Bizarre theology alert…

Justification and Salvation:
What did Fr. Leonard Feeney teach?

Original caption: “UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1949: Rev. Leonard Feeney of the Jesuit order engaging in controversy with his superiors regarding teaching of Catholic doctrine.” (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; cropped)

On April 12, Michael Voris of Church Militant stunned his fan base as he suddenly began promoting the person and theology of the late Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J. (1897-1978) and the St. Benedict Center he helped shape (at least the one in New Hampshire — there is another one in Massachusetts). Two more similar articles and Vortex episodes followed, as well as a full interview with the prior of the NH St. Benedict Center and a direct call to give financial support to the group, which is not in “full communion” with the Novus Ordo diocese. On April 23, however, Church Militant released an article against Feeneyism, probably confusing its readership even more. Written by Jim Russell, it is entitled “Fr. Feeney’s Strange Doctrine” and expresses criticism of the theological position of today’s St. Benedict Center as well.

The case of Leonard Feeney is a truly tragic one in Church history, but it exemplifies how heresies and false teachings often arise as an excessive or false reaction to another heresy or error they are trying to combat. There is no question that the Church’s dogma of No Salvation Outside the Church (Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, or EENS; see Denz. 430) was more and more being effectively undermined and attacked in the 1940s and ’50s, not simply by people outside the Church but also by many within. In his 1950 landmark encyclical against the renascent Modernism of his day, Pope Pius XII warned: “Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation” (Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 27). It was this trend that Feeney sought to remedy, but he did so by distorting the Church’s teaching in the opposite direction. In 1947, he began preaching bizarre ideas about justification, salvation, and the necessity of the Church and thus got himself in trouble with the authorities of his order (Jesuits) as well as the diocese in which he was functioning (Archdiocese of Boston).

Another Catholic priest who was conscious of the dire need to counteract the dangerous subversion of EENS but who did so using sound Catholic theology was Mgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, professor of fundamental dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of America and editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review (1943-63). A former student of the legendary Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Fenton was an expert in the field of ecclesiology. Pope Pius XII recognized Fenton’s theological achievements and bestowed upon him the medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 1954. In 1958, Fenton published the magnificent work The Catholic Church and Salvation in the Light of Recent Pronouncements by the Holy See. An assortment of his numerous articles on the Church was recently published as The Church of Christ: A Collection of Essays by Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton.

Alas, despite correction from the Holy Office (Decree Suprema Haec Sacra of Aug. 8, 1949), Feeney persisted in his errors, and in 1953 he was excommunicated by Pope Pius XII ferendae sententiae for grave disobedience, as he obstinately refused to obey the order to appear at the Vatican to explain his doctrine, even under pain of excommunication. (The false pope Paul VI eventually rescinded the excommunication, at least putatively.)

But just what strange doctrines did Fr. Feeney teach?

To answer this question, we present an article written by Fr. Benedict Hughes, CMRI, which was published in The Reign of Mary two years ago. In it, Fr. Benedict presents direct quotations from Feeney’s own 1952 book The Bread of Life and critiques it in light of genuine Catholic doctrine: “My purpose will be to present the teachings of Father Feeney and allow the reader to see how these contradict Church teaching”, the author states.

Other resources to help provide clarity with regard to EENS include the new book Contra Crawford, Bp. Donald Sanborn’s Anti-Feeneyite Catechism, our TRADCAST 004, and the web site A simple slogan by which to remember the orthodox Catholic attitude in the EENS debate would be: “Fenton, not Feeney.”

For this post, we will not enable the combox because this topic always triggers endless heated discussion that would tie us up in moderating user contributions all day long.

Justification and Salvation: What did Fr. Leonard Feeney teach?

By Rev. Father Benedict Hughes, CMRI

First published in The Reign of Mary, no. 164 (Summer 2017)
Reprinted here with permission. All formatting as in original.

Cornelius was a good man. Devout and God-fearing, he was known for his almsgiving. In fact, Holy Scripture tells us that he prayed to God “continually”—no small praise coming, as it does, from the Holy Ghost Himself. There was, however, one major problem with Cornelius—he was a pagan.

