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Letter from the Holy Office Concerning Fr. Leonard Feeney

by Cardinal F. Marchetti-Selvaggiani


Under the pontificate of Pius XII the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office issued the Protocol Suprema haec sacra, specifically condemning the doctrines of Fr. Leonard Feeney of "the Cambridge group" as presented in the publication, From the Housetops. This letter was addressed to Archbishop Cushing of Boston.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, August 8, 1949

Your Excellency,

This Supreme Sacred Congregation has very carefully followed the beginning and the continuation of the serious controversy raised by certain associates of the St. Benedict Center and of Boston College, concerning the interpretation of tie maxim: "Outside the Church, no salvation".

After having examined all the necessary and useful documents on this subject — among others the file sent by your chancellery, the appeals and reports wherein the associates of the St. Benedict Center expound their opinions and objections, besides many other documents referring to this controversy, collected through the official channels, — the Sacred Congregation has reached the certitude that this unfortunate question was raised because the principle "outside the Church no salvation" has not been well understood or examined and the controversy has become envenomed as a result of a serious lack of discipline on the part of certain members of the aforementioned associations, who have refused to give respect and obedience to the legitimate authorities.

Consequently, the most Eminent and most Reverend cardinals of our Supreme Congregation decreed in plenary session on Wednesday 27 July 1949, and the Sovereign Pontiff, in an audience on the following Thursday, 28 July 1949, deigned to approve the sending of the following doctrinal explanations, invitation and exhortations:

We are obliged by the divine and Catholic faith to believe all those things contained in the Word of God, Scripture or Tradition, and proposed by the Church for our faith as divinely revealed, not only by solemn definition but also by her ordinary and universal magisterium (Denziger n. 1792).

Now, amongst those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to teach, there is also this infallible declaration which says that there is no salvation outside the Church.

This dogma, however, has to be understood in the sense attributed to it by the Church herself. The Saviour, in fact, entrusted explanation of those things contained in the deposit of faith, not to private judgement, but to the teaching of the ecclesiastical authority.

Now, in the first place, the Church teaches that in this matter there exists a very strict mandate from Jesus Christ, for He explicitly commanded his apostles to teach all nations to observe all things which He Himself had ordered (Matth XXVIII.19-20).

The least of these commandments is not that which orders us to be incorporated through baptism into Christ's Mystical Body, which is the Church, and to remain united with Him and with His Vicar, through whom, He Himself governs his Church in visible manner here below,

That is why no one will be saved if, knowing that the Church is of divine institution by Christ, he nevertheless refuses to submit to her or separates himself from the obedience of the Roman Pontiff, Christ's Vicar on earth.

Not only did our Saviour order all peoples to enter the Church, but He also decreed that it is the means of salvation without which no one can enter the eternal kingdom of glory.

In his infinite mercy, God willed that, since it was a matter of the means of salvation ordained for man's ultimate end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, its salutary effects could also be obtained in certain circumstances when these means are only objects of "desire" or of "hope". This point was clearly established at the Council of Trent, with regard to both the sacrament of baptism and of penance (Denziger, n. 797 and 807).

The same must be said of the Church, as a general means of salvation. That is why for a person to obtain his salvation, it is not always required that he be de facto incorporated into the Church as a member, but he must at least be united to the Church through desire or hope.

However, it is not always necessary that this hope be explicit as in the case of catechumens. When one is in a state of invincible ignorance, God accepts an implicit desire, thus called because it is implicit in the soul's good disposition, whereby it desires to conform its will to the will of God.

These things are clearly expressed in the dogmatic letter published by the Sovereign Pontiff Pius XII 29 June 1943 "on the mystical Body of Jesus Christ" (A.A.S., vol. XXXV, 1943, p. 193 and sq.). In this Letter, the Sovereign Pontiff clearly distinguishes between those who are presently incorporated into the Church as members and those who are united with her through desire only.

Speaking of the members who form here below the mystical Body, the same august Pontiff said: Only those are members of the Church who have received the Baptism of regeneration and profess the true faith and who are not, to their misfortune, separated from the Body as a whole or cut off from her through very grave faults by the legitimate authority.

Towards the end of the same Encyclical, he affectionately invites those who do not belong to the body of the Catholic Church to enter into her unity, and he mentions those who "by a certain desire and unconscious longing have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer". He does not in any way exclude them from eternal salvation, but he goes on to affirm that they are in a state "in which they cannot be sure of their eternal salvation" and that "they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church".

With these words, the Pope condemns those who exclude from eternal salvation men who are united to the Church only through implicit desire as well as those who wrongly affirm that all men can be saved equally in all religions (cf. Pope Pius IX, Singulari quadam, Denz. 1641 and sq.; Pius XI, Quanto conficiamur moerore, Denz. 1677).

However, it should not be thought that any sort of desire to enter the Church is sufficient for salvation. The desire whereby a person adheres to the Church must be animated by perfect charity. Nor can such an implicit desire produce its effect if it is not animated by supernatural faith, for anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him. (Heb XI, 6). The Council of Trent declares (session VI. ch. VIII): Faith is the principle of man's salvation, the foundation and the root of all justification. Without it, it is impossible to please God and to be counted among his children. (Denz., 801)

It is clear, from what is stated above, that the ideas proposed by the periodical From the Housetops (n.3) as the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church, are far from being so and are very dangerous not only for those in the Church but also for those who live outside her.

Certain conclusions follow from this doctrinal explanation concerning discipline and conduct, which cannot be ignored by those who vigorously defend the need of belonging to the true Church and of submitting to the authority of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops whom the Holy Spirit has made guardians to govern the Church (Acts XX, 28).

That is why it is inexplicable that the St. Benedict Center should claim to be a Catholic group and desire to be considered as such whilst not conforming to the prescripts of canons 1381 and 1382 of the Code of Canon Law and continuing to be a cause of discord and of rebellion against the ecclesiastical authority and of disturbance for many consciences.

Furthermore, it is difficult to understand that a member of a religious institute, Fr. Feeney, should present himself as a "defender of the faith" and at the same time not hesitate to attack the teaching given by the legitimate authorities and not even fear to incur the grave sanctions with which he is threatened by the sacred canons for gravely violating his religious duties as a priest and simple member of the Church.

Finally, it is not prudent to tolerate certain Catholics claiming for themselves the right to publish a periodical, with the intention of expounding theological doctrines, without the permission of the competent authority, called the imprimatur as prescribed by the sacred canons.

Those therefore who expose themselves to the grave danger of opposing the Church must seriously reflect that once "Rome has spoken", they cannot carry on regardless, even for reasons of good faith. Their bond with the Church and their duty of obedience are certainly stricter than for those who adhere to her "only through an unconscious desire". Let them understand, therefore, that they are children of the Church, affectionately sustained by her with the milk of doctrine and sacraments, and that, after having heard the voice of their Mother, they cannot then be excused of culpable ignorance. Let them understand that to them the following principle applies without restriction: Submission to the Catholic Church and to the Sovereign Pontiff is necessary for salvation.

In addressing him this present letter, I express to Your Excellency my profound regards of esteem and devotion.

F. Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani,
A. Ottaviani, assessor.

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