim the Creed – some slightly different versions. You could call each of the tenets proclaimed in the Creed basic Christian doctrine which does not change. We can say, can we not, that the mainstream Christian churches have the same doctrine, the same faith. Does anybody need more doctrine? Can any doctrine outside the Creed be trusted, be truly called doctrine?

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