The fascinating story of this Roman centurion is narrated in the 10th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. One day, while Cornelius was at prayer, an angel appeared to him and instructed him to send messengers to Joppa, a city by the sea, to ask Saint Peter to come to him. Three messengers were dispatched, and they arrived in Joppa the next day. Meanwhile, Saint Peter was instructed by the Holy Ghost to accompany these men back to their city. So the following day he departed with them for Caesarea.

Peter arrived with his companions to find a houseful, for Cornelius, in his enthusiasm, had invited his friends and relatives. After hearing Cornelius tell of the message of the angel who had instructed him to send for Peter, the latter replied, “Now I really understand that God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts, 10:34-5). He then went on to explain that Jesus is truly the Messias predicted by the prophets. And, “while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came upon all who were listening to this message” (Acts, 10:44). Peter and his companions were amazed that the Holy Ghost had come upon these Gentiles, “for they heard them speaking in tongues and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, ‘Can anyone refuse the water to baptize these, seeing that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?’” (Acts, 10: 46-7). He then ordered them to be baptized.

This marvelous story shows the wonderful effects of cooperation with grace. It is particularly of interest to see that the Holy Ghost came upon these souls before they were baptized. This fact brings up an interesting question: What would have become of their souls, had they died before they were baptized? In other words, how do we describe the state of their souls during the interval when they listened to and accepted Peter’s teaching, but had not yet been baptized? To answer this question, we need first to understand what is meant by justification, and what the Church teaches in this regard.

What is Justification?

In the Gospel we read the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke, 18:9-14). Our Lord tells us that this man (the publican) went away from the temple justified, rather than the other. Of course, there are many other places in Scripture where the word justification, or its derivatives, are used. So what exactly does it mean? Simply put, one who is in the state of sanctifying grace is in the state of justification. In other words, his soul is in a state in which it is pleasing to God, who looks upon that soul and sees therein the life of grace, which is a sharing in His own life. He cannot but be pleased at this. As the catechism puts it, “by sanctifying grace we become holy and pleasing to God.”

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent was convoked to respond to the various erroneous teachings of Martin Luther, which had been leading so many souls out of the Church. Primary among his heretical notions was the idea that justification is obtained by faith alone, without any need for good works. The Catholic Church condemned this teaching and explained that justification requires both faith and good works. Moreover, it is a gratuitous gift of God that we cannot merit. It is only by the death of Christ on the cross that we are able to obtain this precious gift of grace, for which we ought always to joyfully render “thanks to the Father, who has made us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have our redemption, the remission of our sins” (Col, 1:12-14).

Without this state of justification, of sanctifying grace, it is impossible to attain salvation. Simply put, at the moment of death, a soul in the state of sanctifying grace is saved, but one who dies deprived of the precious gift of God’s grace is lost. Of course, it is necessary that one also be baptized, but what if a person dies in the state of grace without having received this sacrament? The Church teaches that such a person can be incorporated into the Church and thus can be saved through what is called “Baptism of Desire.” This teaching of the Church, however, has been bitterly opposed by Father Leonard Feeney and his followers. In this article, I do not intend to repeat the same material that has already been covered so many times in various articles, which cite the teachings of the Church and theologians. My purpose will be to present the teachings of Father Feeney and allow the reader to see how these contradict Church teaching.

What Did Father Feeney Teach?

In order to fairly and accurately represent the teachings of Father Leonard Feeney, I decided to read the book which he published in 1952 titled The Bread of Life. In the introduction he states: “I have been persuaded by the members of my Order, The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to publish some of the talks I have been giving on Thursday evenings at Saint Benedict Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the past ten years.” So we see that this book is a compilation of lectures he had given in the 1940s and early 1950s. Throughout the remainder of this article I will be quoting from the 1974 edition of this book.

In the book Father Feeney correctly explains what is meant by justification. He also correctly makes the distinction between justification and salvation: “Justification is of our entrance into the state of sanctifying grace. Salvation is our reward for persevering in grace” (pp. 39-40). On the other hand, he claims that “it is a lack of knowledge of this most important and basic distinction (between justification and salvation)… that has led the Liberal theologians of our day to keep on saying that all you need to do to be saved is to be justified, and that you can be justified without the waters of Redemption….” (pp. 14-15).

So what about a person, like Cornelius before his baptism, who receives the grace of God into his soul through supernatural faith and charity, but who dies before he can be baptized? Father Feeney teaches that he cannot be saved. In a question and answer format, he states as follows:

“Question: Can Baptism of Desire save you?

