What To Do When Your Church Changes on You: The Case of Fr. Joseph Fenton

by Anthony Ruff, based on a presentation by Barry Hudock at Saint John’s University on October 15, 2015. FentonJoseph 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.

OttavianiCardinal 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 called Vatican II bishopsthe 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.”

Fenton face the factsAs 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.



  1. Definitely a book I must read. Having been raised RC with Episcopalians and Lutherans in the family and 8 years of Catholic School pre-Vatican II, there were times I was officially admonished not to participate in family funerals at “other” churches. My grandfather was officially excommunicated for not requiring my grandmother’s conversion or at least her signature declaring intent to raise their children Catholic yet he attended every Sunday until officially re-instated 17 years later and was in total joy to be able to receive Communion again. It was not without some serious thought and a little helping of traditional guilt that I ultimately left and joined the Episcopal Church because my 2nd husband (I was widowed) who was never a Catholic, was divorced and so I was inhibited from receiving the sacraments unless he obtained an annulment from his non-Catholic first wife – that seemed absurd to me though he was willing to try. I now have an MA in religious studies from the seriously Catholic St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia, where Pope Francis just stayed, granted all the while I was an and am an Episcopalian. The then Dean and I had many pleasant conversations about how I, as a woman AND a “lapsed” Catholic was now permitted to study and graduate in the post-Vatican II world. One can only hope that more Divine Revelation will bring to light a few more “errors” and grant more “freedom” for women and others who wish to be more active contributors in their church but are still held behind the barriers of the “Gloria syndrome”: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be… Thank you for this post!

  2. View from the pew.
    Regarding: ” “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” ”
    – Interestingly, this could be seen as the universal church catching up with the domestic church.
    – As the above post illustrates, in domestic churches that incorporated family members from other religions or churches, there were ecclesial penalties imposed. However some, maybe many, domestic churches avoided these crippling impositions by simply not telling the pastor, or other clerics, anything that went on in the domestic church apropos inter-religious / church familial relations.
    – To wit, if a wedding or funeral or other church event was planned then everyone went with the proviso what the ‘father’ or the ‘sister’ did not know would not hurt the family.

  3. By all means, read Hudock’s full account of Murray’s odyssey. But take a little time, also, to mull over the last line of his excellent post. What was life like for poor Fenton after his intellectual world was demolished? And what about the victorious forces of Truth and Enlightenment — my side in that debate: Did we make his life more of a hell than it had to be (or should have been)?

    The question is timely, I submit, because if the Synod results in the changes in pastoral practice for which I — and, I suspect, many other readers of this blog — devoutly pray, that outcome likely will be deeply disturbing to some of our brothers and sisters. And the pain will not be confined just to easily caricatured buffoons who inhabit the more squirrelly precincts of the blogosphere.

    Aside from priests and other parish minister who have loyally followed the party-line many of whom, surely, lamented the pain they were causing, what about all those good souls who have soldiered on for decades in “irregular situations,” tolerating the heartbreak while following the [old] rules? How much thought is being given to creating a pastoral environment more conducive to a widespread and durable reception of the [hoped-for] new practice?

  4. The votes from Vatican II always astound me. DH was the document that got the *most* “no” votes—which is to say, 3% of the total vote. Most of the others had a handful of “no”s at best.

    In what context does a body of thinking, analytical minds *ever* agree to that degree on anything as “touchy” as religious freedom would have been at the time?

    1. @Felipe Gasper:
      Well, if one were to read the debates, one would see they went to great efforts to allow for DH to be read either way — as a repudiation of the previous teaching, or in perfect conformity with it.

      Much of this was done to get hundreds of dissenting votes. This occurred on virtually every conciliar document. There were major efforts to bring the totals as close to unanimous as possible. It was seen as an essential thing to move the Church forward.

      We don’t see that with today’s synod. Instead, it seems it may result in more disagreement rather than less. Of course, some on either side thinks those are good things.

      1. @Todd Orbitz:

        “…or in perfect conformity with it.” Yeah, right. Umm, the debates don’t show that at all. The debates show that those objecting to the final wording have argued during the debates that that wording is impossible and can’t be reconciled and that’s why they were against it. But then they came around.

        If DH could have been read “in perfect conformity with previous teaching,” then Fenton wouldn’t have had reason to leave Rome, dejected, two weeks before the final vote.


      2. @Anthony Ruff:
        Give me a break. The Bishops in the Coetus Internationalis Patrum at the Council cited specifically that it could be read in perfect conformity with the earlier teaching when they were affixing their signatures to the document. Of couse, even Lefebre affixed his signature citing that reason.

