Mgr. Fenton on the Failure of Vatican II
— What John Vennari didn’t tell you

Mr. John Vennari

John Vennari, editor of the recognize-and-resist flagship publication Catholic Family News, has long been an ardent proponent of the great anti-Modernist theologian Mgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton (1906-1969), and rightly so. Fenton was indeed a remarkably gifted and zealous opponent of Modernism in the twentieth century, a genuine stronghold of Catholic orthodoxy amid the theological liberalism that was trying to gain foot in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

For well over ten years, and again very recently, Vennari has been quoting in his articles and talks from an essay written by Mgr. Fenton in 1962 (“The Virtue of Prudence and the Success of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council”), just before the opening of the council, in which the theologian warns that Vatican II might fail, and that the faithful should not assume that the mere calling of an ecumenical council also guarantees its success. While Vennari’s quoting of Fenton is accurate, there are other quotes in Fenton’s essay that diametrically contradict and refute Vennari’s own position on Vatican II — quotes which the editor of Catholic Family News somehow did not see fit to share with his readers and listeners, but which we are more than happy to provide for you.

Before we do so, however, let’s look at an excerpt from a recently republished article by Vennari in which he quotes from Fenton’s 1962 essay on the possible failure of the council (to facilitate reading, Vennari’s words will appear in black, Fenton’s in blue):

[Fenton] … lays out what the Council will have to achieve in order to be considered a success:

    “In order to be successful, in order to accomplish the purpose for which it has been called into being, the ecumenical council must speak out effectively and adequately against the doctrinal aberrations which are endangering the Faith, and hence the entire spiritual life, of the Faithful at the time the council is working.

    “Furthermore, in the disciplinary field, it is impossible for an ecumenical council to attain its purpose unless it sets forth regulations and directives which tend to achieve the following objectives.

    “First, these disciplinary decrees must be such as to make it easier for the Faithful in the state of friendship for God to advance in His love.

    “Second, they must be so calculated as to make it easier for those who are members of the Church and who are not living the life of grace to return to the friendship of God.

    “And finally, they must be such as to aid in the conversion of non-Catholics to the one and only true Church of Jesus Christ.”

Along the same line, he elaborated, “those who are not favored with membership in the Church [should] be able to see even more clearly that the presently existing visible Catholic Church is really the one and only supernatural kingdom of God on earth.”

Again, he warns, “It is by no means automatically certain the council will be successful, speaking from the point of view of this supernatural prudence.”

As if predicting the future, Fenton closes: “It is possible that the council might act other than with the fullness of supernatural prudence. It is possible that, seen it this perspective, it may not be successful.”

Tragically, the Council has been a failure on the very points spotlighted by Msgr. Fenton.

(John Vennari, “Vatican II May Fail: Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton’s 1962 Warning”Catholic Family News Blog, June 18, 2014)

We all know that John Vennari takes the position not only that the council failed in these three respects, which Fenton clearly conceded was possible, but also that the council taught doctrinal error. This can be seen, for example, in the following blog post, in which Vennari promotes the SiSiNoNo series “The Errors of Vatican II”, highlighting the council’s “mutilated concept of the Magisterium” and a “contamination of Catholic doctrine”:

This speaks for itself. The series “The Errors of Vatican II” lists a total of 18 concrete errors, most of them genuine errors in doctrine, not merely problems of expression or vagueness or ambiguity. In the introductory post, Vennari himself highlights the series’ accusation against the council of engendering the “contamination of Catholic doctrine with intrinsically anti-Catholic ‘modern thinking.’”

Another example that demonstrates that Vennari believes Vatican II to contain error, if not outright heresy, is had in this post:

Vennari explicitly says: “The documents of Vatican II are flawed documents due to their deliberate ambiguity, lack of precision, countless omissions, refusal to employ scholastic language, and because of the novel concepts advanced that constitute a rupture with the past, such as the decree on Religious Liberty” (italics added). A concept that is new (“novel”) and contradicts prior teaching (“rupture with the past”) is obviously erroneous, since the prior teaching is true. In the above-linked article, Vennari also speaks of the council as being “defective at its core” and containing “harmful novelties.”

Clearly, the editor of Catholic Family News believes Vatican II taught error, even if he sometimes uses the smoother-sounding word “novelty” instead, a term which is abundantly used by Vennari’s associate Christopher Ferrara, because it allows him to give the impression that Vatican II teaches error without explicitly saying so (clever!).

More links of John Vennari talking about Vatican II and Mgr. Fenton are available here:

Now that we have clarified Vennari’s own position on Vatican II, which is well known among his readership, let us turn again to his presentation of what Mgr. Fenton said before the council. As we said already, Vennari quotes Fenton accurately. However, here is what else Fenton said in the context of the possibility of the council failing, unduly — but quite conveniently — omitted by Vennari:


Here is a transcript of the relevant passages:

The fact of the matter is that the success of the ecumenical council really depends on the effectiveness and the ardor of the prayers of the faithful. There is one factor which Our Lord has clearly promised to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. The supreme teaching power of the kingdom of God on earth will be protected against the teaching of error as long as it speaks out on a matter of faith or morals to the entire Church of God in this world, and speaks definitively. In other words, the indwelling of the Holy Ghost will teach and lead the ecclesiastical magisterium when it speaks definitively for the universal Church of God on earth, in such a way that this magisterium … will teach and define the doctrine of the Church accurately.

Thus there need be no anxiety about the possibility of any doctrinal error emanating from the ecumenical council. It is absolutely beyond the bounds of possibility that the ecumenical council should proclaim, and that the Roman Pontiff should confirm and promulgate as the teaching of an ecumenical council, any doctrine at variance with the teaching of God which has been given to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. There never will be a time when the doctrinal decrees of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican will have to be corrected, either negatively or positively. And, in precisely the same way, there is absolutely no possibility that the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican will set out to correct, or to put into better balance, any of the decrees of any of the previous ecumenical councils, or, for that matter, any of the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Roman Pontiff, whether these pronouncements have been made through the solemn or the ordinary teaching activity of the Bishop of Rome.

We are praying, however, that the forthcoming Council may be successful, and the success of the Ecumenical Council involves a great deal more than the infallible pronouncement of the salutary message of Jesus Christ….

(Mgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, “The Virtue of Prudence and the Success of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council”American Ecclesiastical Review 147 [Oct. 1962], pp. 255-256; italics in original; underlining added for emphasis.)

This is Fenton’s prelude to his argument about the possible “failure” of the council — a prelude, we submit, Vennari should have mentioned to his readers and listeners, so as not to cause the false impression that Fenton agrees with Vennari’s “resistance” position against the errors of the council. For Fenton, such doctrinal error as Vennari believes in was entirely impossible, a priori. Yet, Vennari constantly uses Fenton for his anti-Vatican II apologetics, as shown above; his failure to mention, therefore, that Fenton adamantly rejected as absolutely incompatible with Catholic doctrine the very ideas held by Vennari about even the possibility of doctrinal errors in the council, is a grave affront worthy of special censure.

While Vennari doesn’t explicitly claim that Mgr. Fenton believed the council would or could teach doctrinal error, he nevertheless gives the impression that Fenton would have been on his side with regard to Vatican II by quoting him as above and then failing to mention that Fenton absolutely and definitively excluded any possibility that the council might fail in the sense of teaching error or heresy.

A little later in his essay, Fenton reinforces what he has already said about the impossibility of doctrinal error in Vatican II by pointing out that it therefore follows that the council’s teaching must be accepted by all without hesitation:

Incidentally, it should be noted that it makes no difference whatsoever whether the doctrinal statements of the ecumenical council are set forth in a positive manner or negatively. A teaching is presented positively when the truth is asserted directly. It is presented negatively when the error or heresy contradictory to this truth is condemned. In either case the work is done. The people of God are made aware of the fact that this truth forms a part of the Christian message, and that any contradiction of this statement, or even any hesitancy in accepting it with a perfectly certain assent, is definitely an offence against God.

(Fenton, “The Virtue of Prudence and the Success of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council”, op. cit., pp. 257-258; underlining added for emphasis.)

This is not exactly what you’ve heard from John Vennari lately, is it? Yet this is the teaching of Mgr. Fenton, the very same Fenton whom Vennari quotes regarding the possibibility that the council might fail. Yes, Fenton did indeed warn that the council might fail. And yet in the same breath he also clarified, even before the council convened, that it would be beyond the realm of all possibility that the council could fail doctrinally.

So, Mr. Vennari, our question to you is this: If Mgr. Fenton was such a great theologian as you say (and he was indeed!), how is it that you accept his theological expertise only regarding his warning that the council might fail in terms of prudence, but yet not regarding his insistence that it would be absolutely impossible for the council to err in matters of faith and morals? And why is it that you even fail to tell your audience that this was Fenton’s position with regard to the doctrinal content of Vatican II, all the while you do tell them about his warning that the council might fail?

For all those interested in reading the full article written by Mgr. Fenton on the virtue of prudence and the success of Vatican II, we are pleased to make available a scanned PDF version of the complete article as it appeared in the American Ecclesiastical Review in October of 1962. Click below:

Mgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton

“The Virtue of Prudence and the Success of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council”

Originally published in
American Ecclesiastical Review 147 (Oct. 1962)
pp. 255-265

(12.7 MB)

To clarify our own position, we wish to state explicitly that we hold Mgr. Fenton in the highest regard. He was an exceptionally gifted theologian and passionate defender of orthodoxy, especially against the heresies of Modernism and religious liberty. His thesis that Vatican II could not possibly teach any error on faith or morals is entirely correct under the assumption that it would be promulgated by a true and valid Pope, an assumption he of course labored under. We know today that Vatican II taught grave doctrinal error, but this is only possible because the “Pope” who promulgated it, Paul VI, was not in fact a true Pope.

To be sure, Fenton himself was no sedevacantist after the council, but then again, he died in 1969, a mere three-and-a-half years after its close; whereas we today have the benefit of decades of further doctrinal clarifications and developments that demonstrate, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Church teach doctrinal error. Precisely what Fenton thought of Vatican II after it finished is a bit difficult to ascertain, as he resigned his editorship at the American Ecclesiastical Review in December of 1963. However, his recently-published personal diaries give some insight into his struggles before, during, and after the council, at which Fenton worked for Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani as a theological expert.

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