TRAGIC ERRORS OF LEONARD FEENEY
by Fr. William Most
In the late 1940s Leonard Feeney, S. J. began to teach that there is
no salvation outside the Church. He was correct in saying that there
were official teachings, even definitions, on that score. But his
tragic error came when he adopted Protestant method, thinking that in
that way he would be one of the only true Catholics! We spoke of his
protestant method with good reason. First, he was excommunicated for
disobedience, refusing to go to Rome to explain his position. Then
the Holy Office, under Pius XII, sent a letter to the Archbishop of
Boston, condemning Feeney's error. (It is known that Pius XII
personally checked the English text of that letter). In the very
first paragraph pointed out what is obvious: we must avoid private
interpretation of Scripture -- for that is strictly Protestant. But
then the letter said we must also avoid private interpretation of the
official texts of the Church. To insist on our own private
interpretation, especially when the Church contradicts that, is pure
What the disobedient Feeney said amounted to this: he insisted that
all who did not formally enter the Church would go to hell. Hence he
had to say, and he did say, that unbaptized babies go to hell.
Further, all adults who did not formally enter the Church - get their
names on a parish register - would also go to hell, even if they
never had a chance to hear there was a Church, e.g., those in the
western hemisphere during the long centuries before Columbus.
Therefore Feeney consigned literally millions upon millions to hell,
even though He gave them no chance.
Not just the documents of the Church as interpreted by the Church
should have kept him from this: merely common sense, and the
realization that God is not only not a monster, but is infinitely
good - that alone should have stopped him. We have, then, most ample
reason for calling his error tragic. Even the sexually immoral do not
deny that God is good. Feeney does worse than they.
I regard to the damnation of infants, tragically, Feeney cited a text
of Pius IX (quoted below) saying that no one goes to hell without
grave voluntary sin - babies of course have no voluntary sin. Feeney
actually ridiculed the text of Pius IX and charged Pius IX with the
heresy of Pelagianism, saying (in Thomas M. Sennott, They Fought the
Good Fight, Catholic Treasures, Monrovia CA. 1987, pp. 305-06): "To
say that God would never permit anyone to be punished eternally
unless he had incurred the guilt of voluntary sin is nothing short of
Pelagianism... . If God cannot punish eternally a human being who has
not incurred the guilt of voluntary sin, how then, for example can He
punish eternally babies who die unbaptized?"
There is another feature of sound theological method we need to
recall here. If we seem to have on hand two truths, which seem to
clash head on, and they are there even after we recheck our work, we
must not try to force one to fit with the other. No, we must
faithfully state both points, hoping that sometime someone will find
how to make them fit. The Fathers did very well on this matter. For
example, in dealing with the difficult texts of Lk 2:52 and Mk 13:32
on the human knowledge of Jesus, most of the Fathers made two kinds
of statements, one kind affirming ignorance, the other denying it.
Finally, on the Lucan text St. Athanasius found how to reconcile the
statements; later, Pope St. Gregory the great did the same for the
Markan text. (For details see Wm. G. Most, ).
The same situation is found in regard to texts both of the Fathers
and of the Magisterium on membership in the Church. One set of texts
seems very severe, the other kind, very broad.
For commentary on each text, please see. W. Most, , Appendix.
a) Restrictive Tests of the Fathers
The Shepherd of Hermas, 9.16:(c. 140 AD) "The apostles
and the teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, when they
fell asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God preached also to
those who had fallen asleep earlier, and they gave them the seal of
the preaching. They therefore went down into the water with them, and
came up again."
St. Irenaeus, 3.24.1:c. 140-202 AD) "God places in
the Church apostles, prophets, doctors... those who are not partakers
of these, who do not run to the Church, deprive themselves of life
through evil opinions and wicked working."
Clement of Alexandria, 2.9:(c. 208-11 AD) "He who does not
enter through the door... is a thief and a robber. Therefore it is
necessary for them to learn the truth through Christ and to be saved,
even if they happen on philosophy."(Clement also quotes verbatim the
above text of Shepherd of Hermas).
