- American Heretic: The Rise and Fall of Father Leonard Feeney, S.J.
Father Leonard Feeney went from best-selling author, radio celebrity, and literary editor to outcast, stripped of his priestly faculties in 1949, and excommunicated by Pius XII in 1953. Feeney brought himself down through a combination of doctrinal rigidity, intellectual arrogance, and anti-Semitic speech. The immediate cause of his downfall was his insistence on the unbending literalness of the centuries-old Catholic doctrine Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus – “Outside the Church there is No Salvation.” This dogma proclaims, “It is wholly necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be the subject of the Roman Pontiff.” Feeney interpreted this doctrine to mean that only those who receive baptism by water, accept papal infallibility, and hold the Roman Catholic Church as the one true Christian church can be saved. Believers in all other faiths, regardless of their virtues, are damned for eternity. The church itself held a less stringent view of membership. The difference would prove central to what became known as “The Boston Heresy Case.”
While we tend to associate religious literalism with evangelical Protestantism, fundamentalism exists at the fringes of all religions, including Roman Catholicism. Fundamentalisms tend to intensify under conditions of social stress. Despite victory in World War II, the United States was then, as now, experiencing a collective loss of confidence. Feeney’s insistence that Catholic doctrine was eternally unchangeable and infallibly true reflected both his own rigidity and the anxieties of the period. In Feeney’s view, science and secularism had produced the atomic bomb. Liberalism had led to intellectual relativism and moral decay. Only the pure Catholic faith could restore the moral order. [End Page 109]
Feeney’s insistence that the Nulla Ecclesiam doctrine meant that only those baptized in the Roman Catholic Church could receive God’s grace put him on a collision course with his archbishop, Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing. He condemned Cushing for accepting the church’s definition of “baptism of desire,” the idea that those not openly affiliated with the church but linked to it spiritually by aspiration, could still gain God’s grace. Feeney equally condemned Cushing’s outreach to Protestants and Jews, labeling interfaith activity a form of sentimental liberalism that was weakening the fiber of the church. In sum, Feeney rejected any of the softened attitudes toward Protestants and Jews that the post-war church in the United States was adopting on its way to Vatican II. He was asking, in effect, why bother being a Catholic if one can be saved as a schismatic Protestant or a Christ-denying Jew?
In 1949, weary of Feeney’s denunciations, Cushing silenced him and ordered the St. Benedict Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Feeney served as chaplain, off limits to Catholics. Boston College then fired four of Feeney’s followers for using their classrooms as forums to promote Feeney’s version of the Extra Ecclesiam doctrine. Soon after, the Jesuits expelled Feeney for refusing to report to a faculty appointment at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, a violation of his vow of obedience.
Undaunted, Feeney refused to leave St. Benedict Center or remove his collar. Instead, he publicly accused Cushing of heresy. Feeney called on Pius XII to issue an ex cathedra statement reaffirming the non-negotiable nature of the Extra Ecclesiam doctrine. To Feeney’s apparent surprise, the Holy See refused. Instead, it summoned him to appear before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to explain why he should not be excommunicated. Feeney refused to abandon his followers at St. Benedict Center even for a brief journey to Rome. Summoned to the Vatican a second time, he refused again. Finally, in 1953, Pius XII excommunicated Feeney for heresy. According to Cardinal John Wright, the Pope personally translated the edict into English.
While there has yet to be a full-length scholarly biography of Feeney himself, academics have evaluated the Boston Heresy Case and the phenomenon known as Feeneyism. Mark Silk, Mark S. Massa, S.J., and George B. Pepper have traced Feeney’s excommunication to his unwillingness to see Catholicism enter the American mainstream, to see it...