Tragic Errors of Leonard Feeney

Author: 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 Protestant attitude.

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 own death."

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 salvation."[emphasis added].

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 established."

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] philosopher]."

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 men?"

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 way."

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 interpretation.

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 grace.

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.