Origen, 3.5:(c. 249-51 AD) "If anyone of the
people wishes to be saved, let him come to this house, so that he can
attain salvation, to this house in which the blood of Christ is a
sign of redemption... . Therefore let no one persuade himself, let no
one deceive himself: outside this house, that is, outside the Church,
no one is saved; for if anyone goes outside, he becomes guilty of his
St. Cyprian, 6:(c. 251 AD) "The
power of baptism cannot be greater or more powerful, can it, than
confession [of the faith], than suffering, such that someone who
confesses Christ before men, is baptized in his own blood. And yet,
neither does this baptism profit a heretic, even though after
confessing Christ, he is killed outside the Church."
Lactantius, 4.30.11:(c. 305-10 AD) "Whoever does not
enter there [the Church] or whoever goes out from there, is foreign
to the hope of life and salvation."
St. Augustine, 2.2:(c. 415 AD) "If Christ did
not die for no purpose, therefore all human nature can in no way be
justified and redeemed from the most just anger of God... except by
faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ."
4.3.25:(c. 421 AD) "Nor can you prove by them that
which you want, that even infidels can have true virtues." [He is
speaking of gentiles in Rom. 2. 14-16, whom he thinks must mean
converted gentiles. Other gentiles could not have true virtues, and
so could not be saved].
St. Cyril of Alexandria, 30:22:(c. 428 AD) " ... mercy is
not obtainable outside the holy city."
St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, , to Peter 38.81:(c. 500 AD) "Not
only all pagans, but also all Jews and all heretics and schismatics,
who finish their lives outside the Catholic Church, will go into
eternal fire... . No one, howsoever much he may have given alms, even
if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he
remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church."
ibid. 36.79: "Baptism can exist... even among heretics... but it
cannot be beneficial outside the Catholic Church."
b)Restrictive Texts of the Magisterium
Pope Innocent III, (1208:
DS 792): "We believe in our heart and confess in our mouth that there
is one Church, not of heretics, but the Holy Roman Catholic apostolic
Church, outside of which we believe no one is saved."
Lateran Council IV (1215: DS 802): "There is one universal Church of
the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved."
Pope Boniface VIII, (1302: DS 870): "Outside of which
there is neither salvation nor remission of sins... . But we declare,
state and define that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is
altogether necessary for salvation." [The second part merely means
there is no salvation outside the Church, for it is quoted from St.
Thomas Aquinas, Contra errores Graecorum 36. #1125 where context
shows the sense].
Pope Clement VI, , 1351: DS 1051): "No man...
outside the faith of the Church and obedience to the Roman Pontiff
can finally be saved."
Council of Florence (1442: DS 1351): "It firmly believes, professes
and preaches, that none who are outside the Catholic Church, not only
pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can partake of
eternal life, but they will go into eternal fire... unless before the
end of life they will have been joined to it [the Church] and that
the unity of the ecclesiastical body has such force that only for
those who remain in it are the sacraments of the Church profitable
for salvation; and fastings, alms, and other works of piety and
exercises of the Christian soldiery bring forth eternal rewards
[only] for them. 'No one, howsoever much almsgiving he has done, even
if he sheds his blood for Christ, can be saved, unless he remains in
the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church. '" [Internal quote at end
is from Fulgentius, as we saw above].
Broad Texts of the Magisterium
Pope Pius IX, (1863: DS 2866): "God...
in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be
punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of
voluntary fault. But it is also a Catholic dogma, that no one outside
the Catholic Church can be saved, and that those who are contumacious
against the authority of the same Church [and] definitions and who
are obstinately separated from the unity of this Church and from the
Roman Pontiff, successor of Peter, to whom the custody of the
vineyard was entrusted by the Savior, cannot obtain eternal
Pope Pius XII, (1943: DS 3821): "They who do not
belong to the visible bond of the Catholic Church... [we ask them to]
strive to take themselves from that state in which they cannot be
sure of their own eternal salvation; for even though they are ordered
to the mystical body of the Redeemer by a certain desire and wish of
which they are not aware [implicit in the general wish to do what God
wills], yet they lack so many and so great heavenly gifts and helps
which can be enjoyed only in the Catholic Church."