Answer: Never.

Question: Could Baptism of Desire save you if you really believed it could?

Answer: It could not.

Question: Could it possibly suffice for you to pass into a state of justification?

Answer: It could.

Question: If you got into the state of justification with the aid of Baptism of Desire, and then failed to receive Baptism of Water, could you be saved?

Answer: Never (p. 121).

In another place he is even more emphatic: “Unbaptized adults who die go to Hell” (p. 128).

So there you have it. No baptism with water—no salvation, even though the departed was in the state of justification at his death. That would mean that there are souls in hell who are in the state of sanctifying grace. This is not only erroneous, it is blasphemous. To say that a person who loves God and is in the state of sanctifying grace would be damned to hell for all eternity would, in my opinion be a blasphemy. For it would join God (who lives in the soul that is in the state of grace) with the devil in hell. That cannot be.

Imagining a conversation with a theologian who believes in Baptism of Desire, Father Feeney instructs his adherents as follows: If the theologian asks, “‘If you die in the state of justification, without yet being baptized, are you not saved?’ You must answer him, ‘No, you are not.’ … ‘And if he persists in saying, ‘Well, where does one go who dies in the state of justification which has been achieved without Baptism?’—insist that he does not go to Heaven” (p. 135).

In another place he repeats this teaching, once again in a question and answer format:

“Question: Are the souls of those who die in the state of justification saved, if they have not received Baptism of Water? Answer: No. They are not saved” (p. 137).

As you can see, this would mean that there is no hope for one who has not been baptized. Father Feeney even says, “When you go to Heaven, most of the Americans you meet will be under seven years of age!” (p. 23). Think about that for a minute!

It’s Just Too Bad!

Father Feeney realizes that his teaching is harsh, to the point of being cruel: “If I seem to be cruel in this matter…” (p. 136). In another place he states that “the Holy Spirit is not interested in our love until the waters of regeneration have flowed on us” (p. 138).

But what if one is unable to receive the sacrament of baptism, through no fault of his own? Father Feeney would say that it is just too bad: “If you do not receive Baptism of Water, you cannot be saved, whether you were guilty or not guilty of not having received it” (p. 126). Again, he says, “And now let me go back to what is called necessity of means in a sacramental requirement. Necessity of means means, if you have not got the requirement, it is just too bad for you, whether you are to blame or whether you are not to blame. If you are not to blame, it is just too bad” (p. 128).

So it is just too bad! If you have not been baptized with water, you are lost—period. What does this say of our understanding of God’s mercy? In fact, it seems rather to be similar to the teachings of John Calvin, John Knox and Cornelius Jansen on predestination—that God created some souls to damn them, and there is nothing they can do about it. Fr. Feeney even says, “I myself would say, my dear children, that a catechumen who dies before Baptism, is punished” (p. 125). Again, “it is just too bad”! How does this square with that doctrine set forth in Scripture, that God desires the salvation of all men: “Who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim., 2:4)?

Disparaging the Pope

One important point of doctrine—which Father Feeney taught correctly—is the absolute necessity of submission to the successor of Saint Peter, the Vicar of Christ on earth. To quote again from his book: “No one can possibly enter the Kingdom of Heaven without personal submission to our Holy Father the Pope” (p. 186). The irony, however, is that Father Feeney himself did not submit to the true Pope. For one thing, he published his book without an imprimatur, in violation of Canon law, which was promulgated by the Pope. He continued to operate apart, and in defiance of, the local magisterium, for which he was finally excommunicated by the Holy Office on February 13, 1953.

He also spoke in a disparaging way about papal teaching. For instance, he refers to the teaching of Pope Pius IX as follows: “And this false reasoning is built up from an interpretation of a couple of sentences of Pope Pius IX… two carelessly worded sentences in an encyclical of Pope Pius IX, on which the Liberals base their teaching…” (p. 53). In this statement he is referring to the allocution Singulari Quadam (12/9/1854; Denzinger #1647) and to the encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore (8/10/1863; Denzinger #1677). We will not reproduce the actual quotes here, which can be read at The point to be made is the hubris and condescension with which Father Feeney refers to papal teaching—an attitude that is shocking and scandalous to any serious-minded Catholic.