        What one saw after the Council was such a departure from it, many reconsidered their support. But, at the time, that’s how their signatures were obtained.

      3. @Todd Orbitz:
        Yes, exactly. All these people said that it can’t happen, it’s impossible, it would be a change in teaching, such a change is impossible.

        Then, when it became clear that such a change was about to happen, they switched out their interpretation. Since change isn’t possible, this can’t possibly be a change, so we’ll take it to be, rather, a development which is in conformity to the earlier teaching.

        Fine. If that helps them accept the change, I’ll take it.

        But it is good to be honest about what in fact happened and call things by their right name.


      4. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        I was being honest. The DH was marketed to the Council Fathers exactly that way, and honestly, if you went to the debate, and looked at the working group notes, one sees exactly that come through.

  5. Pat (#3), your point is well made. Having lived for 5 years in an “irregular” marriage before moving through the necessary processes — and having abstained from receiving Communion throughout those years — I count myself as one who, as you say, tolerated the heartbreak while following the rules.

    You’re right that thought ought to be given to those people who have and to the pastors who conscientiously followed the party line in their ministry to those people. Indeed, they should be thanked.

    It’s because of these very realities that the blogging buffoons you to whom you refer are more than just a nuisance. Their ahistorical, uninformed vitriol has the potential to do very real damage to hearts and souls. Rather than allowing the People of God to be aware that the discipline and, yes, the doctrine of the Church develops over time, and so enable them to understand and accept the changes more serenely, they lob grenades that accuse popes and cardinals of disloyalty and heresy. It’s a sad situation.

    By the way, I count neither Fr. Fenton nor Cardinal Ottaviani among such buffoons. I made an effort in my book to present them both as real people of strong faith, keen intellects, and good intentions, who happened to be on the wrong side of an argument.

    This is especially the case with Ottaviani. In an interview in the closing weeks of the Council, having found himself on the losing side of quite a few such arguments, he said, “I am the soldier who guards the gold reserve. If you tell an old soldier that the laws are going to change, it is clear that, being an old soldier, he will do everything he can to keep them from changing. But if the laws change anyway, God will certainly give him the strength to come to the defense of the new treasure in which he believes. Once the new laws become the treasure of the Church, enriching the gold reserve, then there is only one principle that counts: to serve the Church. And this service means being faithful to its laws.”

    An example worth following.

  6. I was at Catholic University 1967-1969, “Butch” Fenton’s befuddlement was well known. I was really surprised when the American Bishops came out as if religious liberty was something the Catholic Chuch “would always” defend. That would be news to Fenton. I am interested in knowing what he did after the Council.

  7. Pat’s point is excellent and well-considered. My take is that a few loyalists have crossed the line into becoming busybodies: reporting practices they disagree with to the higher-ups.

    The difference I see for the near-future is that tattletales will get much less traction with the institution in most places. And even when a diocese or parish is perceived by rigorists to err on the side of laxity, it won’t be likely a co-adjutor will be assigned or a pastor forced into early retirement. That alone will allow pastoral ministers to serve the hurting without interference from people who have no business intruding on the pain and suffering of others.

  8. I’ve never thought of Pius XI and Pius XII as weak and liberal popes. John XXIII and Paul VI may have been a bit liberal but not really weak.

    Do we know how Fenton+ justified his assertion?

  9. Brian (#10), what Fr. Fenton most likely had in mind was the ratcheting down of Rome’s efforts to stomp out modernism. These efforts by no means ceased following Pius X, but they didn’t have the intensity of the efforts made by him and his immediate predecessors. (Note, besides Pius XI and Pius XII, Benedict XV also followed Pius X.)

    Fenton maintained a view of the world and the Church much like that reflected in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors: modernity could only be seen as an enemy of the Church, and as a result, the world and the Church were destined to be locked in mortal combat. (He wrote several articles expressing this, published in the American Ecclesiastic Review, the journal he edited.) For Fenton, Ottaviani, and those who thought like them, accepting religious freedom as a human right could only be seen as a traitorous capitulation to modernity.

    John XXIII’s dismissal of the “prophets of doom” who could see only “prevarication and ruin” in modern times was a pretty clear reference to this mindset. Fr. Fenton would have taken it as an obvious sign of weakness and liberalism.

    Of course, one irony is all this is that here on the American Catholic scene today, it’s often the very people who have embraced religious freedom as a fundamental issue (and in the process, some would say, overly politicized it) who object most loudly to anything that might remotely be perceived as a development or change in supposedly unalterable doctrine.