Holy Office, Aug 9, 1949, condemning doctrine of L. Feeney (DS 3870):
"It is not always required that one be actually incorporated as a
member of the Church, but this at least is required: that one adhere
to it in wish and desire. It is not always necessary that this be
explicit... but when a man labors under invincible ignorance, God
accepts even an implicit will, called by that name because it is
contained in the good disposition of soul in which a man wills to
conform his will to the will of God."
Vatican II, #16: (1964 AD) For they who without their
own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet
seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace,
to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate
of conscience, can attain eternal salvation."
John Paul II, #10 (Dec. 7, 1990): "The
universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those
who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the church. Since
salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to
all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not
have an opportunity to come to know or accept the Gospel revelation
or to enter the church... . For such people, salvation in Christ is
accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious
relationship to the church, does not make them formally a part of the
church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their
spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is
the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit.
It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free
cooperation." [emphasis added].
Broad Texts of the Fathers
Pope St. Clement I, 7.5-7 (c. 95 AD): "Let us go
through all generations, and learn that in generation and generation
the Master has given a place of repentance to those willing to turn
to Him. Noah preached repentance, and those who heard him were saved.
Jonah preached repentance to the Ninevites; those who repented for
their sins appeased God in praying, and received salvation, even
though they were aliens [allotrioi] of God."
St. Justin Martyr, 1.46 (c. 150 AD): "Christ is the Logos
[Divine Word] of whom the whole race of men partake. Those who lived
according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered
atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus."
2.10:" Christ... was and is the Logos who is in everyone,
and foretold through the prophets the things that were to come, and
taught these things in person after becoming like to us in feeling."
Shepherd of Hermas, 2.4.1:(c. 140-55 AD): The angel asks
Hermas who he thinks the old woman was who appeared. He thought it
was the Sibyl: "You are wrong... . It is the Church. I said to him:
Why then an old woman? He said: Because she was created first of all;
for this reason she is an old woman, and because of her the world was
14.2 (prob. c 150 A.D. ): "The books of the prophets
and the apostles [say] that the Church is not [only] now, but from
the beginning. She was spiritual, like also our Jesus. She was
manifested in the last days to save us."
St. Irenaeus, 4.28.2: (c. 140-202 AD): "There is
one and the same God the Father and His Logos, always assisting the
human race, with varied arrangements, to be sure, and doing many
things, and saving from the beginning those who are saved, for they
are those who love and, according to their generation (genean) follow
His Logos." Ibid. 4.6.7: "For the Son, administering all things for
the Father, completes [His work] from the beginning to the end... .
For the Son, assisting to His own creation from the beginning,
reveals the Father to all to whom He wills." Ibid. 4. 22. 2: "Christ
came not only for those who believed from the time of Tiberius
Caesar, nor did the Father provide only for those who are now, but
for absolutely all men from the beginning, who, according to their
ability, feared and loved God and lived justly... and desired to see
Christ and to hear His voice."
Clement of Alexandria, 7.17:(c. 20-11 AD): "From what has
been said, I think it is clear that there is one true Church, which
is really ancient, into which those who are just according to design
are enrolled." Ibid 1. 5: "Before the coming of the Lord, philosophy
was necessary for justification to the Greeks; now it is useful for
piety... for it brought the Greeks to Christ as the law did the
Hebrews." Ibid. 1.20.99:" Philosophy of itself made the Greeks just,
though not to total justice; it is found to be a helper to this, like
the first and second steps for one ascending to the upper part of the
house, and like the elementary teacher for the [future]
Origen, 2.11-12: (c. 240 AD): "Do not think I speak of
the spouse or the Church [only] from the coming of the Savior in the
flesh, but from the beginning of the human race, in fact, to seek out
the origin of this mystery more deeply with Paul as leader, even
before the foundation of the world."
4.7: (c. 248 AD): "... there never was a time when
God did not will to make just the life of men. But He always cared,
and gave occasions of virtue to make the reasonable one right. For
generation by generation this wisdom of God came to souls it found
holy and made them friends of God and prophets."