He also ignores the fact that the doctrine of Baptism of Desire has been clearly taught by the Church for many centuries. The Council of Trent taught, in referring to the translation of the sinner from the state of sin into the state of grace: “This translation however cannot, since the promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration or its desire….” (Session VI, Chapter 4). This same teaching has consistently been taught by the Church and her theologians, both before and after the Council of Trent.

Yet, Father Feeney claims that the teaching of Baptism of Desire originated with the Baltimore Catechism in the 19th century: “The crucial point, then at which heresy entered the Catholic Church in the United States and backwashed to the dying Faith of Europe and the rest of the world, was through the teaching of the doctrine known as ‘Baptism of Desire’ in the Baltimore Catechism” (p. 118). As you can see, he completely ignores what was taught by Popes and theologians long before there ever was a Baltimore Catechism. For instance, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, who lived in the 18th century, taught as follows:

“Baptism of desire is perfect conversion to God by contrition or love of God above all things accompanied by an explicit or implicit desire for true baptism of water, the place of which it takes as to the remission of guilt, but not as to the impression of the character or as to the removal of all debt of punishment… Now it is de fide that men are also saved by Baptism of desire, by virtue of the Canon Apostolicam de presbytero non baptizato and of the Council of Trent, session 6, Chapter 4, where it is said that no one can be saved ‘without the laver of regeneration or the desire for it’” (Moral Theology, Book 6, Section II, p. 310, no. 96).

This is just one example of pre-19th century teaching, which completely destroys Father Feeney’s claim that the teaching of the Baltimore Catechism “backwashed” to Europe and the rest of the world. There was no Baltimore Catechism when Saint Alphonsus wrote these words.

There are other strange things to be found in The Bread of Life. For example, Fr. Feeney says the following concerning infants who die after baptism: “They go to the Beatific Vision. They are of the kingdom of Mary; but they are not the children of Mary. Mary is their Queen, but not their Mother.” (p. 98). It is indeed a strange notion that Mary is not the Mother of infants who die in the grace of God. But the following notion is even more bizarre: “If a child dies after having received Baptism, he dies as the son of God, but not yet as the child of Mary. When he gets his body back, at the end of the world, he has to drink of the Chalice in the Kingdom of his Father in order to be incorporated in flesh and blood with Jesus—and so become Mary’s child. There is no other way!” (p. 98). So does this mean that it is possible to receive the Holy Eucharist in heaven? What else could he mean by “drink the Chalice”?


In this article I have quoted from Fr. Feeney’s own book, in order to be able to explain his teaching in his own words. I certainly do not advocate anyone reading the book by Father Feeney, filled as it is with error and having been published contrary to the requirements of Canon law. I am merely quoting from it in order to demonstrate clearly what Father Feeney taught—to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, as the saying goes.

The story of Father Leonard Feeney is indeed a tragic one. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1897, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1914 and was ordained in 1928. After holding several different teaching positions, he became chaplain of the Saint Benedict Center at Harvard Square in 1945. Due to concerns over his teachings, he was ordered by his Jesuit superiors to go to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. At first he complied with this order and went to Holy Cross, but later, under the influence of two laymen affiliated with Saint Benedict Center, he returned there, in defiance of his superior’s orders.

Eventually, he was summoned to Rome but refused to go. His refusal ultimately led to his excommunication by the Holy Office in 1953. Fr. Feeney was defiant, claiming that the excommunication against him was not valid. He moved his Saint Benedict Center to Still River, Massachusetts, and operated there without subjecting himself to the legitimate authority of the bishop of Worcester. His group purchased a large commune and begin to live a life separated from other Catholics and from the hierarchy of the Church. This group began to engage in bizarre practices such as breaking up families (taking the children from their parents, whom they were not allowed to see except on certain feast days) and brutal punishments imposed on the children for minor infractions.

Fr. Feeney eventually submitted to the local bishop in 1972 and sought to have his excommunication lifted. Although this was well after Vatican II, and therefore the legitimacy of the local bishop is questionable, we can nevertheless hope that his submission was sincere. Father Feeney died in 1978, but, sadly, his followers have continued to spread his errors far and wide. It is high time that they humbly submit to the teachings of Holy Mother Church, the “pillar and ground of truth” [1 Tim 3:15], for indeed, one who rejects the Church Christ founded by rejecting her teachings, will certainly not be able to save his soul.

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