Work in Progress

Theology's Fr. Fortin publishes a three-volume compendium of his life's work - so far

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Throughout his career Prof. Ernest Fortin, AA (Theology), has written numerous essays he describes as "born of a desire to know more about the world in which we live, the forces that shaped it and the type of human being it tends to produce." Fr. Fortin recently published a sampling of these writings, many out of print or hard to locate, in a three-volume set titled Ernest L. Fortin: Collected Essays .

Originally written for various collections, journals, festschrifts, symposia or other purposes, the essays embody some of Fr. Fortin's most formative experiences. They also reflect his interest in what he feels are neglected areas of scholarship, such as pre-modern thought and political philosophy.

"I do not talk about myself in the essays, but they speak to many things which influenced me, or which I found very thought-provoking," said Fr. Fortin, who was honored with a commemorative lecture last month to celebrate the release of the collection. "I simply like to write about subjects with which people can connect and perhaps this can help them develop a self-understanding they might not have had before."

The essays in each volume are grouped around a dominant subject, as indicated in the individual titles: The Birth of Philosophic Christianity , Classical Christianity and the Political Order and Human Rights, Virtue and the Common Good . They represent Fr. Fortin's most long-standing scholarly pursuits, some of which he began while a student in post-World War II Europe. That era was one of foreboding, he recalls, as expressed by the title of a popular book at the time, Can Modern Culture Survive? , and a surge of interest in the works of St. Augustine chronicling the fall of the Roman Empire.

Prof. Ernest Fortin, AA - "I simply like to write about subjects with which people can connect."

"Historians and scholars had always studied the rise of civilizations and now here they were looking at the decline," he said. "I'm not a pessimist by nature, but I found this mood intriguing. There seemed to be a general, uneasy feeling that nothing was constant; people would read books, yet not retain them. That's when I began to focus on the more enduring works."

These experiences helped form the basis for the major themes in his writings that are present throughout the volumes, Fr. Fortin said, such as the recurring tension in Western civilization between faith and reason.

"This clash has been a defining characteristic of the Western world," Fr. Fortin said. "There may be some elements of it in other civilizations, but not to the extent we see in the West. The questions it has generated are fascinating."

In his writings, Fr. Fortin also frequently addresses the virtues of political philosophy, which he describes as "the place where all fundamental human questions are examined and discussed." It is, he says, "no longer the master science it once was" and there have been precious few great political philosophers since the early 19th century.

"Political philosophy lays out the problems and the approaches one can use to solve the problems, and is a great medium between religion and politics," Fr. Fortin said. "It gives you a framework in which to discuss them and allows for differences among thoughtful people.

"Unfortunately," he added, "the political life of most societies now is rarely pleasant and this we can trace all the way to the aftermath of the French Revolution. Everything had to be explained in terms of culture and so politics has no autonomy or principles of its own."

If Collected Essays offers a summary of his career as a theologian in classical Christianity, Fr. Fortin does not necessarily regard the publication as a capstone.

"I don't tend to think in that sense - that this is my life's work," he explained. "My work is constantly ongoing and I don't believe it will ever really be finished. But perhaps one can look upon these volumes as at least a frame of reference."

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