, 9-10:(after 244 AD) [the law was written on hearts:
Cf. Rom 2:14-16] "that they must not commit murder or adultery, not
steal, not speak false testimony, that they honor father and mother,
and similar things... and it is shown that each one is to be judged
not according to a privilege of nature, but by his own thoughts he is
accused or excused, by the testimony of his conscience."
Homily on Numbers 16.1: (after 244 AD): "Since God wants grace to
abound, He sees fit to be present... . He is present not to the
[pagan] sacrifices, but to the one who comes to meet Him, and there
He gives His word [Logos?]."
Hegemonius (?) 28: (c. 325-50 AD):
"From the creation of the world He has always been with just men... .
Were they not made just from the fact that they kept the law, 'Each
one of them showing the work of the law on their hearts... ?'[cf. Rom
2.14-16] For when someone who does not have the law does by nature
the things of the law, this one, not having the law, is a law for
himself... . For if we judge that a man is made just without the
works of the law... how much more will they attain justice who
fulfilled the law containing those things which are expedient for
Arnobius, 2.63:(c. 305 AD): "But, they say :If
Christ was sent by God for this purpose, to deliver unhappy souls
from the destruction of ruin - what did former ages deserve which
before His coming were consumed in the condition of mortality? ... .
Put aside thee cares, and leave the questions you do not understand;
for royal mercy was imparted to them, and the divine benefits ran
equally through all. They were conserved, they were liberated, and
they put aside the sort and condition of mortality."
Eusebius of Caesarea, 1.1.4:(c. 311-25 AD): "But
even if we [Christians] are certainly new, and this really new name
of Christian is just recently known among the nations, yet our life
and mode of conduct, in accord with the precepts of religion, has not
been recently invented by us; but from the first creation of man, so
to speak, it is upheld by natural inborn concepts of the ancient men
who loved God, as we will here show... . But if someone would
describe as Christians those who are testified to as having been
righteous, [going back] from Abraham to the first man, he would not
hit wide of the mark."
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 18.5 [at funeral of his father, a
convert]:(c. 374 AD): "He was ours even before he was of our fold.
His way of living made him such. For just as many of ours are not
with us, whose life makes them other from our body [the Church], so
many of those outside belong to us, who by their way of life
anticipate the faith and need [only] the name, having the reality."
8.20 [on his sister Gorgonia]: "Her whole life was a
purification for her, and a perfecting. She had indeed the
regeneration of the Spirit, and the assurance of this from her
previous life. And, to speak boldly, the mystery [baptism] was for
her practically only the seal, not the grace."
St. John Chrysostom, . 5: (c. 391 AD): "For this reason
they are wonderful, he [Paul, in Romans 2:14-16] says, because they
did not need the law, and they show all the works of the law... . Do
you not see how again he makes present that day [Judgment in 2.16]
and brings it near... and showing that they should rather be honored
who without the law hastened to carry out the things of the law? ...
Conscience and reasoning suffice in place of the law. Through these
things he showed again that God made man self-sufficient in regard to
the choice of virtue and fleeing evil... . He shows that even in
these early times and before the giving of the law, men enjoyed
complete Providence. For 'what is knowable of God' was clear to them,
and what was good and what was evil they knew."
Homilies on John 8.1: ( c. 389 AD): "Why, then, the gentiles accuse
us saying: What was Christ doing in former times, not taking care...
? We will reply: Even before He was in the world, He took thought for
His works, and was known to all who were worthy."
St. Ambrose, 2.3.11:(after 375 AD): "Our price is
the blood of Christ... . Therefore He brought the means of health to
all so that whoever perishes, must ascribe the cause of his death to
himself, for he was unwilling to be cured when he had a remedy... .
For the mercy of Christ is clearly proclaimed on all."
St. Augustine, 18.47: (413-26 AD): "Nor do I think the
Jews would dare to argue that no one pertained to God except the
Israelites, from the time that Israel came to be... they cannot deny
that there were certain men even in other nations who pertained to
the true Israelites, the citizens of the fatherland above, not by
earthly but by heavenly association."
1.13.3: (426-27 AD): "This very thing which is now
called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, nor was it
lacking from the beginning of the human race until Christ Himself
came in the flesh, when the true religion, that already existed,
began to be called Christian."
102.11-13, 15: (406-12 AD): "Wherefore since we call Christ
the Word [Logos], through whom all things were made... under whose
rule [was/is] every creature, spiritual and corporal... so those from
the beginning of the human race who believed in Him and understood
His somewhat [utcumque] and lived according to His precepts devoutly
and justly, whenever and wherever they were, beyond doubt they were
saved through Him... . And yet from the beginning of the human race
thee were not lacking persons who believed in Him, from Adam up to
Moses, both in the very people of Israel... and in other nations
before He came in the flesh."
St. Prosper of Aquitaine, 2.5: (c. 450
AD): "... according to it [Scripture] ... we believe and devoutly
confess that never was the care of divine providence lacking to the
totality of men... . To these, however [who have not yet heard of
Christ] that general measure of help, which is always given from
above to all men, is not denied."
St. Nilus, . 154:(perhaps c. 430 AD): "In every nation the
one who fears God and does justice is acceptable to Him. For it is
clear that such a one is acceptable to God and is not to be cast
aside, who at his own right time flees to the worship of the blessed
knowledge of God."
St. Cyril of Alexandria, 3.107: (433-41 AD): "For if
there is One over all, and there is no other besides Him, He would be
Master of all, because He was Maker of all. For He is also the God of
the gentiles, and has fully satisfied by laws implanted in their
hearts, which the Maker has engraved in the hearts of all [cf. Rom
2.14-16]. For when the gentiles, [Paul] says, not having the law, do
by nature the things of the law, they show the work of the law
written on their hearts. But since He is not only the Maker and God
of the Jews [cf. Rom 3.29] but also of the gentiles... He sees fit by
His providence to care not only for those who are of the blood of
Israel, but also for all those upon the earth."
Theodoret of Cyrus,
2.14-16:(425-50 AD): "For they who, before the Mosaic law, adorned
their life with devout reasonings and good actions, testify that the
divine law called for action, and they became lawgivers for
themselves... . He [St. Paul] shows that the law of nature was
written on hearts... . According to this image, let us describe the
future judgment and the conscience of those accepting the charge and
proclaiming the justice of the decision."
6.85-86:(429-37 AD): "But if you say: Why
then did not the Maker of all fulfill this long ago? You are blaming
even the physicians, since they keep the stronger medicines for last;
having used the milder things first, they bring out the stronger
things last. The all-wise Healer of our souls did this too. After
employing various medicines... finally He brought forth this
all-powerful and saving medicine.
Pope St. Leo the Great, 23.4: (440-61 AD): "So God did not
take are of human affairs by a new plan, or by late mercy, but from
the foundation of the world He established one and the same cause of
salvation for all. For the grace of God by which the totality of the
saints always had been justified was increased when Christ was born,
but did not begin [then]."
Pope St. Gregory the Great, . 15: (540-604 AD): "When He
descended to the underworld, the Lord delivered from the prison only
those who while they lived in the flesh He had kept through His grace
in faith and good works."
2.3: "The passion of the Church began already
with Abel, and there is one Church of the elect, of those who
precede, and of those who follow... . They were, then, outside, but
yet not divided from the holy Church, because in mind, in work, in
preaching, they already held the sacraments of faith, and saw that
loftiness of Holy Church."
Primasius, Bishop of Hadrumetum, 2.14-16:(c. 560 AD):
"'By nature they do the things of the law... . ' He [Paul] speaks
either of those who keep the law of nature, who do not do to others
what they do not want to be done to themselves; or, that even the
gentiles naturally praise the good and condemn the wicked, which is
the work of the law; or, of those who even now, when they do anything
good, profess that they have received from God the means of pleasing
God... . 'And their thoughts in turn accusing or even defending, on
the day when God will judge the hidden things of men.' He speaks of
altercations of thought... . and according to these we are to be
judged on the day of the Lord."
