Laying The Foundation:
A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics and
Fr Joseph Clifford Fenton,
Emmaus Road Publishing (15 Feb 2016)
The credentials of the author are quite extraordinary: a student of the great Garrigou Lagrange, Peritus to Cardinal Ottaviani during the Second Vatican Council and a professor of fundamental dogmatic theology. In his Foreword, Scott Hahn calls this book the greatest work of apologetics to be published in a time of superstar apologists including Frank Sheed, Fulton Sheen and Ronald Knox.
There is a current need for this great work of apologetics, although published first in 1942, at a time when the Catholic Faith continues to be attacked. As I write this review during Easter Week, I will focus on what is said about miracles and the Resurrection.
As one begins reading the chapter on miracles, it is clear that the author firmly believes in the reality of the miracles performed by Jesus. The very robust statements of Fenton are in sharp contrast to those of a typically liberal Christian such as Jeffrey John, who in his book entitled The Meaning in the Miracles writes:
"Just as Luke's story of the widow's son "improved" the story of Jairus's daughter...John goes a step further by having Lazarus four days in the tomb."
One gets the distinct impression that miracles for Jeffrey John are stories constructed by the Gospel authors. How much we need the resounding words of Fenton:
"The gospels not only recount the series of miracles and individual wonders performed by Jesus of Nazareth but they also tell of the reaction to the signs on the part of his friends and enemies."
Fenton most certainly sees these miracles as historical events, not mere theological ruminations. Even the enemies of Christ saw them as real, although brought about by demons, says Fenton. He goes on to list these miracles. For Fenton, "all of these miracles were eminently consonant with what we know about the divine attributes."
The excellent chapter on the Resurrection begins with the Gospel accounts followed by a series of reflections. Did the disciples cleverly plan to steal the body? Fenton observes that they were "so badly broken in spirit they no longer looked for the accomplishment of the Resurrection." Psychologically, they were incapable of intricate planning. Was the Resurrection nothing more than a series of subjective visions? Fenton responds that "visions are by their very nature individual experiences" and, in contrast, there is a certain consistency in the different Resurrection appearances. One Lewis Brown, apparently the Richard Dawkins of his day, claims that the disciples were deluded. Fenton replies: "A number of lunatics all hitting upon the same delusion...such a picture is utterly outside the boundaries of reasonable reality" For those who claim that Jesus may not have died, Fenton reminds them of the lance that pierced his side. The disciples certainly saw Jesus after he had died and yet they recognized that "his body was in a different condition" from before. Jeffrey John writes: "It is important not to suppose that Christian faith in the resurrection depends on believing the literal and detailed historical truth of these miracle stories..." Fenton would have heartily disagreed with this.
This is a very special work, written by one who suffered deeply at the end of his life as he saw his beloved Church falling into seeming disarray. But as Scott Hahn says, Fenton's legacy is formidable. The publishers deserve our gratitude for re-introducing us to this great theologian.
Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan