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The Leonard Feeney Quarrel and Pius IX on Invincible Ignorance

by Farley Clinton


Farley Clinton sheds light on the Feeney dispute of the late 1940's, in which Fr. Feeney and several followers declared that an unbaptized person cannot enter Heaven under any circumstance.

Larger Work

The Wanderer



Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Printing Company, March 23, 2000

In the standard theology textbooks used in all the seminaries at the end of the 19th century and throughout the first half of the 20th, in Tanquerey's Moral Theology, for instance, you will commonly see a sentence from one address Pius IX gave to some bishops, in which Pius IX declared that he — and the Catholic bishops in general — perfectly well knew that it is not a sin for persons to remain outside the Church if they are invincibly ignorant of the true religion — don't know it and without any guilty negligence on their part really can't find out about it.

And, furthermore, though he does not use this odd modern word, of course, psychological factors matter — some things are impossible because they are morally impossible, humanly impossible, psychologically impossible. He said that in view of the indescribable real complexity and mysteriousness of the many factors that might limit a person's ability to understand the claims of the Church, there is no way as a rule to know who is or is not invincibly ignorant.

The Venerable Pius IX—due to be beatified this September, at the same time as his strongest backer for canonization. Pope John XXIII — seems to have been the first Pope who openly spoke in this way about invincible ignorance. For a long time before he spoke, however, Catholic theologians had spoken to the same effect, and they were never censured. But Pius IX made the doctrine his own.

Clearly this is important to an understanding of the sensational Feeney dispute which once, in the late 1940's, led to the formal excommunication of some dozens, or hundreds, of people — mostly around Harvard University outside Boston. It looked like the first American heresy.

But when I said this one day, a long time ago, going into the offices of the regrettable newspaper a bishop called Cody set up in Kansas City, The Catholic Reporter, to a priest called Msgr. Baum, he immediately replied, "Oh, that was not a heresy. It was a personal aberration."

In 1947 the emotional Fr. Feeney and some even more emotional friends of his (two of them, Mrs. Clarke and Dr. Maluf, were in their different ways arguably more important in "the Boston heresy case" than Fr. Feeney) belligerently asserted that one phrase does not need any interpretation from anyone, it does not matter what old approved theologians have said about it, nor even what all theologians said, or in what sense the bishops take it. "Outside the Church, no salvation." That is not a scriptural phrase. But it goes back to the old Church father called Origen, and it has a traditional place in Catholic theology.

But just as certain Protestants said in connection with the Bible, private interpretation is best, even in direct contradiction of all the bishops and all the Catholic theologians — that phrase should be put before all the ignorant people in the world, at least those with little knowledge of history and theology, and understood just as it strikes them — and so it just means Hell for each and every non-Catholic.

It turns out, though that this attitude means, more or less, burning all the books treating the subject which have carried Church approval.

There was an element of seeming hysteria, generated by Mrs. Clarke, the individual who actually founded, and to an important extent always guided, the St. Benedict Center, a Catholic social group which was going to suffer some severe financial losses in 1948 until she — or somebody — prevailed on Leonard Feeney to disobey his Jesuit superiors and establish himself, as it turned out, permanently, at her center. An uproar followed.

The upshot was that, collectively, the St. Benedict Center — consisting mostly of Harvard and some Radcliffe students — adopted Feeney's line on salvation outside the Church in open rebellion against the local archbishop and eventually incurred excommunication. Archbishop Richard Cushing — though a lot cooler than Mrs. Clarke, or Fr. Feeney, or Dr. Maluf were — seems to have responded to the little group with a series of abrupt orders, that were very unlike the polite and learned arguments that had been offered a century and a half earlier in a somewhat similar situation by Archbishop John Carroll.

This subject is important and it is an urgent matter in a predominantly Protestant country. Perhaps too little has been done so far to explain it, and to justify the action of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cushing of Boston.

The outlook of Fr. Feeney has in recent years been defended in print by some thoughtful men — this statement does not imply, and you should not infer, that I think all Feeneyites are thoughtful. But two of them are thoughtful, and some of what they say looks more logical than the liberal attitude.

Gary Potter wrote a rather objective, though basically pro-Feeney, book a couple of years ago which he called After the Boston Heresy Case. It is helpful, however, insofar as it is objective, and it offers a good deal of light on the disturbed and disturbing emotional atmosphere in the St. Benedict Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

The other interesting book on the controversy, published at almost the same time, tried to make a serious defense of the funny ideas about Baptism which, perhaps inevitably, crystallized in the Feeney world, once he led an unfortunate woman and a few naive kids into a wild battle against all the approved theology books which none of them had read.

Numbers don't seem very easily come by here, but my impression is that the rebels were probably fewer than 1,000 in all, and the real hard core consisted of fewer than 100. Members of this little group, rather admirable in many ways, until they got some strange marching orders from their thoroughly agitated leaders, prepared to defy — and to defy, in the name of the Church — all the bishops and all the priests who understood the phrase "outside the Church, no salvation" as the orthodox theologians did. The theologians, that is, who studied all the ins and outs of these questions professionally, and who on all other subjects were admitted to be entirely orthodox.

This second book, euphoniously entitled Desire and Deception, flatly tells us that the Catholic teaching on Baptism of desire is, simply, a deception.

The brief reply to that allegation is that the Catholic teaching on Baptism of desire is clearly contained in the dogmatic pronouncements of the Council of Trent, which are imposed as binding everyone under pain of excommunication and must be given the assent of Catholic faith.

This second book, inviting us all to throw over belief in Baptism of desire, was published under a pseudonym and the author, so far as I know, has never acknowledged this work. But, since he referred to me personally and specifically in this book, not by name, but unmistakably, precisely describing an uncommon incident not known to many persons, and I recognized the rather personal style of writing, 'naturally I had suspicions that the author must be a certain talented writer of my acquaintance who is not without some links to the old core group of the movement.

The Wharton Case

Oddly enough, something similar to the whole Feeney controversy had raged before. Fr. Feeney had a counterpart in the time of the American Revolution. This was an ex-priest called Charles Wharton, who wrote a small but very serious book which sets out to prove that the Catholic Church teaches that all who are not Roman Catholic undoubtedly go to Hell.

Charles Wharton was trying to justify his act in leaving the Catholic Church, and at least he worked out his own ideas and set them down in black and white in the book that he published in 1784.

Feeney, on the other hand, who, Potter tells us, quite suddenly adopted his commitment to defend the idea of damnation for each and all non-Catholics after long solitary brooding one day, was unwilling to write a careful, complete, reasoned argument in defense of his view, though he wrote books extremely well.

Yet nothing we hear of Feeney at any point in his life suggests a man fond of specialized reading in the area of theology. It is likely that he had never since his Ordination read much about any disputed question in the field, and that he accepted the fact that he was not competent to write down an argument intended for professional theologians to comment on.

He left that work to his friend Dr. Maluf, who brought the Church authorities down on their heads with an indiscreet article in the pages of From the Housetop, the publication of Mrs. Clarke's own St. Benedict Center.

Charles Wharton (like Leonard Feeney) had entered the Jesuit order very young. He was born (in Maryland of a Catholic family) in 1748 and ordained in 1772.

Like Feeney, he found himself one day outside the Jesuit order. To avoid a great schism — France, Spain, Austria, on the verge of an open break with the Holy See — Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773.

Finding himself forced to shift for himself, Wharton worked for some years in England, as the chaplain to the Roman Catholic community in Worcester. One day he definitely left the Church and sailed back to America where he lived for some time as a layman on his ancestral property in Maryland. All the while he was slowly trying to put together a very plausible and

urbane excuse, to the little flock he abandoned in England, for his rejection of Catholicism.

At last he gave it to a printer in Philadelphia under the title Letter to the Roman Catholics of the City of Worcester, and offered it for public sale.

