On Fr. Leonard Feeney

Extra Ecclesiam nulla Salus

Dear Dr…

Thank you very much for the revised version of your article on the theological understanding of the efficacy of the “baptisms” of desire and blood* for salvation [absent water baptism]—in certain circumstances. As  you’ll see by the enclosed letter which I wrote to a friend, I am on the “outs” with not a few on all sides of this question precisely because I accept St. Thomas’ teaching on this and yet am not willing to call Fr. Feeney a virtual heretic.

Interestingly, The “Feeneyite” debate in its early phase did not preclude the
efficacy of blood or desire …a seminal 57 page article called A Reply to A Liberal written by one Raymond Karam in the 1950s, which Fr. Feeney approved, steadfastly maintains St. Thomas’ doctrine. Some today, among the so-called “Feeneyites” might disown that position, but not all.

Frankly I have always thought Fr. Feeney got a raw deal. It is simply too simple…and I think preposterous… to call Fr. Feeney a heretic as some do to this day. To suggest he was not infallible is another thing, an obstinate Irishman also no doubt (I certainly cannot throw the first stone there). But no one can read The Loyola’s and the Cabot’s, or Gary Potter’s re-telling of the story, and deny that he was a Catholic and a mighty powerful one who had zeroed in precisely on the sickness eating away at the American Church which was importing it’s Americanism all over the world.

Clearly it was liberals and Americanists in the late 40’s and fifties who radically changed St. Thomas’ and the other Fathers teachings on desire (and martyr – catechumen’s) and turned these exceptional, restrictive doctrines into veritable univeral salvation. Karl Rahner was all too happy to “expand” and find a “deeper meaning” in desire than had hitherto been known in the Church. He is the one who edited my edition of Denzinger in this regard and by Vatican II had readied everyone for his “anonymous Christian” novelty.

At the very least Fr. Feeney had a right to defend the doctrine as he saw fit as would any theologian, especially in the face of the liberalism which was already entrenched in the 50’s and which had no desire to convert Harvard Protestants, Jews or anyone for that matter.

Clearly, I think Fr. Feeney was ultimately wrong not to go to Rome when summoned. But, given the climate, who knows what was going through his mind? I also feel many Traditionalist’s overlook the weaknesses in the Pontificate of Pius XII. He had the best of intentions perhaps, but can any deny that the cracks began to emerge under his watch which liberals were quick to exploit (e.g. some naive statements with respect to “science,” biblical criticism, many unfortunate episcopal appointments he probably later regretted, Teilhard de Chardin, etc…)?

No, I hold firmly to the doctrine of St. Thomas in all this and this irritates some (though hardly all) of the so-called “Feeneyites” (most are good natured about theological discussion in my experience).

But I also believe there are good numbers of Traditionalists who do not realize how restrictive St. Thomas’s teaching was with respect to Extra Ecclesiam nulla Salus, not because he was a miser with respect to God’s grace but because He “desired that all should be saved” in the only way men can be saved. He preached baptism in accord with our Lord’s admonition, not desire. His teaching on desire was carefully circumscribed and exceptional by definition.

I found that most (not all) of the leaders among the so-called Feeneyites are good, careful theologians even if some disagree with my personal views and some (like all of us) can be hotheads; I’ve had less cordial relations with some of their disciples, it is true. Even some of the brothers and sisters.

But among those at St. Anne’s convent in Still River and St. Benedict Abbey I find none of the smug and gossipy arrogance and competition that some major Traditionalist “factions” are known for (let he who has ears to hear, hear).

All told, I don’t feel it is wise (or necessary!) to move away from St. Thomas and all the Fathers** in this regard; but I cannot say my longtime friends in the St. Benedict Center are “non-catholic,” as some would have it. It would be ridiculous. I have long felt instead that I am not worthy to tie the shoelaces of not a few of the Fathers, Brothers and Sisters I know.



*desire and blood: If water Baptism is not possible in some circumstances, the desire for it or the blood of martyrdom may suffice, some Fathers and the Council of Trent teach.

** Fr. Feeney’s theological understanding of practically everything was by far closer to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas than practically anything Progressive’s say about anything.