Long after his death in 1978, Fr. Leonard Feeney remains a polarizing and controversial figure. While Feeney appears to have always sought the full embrace of Catholic truth, he was outside the full embrace of the Catholic Church from 1953 to 1972, excommunicated for refusing to obey his religious and hierarchical superiors. Mercifully, Feeney was eventually reconciled to the Church, spending the last years of his life in full communion with the Church.
Not long after he incurred his penalty, the excommunicated Feeney illicitly founded a "religious order" he called the "Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary," which would eventually end up fractured into several factions — one of these groups is the St. Benedict Center based in New Hampshire and now self-described as a de facto private association of the faithful.
Each faction seeks to preserve Feeney's legacy of teaching a decidedly strained and strange version of the Catholic dogma of "no salvation outside the Church." The conflict over Feeney's version of this teaching has now spanned decades, and there is much about it that remains unclear, unresolved and unsettling.
Church Militant has recently engaged to cover the plight of the above-mentioned St. Benedict Center, which is currently seeking to have its relationship with the Church fully regularized and its interpretation of "no salvation outside the Church" accepted as legitimate and permissible.
Until recently, it has experienced some clerical support for celebrating the sacraments from its local diocese, a support now withdrawn and under scrutiny. The center is pursuing a formal canonical case to address the major issues, and it publicly states its complete willingness to accept the fullness of magisterial teaching, should it be determined by the Church that any theological opinion held by its members is actually untenable.
At the root of these decades of uncertainty is Feeney's strange claim that water baptism is of absolute necessity for salvation. Whereas the Church now clearly — and dogmatically since the Second Vatican Council* — teaches that water baptism is not the only and absolute means of being incorporated into the Catholic Church, Feeney's position, inherited as a legacy by the different expressions of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is that God goes to often-miraculous lengths to ensure that all people destined for eternal life are in fact incorporated into the Church exclusively via water baptism.
In fact, this is the "theological opinion" maintained by the New Hampshire-based St. Benedict Center recently given coverage here at Church Militant. One of its key leaders, Brother Andre Marie, emphasizes that this is "only" a privately held theological opinion. In practical terms, it necessarily means that anyone who makes it to Heaven is incorporated into the Church not non-sacramentally by, for example, "baptism of blood" or "baptism of desire," but always and everywhere by literal and actual water baptism somehow made possible by God in earthly time and space.
Occasionally, as the theological opinion holds, this requires God to go as far as to "resuscitate" a dead person so that they may experience water baptism while living, with the person dying again immediately afterward. This is a decidedly odd stance to take, given that the Church has never ceased to proclaim in its doctrine, worship and prayer that we human souls are bound by the sacraments, but that God is not so bound.
So, while Brother Andre Marie makes clear that the St. Benedict Center of New Hampshire accepts the Church's dogma that every soul somehow receives sufficient grace for salvation, regardless of whether a soul has heard the Gospel, it maintains that such souls absolutely require water baptism and that somehow God always provides it.
This stance is troubling on several levels, but on a practical historical level, it is greatly difficult. Concretely, this effectively means that any person who can be shown absolutely to have never experienced water baptism in this life is, ipso facto, not in Heaven.
Imagine, for example, an invincibly ignorant disabled child who dies young and whose parents remain ceaselessly with the mortal remains of their child. They know that prior to burial the child never has a moment's opportunity for water baptism. In the light of Feeney's doctrine, how can they hope for salvation for their child?
Suddenly God seems less loving, more monstrous.
At this point, it is also a merely historical exercise to examine the life and work of Fr. Feeney himself. But some dedicated people have sought to tell his story. Some say it was he who was wronged by the Church. But at this moment, I remain inclined to believe it more likely that Feeney himself did what no member of the clergy ought to do — namely, promote a private interpretation of a dogma that effectively negates the truth behind the dogma itself.
Having read the 1949 letter from the Holy Office to the archbishop of Boston regarding Fr. Feeney (a letter that is now viewed as having magisterial value, even footnoted in the Catechism's section on "no salvation outside the Church," paragraph 847), it seems clear that the Holy Office viewed his transgression to be just that — not accepting that the Church Herself accepted and taught a much broader view of "no salvation outside the Church" than Feeney himself did. And, as a cleric, his obligation was to teach the fullness of what the Church believed, not just what he personally believed.
Even so, I remain willing to listen and learn — one hopes that in near future the Holy See will resolve the existing issues confronting the St. Benedict Center in New Hampshire, for the center's good and for the good of the faithful. In doing so, one can pray for a clear resolution to the question of whether a Catholic in full communion with the Church can indeed hold as a "private theological opinion" a doctrine that effectively negates the truths behind other doctrines long held by the Church.
I'm willing to wait a bit longer to see how this plays out. In the meantime, however, my privately held theological opinion is that Fr. Feeney's strange doctrine does indeed cross a pretty bright line from truth into error. Nonetheless, I hope that both Fr. Feeney and the adherents to his legacy have somehow been drawn ever closer to Christ in the midst of the longstanding conflict over this teaching.
*Note: The original conflict over Feeney's views began long before the Second Vatican Council. However, in the infallible 1964 council document Lumen Gentium, paragraph 14, we are taught one explicitly clear instance in which water baptism is not required for being incorporated into the Church (the catechumen's baptism of desire). The catechumen's intention alone, we are taught, is sufficient to incorporate him into the Church via non-sacramental means.
Here is the quote itself: "Catechumens who, moved by the Holy Spirit, seek with explicit intention to be incorporated into the Church are by that very intention joined with her. With love and solicitude Mother Church already embraces them as her own."