He proceeded to offer himself as a minister to the Episcopal Church in the United States. I believe he was accepted and shortly announced his marriage.

His little book on the impossibility of being a Catholic turns on three points — Transubstantiation, the claim that the Catholic Church as a whole had the charism of infallibility and never erred in doctrine, and the Catholic teaching on the salvation of non-Catholics.

Wharton's essay was eminently reasonable in tone, moderate, very learned, not at all bitter. On its own terms priests in this country (like Wharton, they were ex-Jesuits) thought it was a little masterpiece, perfectly suited to accomplish the end the writer was working for, and they were very apprehensive of the harm they expected such a book to do.

Someone had to reply to it, and they were agreed that the man most fitted for this task was Fr. John Carroll. He had lived in Europe for a quarter of a century and had been engaged in teaching, during most of that time, at the most respectable universities on the Continent. Now their unofficial leader, though younger than most of them, Carroll had been prodding them all to keep up their work and be attentive to their duties, despite the general discouragement and demoralization that followed the suppression of the Society of Jesus.

John Carroll's reply is considered by historians the first piece of Catholic journalism, or of Catholic controversial writing, in American history. He stated categorically:

"So far from our teaching the impossibility of salvation outside the communion of our Church, no divine [that is, no theologian], worthy to be called such, teaches it at all."

Wharton has wrongly stated, he says, that as "the Roman Church is the mother and mistress of all churches," therefore Catholics believe "that out of her communion, no salvation can be obtained.

'To be in the communion of the Catholic Church and to be a member of the Church are two different things. "They are in the communion of profession of her faith and participation of her sacraments, through the ministry and government of her lawful pastors.

"The members of the 'Catholic Church are all those who with a sincere heart seek the true religion and are in unfeigned disposition to embrace the truth wherever they find it. It never was our doctrine that salvation can be obtained only by the former.

"The distinction between being a member of the Church, and of the communion of the Church, is no modern distinction but a doctrine uniformly taught by ancient as well as later divines."

He quotes the acknowledged chief spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in controversy with all Protestants, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine.

"What is said of none being saved outside the Church, must be understood of those who belong to it neither in fact or desire."

"The future Archbishop Carroll points out that, while no one is considered to be a Roman Catholic unless he has been baptized, the Council of Trent laid it down, in a dogmatic definition, which cannot be denied without renouncing the Catholic faith, that no one can be saved without the sacraments — either by receiving them in fact, or by (some sufficient) desire for them. This implies, of course, the Catholic teaching as to Baptism of desire, and the meaning is that no one can be saved unless he has at least the Baptism of desire.

In this way, writes Carroll, the council "has explicitly established it that salvation may be obtained without actual Baptism.

"And thus it appears that we not only may, but are obliged to believe, that out of our communion salvation may be obtained."

He proceeds then to quoting the explicit statements about this that were to be found in the most accepted and respected Catholic theological works, by the chief Catholic theological authors in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and England. And he further affirms that what they teach, by no means some convenient invention or evasion developed for political ends in the modern (that is, the 18th century) Church, or even at the Council of Trent, or in the age of Catholic theology before the Council of Trent, this doctrine certainly goes back at least to St. Augustine who explicitly teaches it. In fact the great saint, father of Western theology, distinctly denies that persons are ordinarily to be thought of as heretics in the strict sense of the word, guilty of the sin of heresy, if they have been raised in heresy, or in some way deceived by heretics so as to embrace their errors in good faith.

Carroll quotes especially the celebrated contemporary French theologian Bergier:

"It is false that we say to anyone that he is damned. To do so would be false to our general doctrine relating to sects outside the bosom of the Church. With respect to heretics we are persuaded that all of those who with sincerity remain in their errors, who through inculpable ignorance believe themselves in the way of salvation . . . are children of the Catholic Church. Such is the opinion of all divines from St. Augustine."

Carroll did a good job of helping the people of his time understand this teaching, and in reading his explanations, we understand the teaching better, too.

He became the first American bishop.

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