  10. #11 Barry — thank you for engaging us in discussion of your work —

    to go back to Pat’s question in #3, do we know what Fr Fenton’s last years (not many, if DH was late 1965 and he died in 1969) were like? Was his life made hell, by gloating opponents or pestering journalists? What sort of pastor was he? Did he perhaps retreat into the same silence from which Murray had been liberated, finding some comfort and peace in his priestly ministry, caring for people who perhaps neither knew nor cared about his role in the debate?

  11. Katherine and Pat,

    Like Murray, Joseph Fenton was plagued by heart problems during and after the Council. He resigned his teaching post at Catholic University midway through the Council years, and following the Council was assigned as pastor of a parish in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.

    He remained frustrated by the Council’s teaching, but his diaries don’t suggest rejection of it or even strong bitterness. He kept in contact with Ottaviani and visitrd Rome on vacation a few more times. He gave some thought to writing a book about being a priest in the Church post-Vatican II, but never got seriously started on such a project. He died in his sleep in the parish rectory, of a heart attack, in 1969, at age 63.

    Murray had died of a heart attack in a NYC taxi cab 2 years earlier. Cardinal Ottaviani died in 1979. May they all rest in the Lord together.

  12. Let’s step forward (rather than back, as it were) in the place where the rubber hits the road (to mix figures of speech): the confessional.

    It’s the year, say, 1700. A man goes to confession in Holy Week. In the process of confessing his sins, he mentions his slave(s) in relevant context for one or more of the sins. How likely would it have been for the confessor to have spotlighted the fact of owning slaves as a sin, let alone a serious sin.

    Fast foward to today. Same situation. Same question.

    * * *

    *That’s* a serious change, nay, earthquake.

    Just an illustration.

    And when I encounter people who try to thread the needle in order to avoid acknowledging how big a change that particular shift was and is, I am reminded of people who, in dysfunctional families, play the role of family border collie – the people who, through much pain and effort, figured out how to cope with the rule system of the dysfunctional family, and dread the blow-up of that rule system (they therefore strain to avoid having any open discussion of the rules) because they perceive it would waste their painful investment in figuring it out.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      My point (in #3, above) is that, if the practice changes, the people who have gone thru the pain of living with the dysfunctional rules deserve more than an Emily Litella-style, “Never mind,” by way of explanation.

      It shouldn’t be that hard to do: Francis has articulated the rationale beautifully. But it is vital that those of us on the “winning” side — if, indeed, that is the outcome — show some grace and sensitivity. This is no time to spike the football on the graves of Sr. Mary Elephant and Msgr. Sheisskopf.

    2. @Karl Liam Saur:

      *That’s* a serious change, nay, earthquake.

      Given slavery is the totemic example, it should be worth noting that no one denies the teaching on slavery has changed. Nor indeed do many deny that the change represented a development of doctrine.

      If we look at Dignitatis humanae, the one place where Vatican II explicitly notes it is developing doctrine (i.e. … the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person … ), we can even see the nature of this development when it reflects the statement in Gaudium et Spes of the “growing awareness of the sublime dignity of human persons” (which is precisely the basis on which Vatican II and modern Church Social Doctrine rejects slavery).

      The debate however surrounds the nature of that change, and what the nature of that changes says about the possibility of further change.

      On the view of people like John Noonan (adopted by some contributors here), this change is a flat contradiction of previous teachings, and therefore it basically explodes the claim the Church can speak infallibly via Scripture or Tradition outside the “rule of faith”. On the related views of others who support so called “Historical Consciousness”, there is a basically a rejection of the idea of any unchanging truths at all.

      However the Magisterium in Dei verbum 8 and Dignitatis humanae, following the models of people like St. Vincent of Lerins, Cardinal Newman and Fr. John Courtney Murray’s work leading up to the Council (with his endorsement of eternal transtemporal principles applied in concrete historical circumstances), has endorsed a different view (what Pope Benedict called the Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity).

      Under this view, there has not been a contradiction of previous infallible doctrinal teaching in regards to slavery. For example, slavery was always seen as an affront to human dignity, which resulted due to the sinful and fallen nature of the world (c/f St Augustine etc).

      And therefore the eternal transtemporal principle has remained constant –The respect for human dignity. The application of this principle to slavery has however changed, because with time we have developed the intellectual tools required to be able to give effect to that enhanced recognition of human dignity.

      And this view, while it still recognises the development of doctrine and even very great developments, places far more limits to its possible extent that the other available views. Because it recognises the revealed nature of Christianity, and its relationship to an eternal God.

