Leonard Feeney, the Jesuit who infamously opposed the RCC’s shift to semi-Universalism

After the Boston Heresy Case
By Gary Potter
Catholic Treasures, 1995, 215 pp.

3 Stars

Century after century, the Roman Catholic church taught that only Roman Catholics could be saved (see here). The Latin term used by popes, prelates, and theologians was extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside of the church there is no salvation.” Liberal theological concepts began creeping into the church in the early-20th century, including the notion that baptized Protestants could also be saved as well as “righteous” non-Christian religionists who would desire baptism if they only understood its significance, i.e., baptism of (unconscious) desire.

Popular Jesuit priest, Leonard Feeney (1897-1978), opposed this shift towards semi-Universalism. He and Catherine Goddard Clarke founded the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Catholic religious order dedicated to defending the tenet of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Feeney’s battle with his religious superiors began in 1945 and escalated until his excommunication in 1953.

I’ve posted about Leonard Feeney previously (see here and here) and was interested in reading a short history of the Jesuit priest and his followers. “After the Boston Heresy Case” fit the bill precisely, although the title is strangely misleading. The bulk of the book deals with the prelude and ensuing “move, counter-move” chess match between Feeney and his superiors. There is actually very little about the aftermath following his excommunication.

Feeney’s modernist opponents won the battle and the RCC officially promulgated the doctrine of the possible salvation of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religionists, published as Nostra Aetate (“In Out Time”) on October 28, 1965 at the Second Vatican Council. As I mentioned in the previous posts, the priest, nun, and brother religious teachers at my Catholic grammar school and high school were slow on the uptake and continued to teach the traditional, literal view of extra ecclesiam nulla salus several years after Nostra Aetate.

I found this short book very interesting and informative. Catholic journalist, Gary Potter, is unapologetic in his admiration of Feeney and the traditional understanding of the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

Why should evangelicals care about the Feeney controversy? The Feeney case is a glaring example of how RC-ism has changed its teaching despite claims of being Semper eadem, “Always the same.” We also see that Catholicism now dichotomously holds to two opposing false gospels: 1) people must be baptized to be saved, and 2) people needn’t be baptized to be saved as long as they sincerely follow their conscience or religion. Feeney saw the glaring incongruity for what it was and took a stand.

Make no mistake, I’m not a fan of Leonard Feeney. The conservative Jesuit priest would have been convinced I was going to hell for renouncing the Catholic religion and accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior by faith alone. But at least Feeney’s pre-conciliar false gospel was a recognizable and unambiguous opponent rather than the dichotomous, incongruent, foggy-bottom false gospel of post-conciliar Roman Catholicism.

Postscript: Potter makes the salient point that American Catholicism was fertile ground for semi-Universalism because, as a minority church in an unfriendly nation, it sought recognition and acceptance rather than emphasizing alleged Catholic prerogatives and superiority.

Above: Leonard Feeney (black suit) with adoring disciples at the entrance of the St. Benedict Center at the corner of Bow St. and Arrow St. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The center was the headquarters of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary until 1958 when Feeney sold the property and he and his devoted followers moved to Still River, thirty miles west of Boston.
Above: The same entranceway as it appears today

25 thoughts on “Leonard Feeney, the Jesuit who infamously opposed the RCC’s shift to semi-Universalism

    1. Yes, this Feeney case is fascinating, because it shines a spotlight on the RCC’s shift from exclusivism to semi-Universalism, something they would rather not talk about.
      Thanks! I’m feeling a little better each day. I have to resist the urge to go out and chow down on non-bland foods. How was your weekend?

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      1. No team should feel bad for losing to the Chiefs! Yup, I wrote my post on the Padres’ horrendous collapse yesterday before the last game was even over and fine-tuned it this morning. What a debacle!
        Thanks! I drove to Home Depot an hour ago to buy a light fixture and Popeye’s and Burger King were calling out to me but I resisted.

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      2. I need a double whopper with cheese! 80% of the fans in LA will be wearing the black and silver (and horns). Counting on young Justin Herbert to carry the Bolts.

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      1. The item for our rest day today is homeschool lessons! Going over math (long division) and word problems with my girls! Been finding I really love math, its like logic!! Which I love!!

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  1. 1. “The Feeney case is a glaring example of how RC-ism has changed its teaching despite claims of being Semper eadem, “Always the same.””
    It seems everything post 1970s shows the evidence of how Romanism changes and its far from being the same. The last few years with this present pope seems to fuel that even more!

    2. I like what you said “Make no mistake, I’m not a fan of Leonard Feeney. The conservative Jesuit priest would have been convinced I was going to hell for renouncing the Catholic religion and accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior by faith alone. But at least Feeney’s pre-conciliar false gospel was a recognizable and unambiguous opponent rather than the dichotomous, incongruent, foggy-bottom false gospel of post-conciliar Roman Catholicism.” My mother in law says something similiar; she’s formerly Catholic. She feels this current trend where there’s nothing clear, and in one of the last funeral we attended a Catholic priest even start sounding New Ageish is rather bizzare and unfortunately some shallow Protestants take the wishy washy RC trend as the proof they are Christians…sigh. Seems guys like Feeney is a good thorn on the side of post Vatican 2 Catholics to invoke to them…

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    1. Thanks for all of the good comments including your MIL’s good take. Things weren’t clear before and it’s getting worse with Francis.

      Feeney “should be” a good thorn on the side of post Vatican 2 Catholics, however, post-conciliar Catholics get around Feeney by now claiming Catholicism always taught semi-Universalism. Yes, they do! It’s a “big lie” like the Soviets used their “big lies” to get around unflattering realities. Theological modernism was working its way through Catholic seminaries and episcopates back then, but we Catholics in the pews believed as we had been taught that “outside of the church there is no salvation.”

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      1. I googled “famous lies” and found a few interesting articles, but none of them listed this outrageous whopper about today’s Catholic apologists insisting the RCC always taught an inclusive form of semi-Universalism.

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  2. What is wrong with what Feeney believed? He has basis in “Tradition” 🙂

    The Council of Florence (1441) Bull Cantata Domino: It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church. See Henry Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, Thirtieth Ed. (Powers Lake: Marian House, published in 1954 by Herder & Co., Freiburg), #714, p. 230.

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    1. Thanks, RB! Yes, Feeney definitely had Catholic tradition on his side. I think the book said the Fenneyites cited 150+ papal and conciliar declarations and testimonies of saints upholding a literalist view of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

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    1. Thanks, Cathy!

      RE: Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

      Yes, it’s typical that the focus was on Mary.

      This Feeney controversy is a fascinating chapter in RC history. I’m curious what your memories are of “outside of the church there is no salvation.” As a young parochial student, I certainly remember the nuns and priests teaching us that only Catholics could be saved, but that view gradually gave way to the more inclusive view of Vatican II.

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      1. Billy and I both attended Catholic grammar school, and Billy also attended Catholic high school. That was in Queens NY. Neither one of us remember it being emphasized that outside of the Roman Catholic Church there is no salvation. It could very well be because we weren’t paying attention. 🙂

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