St. John Damascene, 11:(late 7th cent. to 754
AD): "The creed teaches us to believe also in one Holy Catholic and
Apostolic church of God. The Catholic Church cannot be only
apostolic, for the all-powerful might of her Head, which is Christ,
is able through the Apostles to save the whole world. So there is a
Holy Catholic Church of God, the assembly of the Holy Fathers who are
from the ages, of the patriarchs, of prophets, apostles, evangelists,
martyrs, to which are added all the gentiles who believe the same
Conclusions from the Above Texts
1. Following proper theological method, the Fathers and the
Magisterium saw two things: a)the Church is necessary for salvation;
b)In some way God must make provision for those who do not find the
Church. This was already stated in Romans 3.29 by St. Paul. If He did
not do that, He would act as though He were not their God- He would
condemn millions to hell who never had a chance!. Such a God could
not be a God at all, but a monster.
2. In an effort to find how to fit the two together, most of them
expressed a very broad concept of membership in the Church. Then one
can say that there is no salvation outside the Church, but that the
concept of membership is very broad, and covers even those who do not
find the Church.
3. The early Magisterium texts at first seem very stringent. It is
likely they had in mind those who culpably reject the Church - the
words of Pius IX about those who are contumacious and obstinate fit
with this and did not apply to those who through no fault of their
own do not find the Church. The words of Romans 3.29 call for this
Later Magisterium texts speak of those who pertain to the Church or
are joined to the Church by even an unconscious desire, contained in
the will to do what is right. John Paul II spoke of a mysterious
Our proposal, expressed above in our comments on LG 5 do not
contradict these things. Rather, they try to fill in, taking a lead
from St. Justin that some in the past could have been Christians
because they followed the Logos, who is in all. We attached the
thought of St. Justin to Romans 2:14-16. This is not strained, for
when we say the Logos, a Spirit is present, we really mean He is
producing an effect: His presence is not spatial. What effect does He
produce? He produces the effect of making known to them interiorly
what the law requires, so that the law is written on their hearts, as
Rom 2:15 said, following Jeremiah 31:33. (All actions done by the
Three Divine Persons outside the Divine nature are common work to all
three. Cf. DS 800. Hence we may say God did it, or the Logos did it,
or the Spirit of Christ - all mean the same).
Then, if, for example Socrates - explicitly mentioned by St. Justin -
follows the law on his heart, Socrates does not know the source of
that law. It is really the Spirit of Christ who writes it. In
accepting it, Socrates objectively accepts the Spirit of Christ.
Since he accepts and follows that Spirit, he of course follows the
Logos. But in Romans 8:9 we hear that "If anyone does not have the
Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." So then, one who does
have and follow that Spirit, does belong to Christ . But to belong to
Christ in St. Paul's language means to be a member of Christ - which
is a member of the Church, by substantial membership, even though
without formal external adherence.
So people of this sort who follow the law on their hearts are members
of the Church, and as such, can be saved. This fits especially well
with the words of Vatican II in LG 16.
We are not saying, of course, that the Baptist church, for example,
is a component part of the Catholic Church. No we merely say that
some who are Baptists (or other types) can, if they fill the
conditions given above, become substantially, not formally, members
of the Catholic Church as individuals, and so can be saved.
When Feeney was old, some church authorities out of sorrow for him,
let him be reconciled to the Church. As part of the unfortunate
looseness we se so often today, they did not demand that he recant.
So he did not. As a result, some former followers of his came back to
the Church. Others even today insist that the lack of demanding a
recantation meant Feeney had been right all along. Of course not. We
have proved that abundantly with official texts above and the texts
of the Fathers of the Church.
Let us add one more thing. In the parable of the talents, the man who
hid his talent told the master he knew the master was a hard man. The
master replied that he would judge him out of his own mouth, and
condemned him. So when a Feenyite comes up for judgment, we pray that
God may not follow the pattern given in the parable and say: You
insisted I was a monster. Very good, I will be a monster to you. Hell
is your place.