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Home WHO WE ARE Assumptionists Profiles Fr. ERNEST FORTIN, A.A. (1923-2002)

Fr. ERNEST FORTIN, A.A. (1923-2002)

ERNEST FORTIN, A.A. (1923-2002)PROMINENT ASSUMPTIONIST Fr. Ernest Fortin was considered to be one of the leading political philosophers in the United States in the late 20th century, especially one interested in questions of faith and reason. Fr. Fortin was born and raised in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1923. He attended Assumption College and Laval University, graduating from Assumption College in 1946. He had joined the Augustinians of the Assumption/Assumptionists in 1944, and following graduation he attended the Angelicu in Rome for his theological education. He received his licentiate in 1950. He completed his doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1955 and his dissertation was published in 1959 under the title Christianisme et culture philosophique au cinquième siècle: la querelle de l'âme humaine en Occident.

Following theological studies and ordination, he went to Paris, where he met Allan Bloom, another major political philosopher who quickly became his friend and colleague. It was Bloom who introduced him to the thinking of Leo Strauss, one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

He returned to Assumption College to teach between 1959 and 1971, where he taught a vast array of courses in philosophy, theology, literature, and politics.  In 1971, he moved to the department of Theology at Boston College, where he soon founded the Perspectives Program. Fr. Fortin was to stay at Boston College until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1997. He served as chairman of the department for many years and oversaw the dissertation of numerous doctoral dissertation.

Ever Ancient, Ever NewIn 1997, he suffered a stroke and retired from active teaching.

Father Fortin's work in the realm of political philosophy takes place in two camps.

In one camp, he examines and wrestles with political philosophy as done within the Christian tradition. Here, he contrasts Christianity with both Judaism and Islam, for whom revelation provided a law that would provide the basis for political life.

"If Augustine can be said to have any concerns for politics at all, it is not for its own sake but because of the moral problems that it poses for Christians who, as citizens, are willy-nilly caught up in it. These problems have their common root in the nature of Christianity itself, which is essentially a nonpolitical religion. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the two other great monotheistic religions of the West, it does not call for the formation of a separate community or provide a code of laws by which that community might be governed. It takes it for granted that its followers will continue to live as full-fledged citizens of the political society to which they belong and share its way of life as long as they are not forced to indulge in practices that are directly at odds with their basic beliefs, as were, for example, idolatry and emperor worship."

In the second camp he examines political philosophy in itself. In the foreword that he wrote to the first volume of his collected essays, Fortin wrote:

"Political philosophy is that part of the philosophical enterprise in which philosophy comes to its own defense and, instead of taking itself for granted, makes a concerted effort to justify itself before the tribunal of the city. By situating itself within the context of human life as a whole, it discloses the full range of human possibilities and thus reveals human beings to themselves as no other science is capable of doing. In it, philosophy, politics, and theology come together to thresh out all of the fundamental problems of human life."

Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle AgesHis work in those camps covers the history of the West, but makes significant contributions in three periods. The first period is the encounter of Christian faith with the philosophical tradition of pagan Greece and Rome. Fortin was an accomplished patristics scholar, who wrote extensively on St. Augustine. The second period is the medieval period. Fortin made particular contributions with his study of Dante. He also held the Straussian position that the doctrine of natural human rights was a distinctively modern idea, and did not have backing in classical or medieval thought. Finally, the third period in which he made significant contribution was his perceptive reading, commentary and more-or-less blunt criticism of the 20th century social teaching of the Catholic Church. Here, particularly with respect to the statements of American Catholic bishops, he questioned the degree to which their statements were in conformity with the classical Christian heritage.

In 2003, Fr. Dennis Gallagher, A.A., Regional Superior of the Assumptionists in the united States and one of Fr. Fortin's former students, wrote, "Fr. Ernest was a man to be reckoned with. This is true not only because of his immense intellectual gifts and breadth of learning, but because of what education meant for him: a “consuming, lifelong, and all-encompassing enterprise.” Part of a eulogy to his friend Alan Bloom, this description applied equally well to himself. In that same eulogy, Fr. Ernest noted that many Americans tend to go through school like a letter in the mail, coming out at the end pretty much the same as they went in, with only a diploma—a cancelled stamp—to show for it. For him, education was a far more adventurous and dangerous undertaking, made possible only by what he frequently called “a root and branch change.” Such  an intellectual conversion entailed the arduous process of freeing oneself from the dogmatic opinions of one’s own time by a genuine openness to, and serious study of, the greatest thinkers of the past. No one better embodied the promise of liberal education than Fr. Ernest."

Father Fortin's personal library can be found at the Emmanuel d'Alzon Library at Assumption College In 2006 Assumption College renamed its Foundations program "the Fortin and Gonthier Foundations of Western Civilization Program" in honor of Fr. Fortin and his Assumption colleague, Fr. Denys Gonthier".

Shortly before his death in 2002, he received the festschrift in his honor. On October 22, 2002, he sat up in bed, said "I see something beautiful," and died shortly thereafter.

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