      1. @Scott Smith:
        So this tells us that after development of doctrine occurs, it will always be possible for people to re-interpret the development, no matter how great or how seemingly in contradiction to previous teaching, as being legitimate because it is really reform in continuity.

        I take it that some pretty big changes and developments in the issues being debated at the synod, including changes even more radical than those proposed there, would admit – if officially approved – of being (re)interpreted as legitimate developments in continuity with the past.

        The operative principle is that any change, if it occurs, can only have been legitimate – else it could not have happened.

        So it seems, then, that any change whatsoever, from the synod or in its wake, will be readily accepted by all parties as legitimate development of doctrine. If this is the case, then we can all relax – and rejoice in the forthcoming consensus, no matter the outcome in the near or distant future.


      2. @Anthony Ruff:

        So this tells us that after development of doctrine occurs, it will always be possible for people to re-interpret the development, no matter how great or how seemingly in contradiction to previous teaching, as being legitimate because it is really reform in continuity.

        No, not at all. These tests are perfectly able to be applied prospectively, and are not able to justify anything (as I said it provides real limits to what development can be regarded as legitimate).

        In terms of prospective application, we can see that in the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray, who precisely did the work of justifying a development before it was adopted by the Church.

        And in terms of real limits, we can see that in the example put forward by John Noonan. If slavery was really “intrinsically evil”, a straight out contradiction could not be interpreted away, because we would be asserting an eternal truth (i.e. slavery is always and everywhere intolerable) not amiable to historical circumstances.

        There does remain a place for authority as a guidance from the Holy Spirit, in that a number of different developments may have been possible before one is decided upon, but it does not make authority entirely free to do as it pleases.

        I take it that some pretty big changes and developments in the issues being debated at the synod … would admit – if officially approved – of being (re)interpreted as legitimate developments in continuity with the past

        A case would need to be made for each proposal before it could be accepted as a legitimate development, though mere seeming “bigness” would not automatically prevent legitimacy. And I would note, even in the German small group at the Synod, the Kasper proposal appears to have now been improved (successfully IMO) to deal with the doctrines founded on 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 (which was explicitly quoted with approval by the group). Demonstrating that these Synod Fathers, who are not right wing traditionalists on any measure, have discerned the initial Kasper proposal could not be justified in their view as a legitimate development.

        The operative principle is that any change, if it occurs, can only have been legitimate – else it could not have happened.

        No, not at all. As I say, there is a place for authority, but the reform in continuity requirement does not give free rein. Some proposed developments will be corruptions, and if adopted, would raise questions of where the Church against which hell cannot prevail will subsist.

        If this is the case, then we can all relax – and rejoice in the forthcoming consensus, no matter the outcome in the near or distant future.

        I don’t think it is appropriate to treat a matter of this seriousness in such a facetious way.

      3. @Scott Smith:
        OK, you’re saying the same things, but none of it in my mind responds to the point I’ve made, which is that people of a certain mindset are convinced a change is impossible, but when it happens they re-interpret the data so that it now is possible. This has happened repeatedly in church history. You don’t want to acknowledge that, so let’s leave it at that.

  13. “Pretty big changes and developments” isn’t something a Christian should fear. The hermeneutic of continuity gained far more traction than it needed in recent years. To the point of idolatry in some instances.

    Continuity, I would argue, is nearly antithetical to the Christian way. I think of conversion, even the continuing form of the established believer, not to mention the natural pace of life as a human being. Well-discerned change: getting married, taking a new job, eliminating the death penalty, new clergy or laity in a parish–all of these can take us places, take us closer to Christ and his call.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:

      Continuity, I would argue, is nearly antithetical to the Christian way.

      The Christian life is one of constant repentance and reform, in our journal to draw closer to Christ.

      Continuity with Christ, his apostles and saints however, even as we deepen our faith, is however equally necessary to draw closer to Christ.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:

      As an individual, no, which is why as I say the Christian life is one of constant repentance and reform.

      But I am willing to confess that Jesus and the saints are congruent with themselves, which is why continuity with their teachings is necessary.

  14. It’s interesting to note that Fenton’s old parish was ordered closed by a bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, but his decision was appealed by the parishioners. In a split decision the Vatican acknowledged the bishop’s rights to close the parish, but he could not deconsecrate nor sell the church property.

    They did the same for another nearby church, but I wonder if Fenton’s devoted Catholicism continues to have an influence on the locality, or if he still had friends in Rome at the time of the decision.

    I do enjoy ecclesiastical intrigue.

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