In that same year of 1940, on the Feast of St. Joseph, Catherine Goddard Clarke and two other devoted Catholics opened a modest lending library — “a place,” in Mrs. Clarke’s words, “where non-Catholics could find out from Catholics what the Church was teaching.” It was called St. Benedict Center and was situated amid the sprawling complex of campus and dormitories of Harvard University at the comer of Bow and Arrow Streets, across from St. Paul’s Church, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its purpose was to fulfill Cardinal O’Connell’s mandate to “teach the Faith without compromise.”
Largely due to Mrs. Clarke’s magnetic personality, uncommon intellect, and indomitable apostolic spirit, student interest in St. Benedict Center as a lay apostolate began to flourish. And with it, so did the scope of activities. A philosophy course was started. And the Harvard Catholic Club began using its facilities for meetings.
When a friend had brought Father Feeney by the Center for a visit one afternoon, he was so impressed that he returned to observe one of its philosophy sessions and joined in the discussion. One of the students posed a question to Father, which he answered so clearly that the student later said: “That was the most satisfactory answer I have ever received. The question was one which has been bothering me for a long time.”
The need for a priest to answer just such questions had been felt, and an appeal was made to Father Feeney to fill the void. Busy though he was at Weston, Father eagerly offered his teaching skills. With that, his Thursday night lectures at St. Benedict Center – and, unknowingly, his unending association with it — had begun.
“We could scarcely believe the wealth of riches which Father Feeney brought to the Center, in himself,” Mrs. Clarke would write years later. “He brought us the example of real holiness, of priestly zeal. He brought us his great love for Our Lady, which everyone who has ever known him has acknowledged to be extraordinarily deep and beautiful. He brought us the fruits of his scholarship, of his many years of learning .... His rich humor, his poetry, his love of the poets, his story-telling, at which he is a master, filled us with joy. He seemed to think everyone was good, everyone (of us) a genius, everyone almost a saint. We expanded under the warmth and charm of it. If we weren’t saints, we would try to be. At least we would work hard for God, and let Him take care of the saint part of us.”
Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center became a powerful combination that rapidly began attracting patrons, both Catholic and non-Catholic, both student and non-student, by the hundreds. (Once a Navy man showed up at a lecture, owing his presence to the fact that word of the Center was in wide circulation even aboard U.S. war vessels.) Attendance was so large on Thursday nights that the audience “filled the aisles, jammed the door-way, and stood on the sidewalk, at each window.” When the scholarly Dr. Fakhri Maluf* was added to the Center’s attractions, conducting Tuesday night lectures on philosophy, these numbers grew still more. Mrs. Clarke, in fact, was able to boast that, by 1943, “We were able to reach a thousand students a week.”
*Dr. Maluf later became a professed Religious in the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. and today is Superior of our community at St. Benedict Center in Richmond. NH.Members of the famous Kennedy family were known to visit. Jack was running for Congress when he first came to the Center, and surprised Father by being able to recite from memory passages of one of his essays. Jack Kennedy came to several lectures and was always gracious and respectful towards Father, who once told him, “’Maybe someday you will be the first Catholic president!”
Bobby Kennedy came once as well. However, he was arrogant and confrontational. Father suffered him patiently, until he flippantly sniped, “I know more Protestants who are going to heaven than Catholics!” “That’s not the way to talk to a priest,” Father retorted, and directed the young Kennedy to the door.
A bank official raved about St. Benedict Center to Mrs. Clarke: “This work is glorious!” Even His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, had read, apparently with keen interest, an account about the Center sent to Him by one of its friends. Later, when this same friend told Pope Pius in an audience that he was from Boston, His Holiness surprised him, saying, “All yes! And you have a foundation in Cambridge, St. Benedict Center. I have read your account of it, and I send St. Benedict Center my blessing.”
A scholar in her own right, the Center’s foundress provided the dynamic drive and organizational leadership behind its cohesiveness. But it was clearly Father Feeney’s sanctity, his charisma and, most importantly, his ponderous knowledge of Catholic teachings that accounted for the Center’s popular success. (John J. McEleny, S.J., Father’s Jesuit Provincial, described Leonard Feeney as “the greatest theologian we have in the United States, by far.” Cardinal John Wright in early years went even further, calling him “the greatest theologian in the Catholic Church today.”) Two hundred conversions to the Catholic Faith and more than 100 vocations to religious life — many of them from the ranks of Harvard’s student body — were the fruits of the combined labors of Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center during their first decade together.
Theirs, however, was a symbiotic relationship. As great as was the inspiration and spiritual wisdom that Father brought to the Center, so also did its students repay him in equal measure with love for, and dedication to, the Faith. At last he was not merely hailed by an impersonal public as the “priest poet.” Now he was cherished by a devoted following as a spiritual father. And little this side of heaven could please his priestly heart more.
Nothing breeds ambition like success. St. Benedict Center was a success, in terms of Catholic purpose, beyond anything one could imagine in a place like Harvard Square, and in an age such as ours. If the purpose for which Our Lord established His Church is the salvation of souls, then Father Feeney in the 1940s was fulfilling that purpose in a manner unknown anywhere else in modem times.
As He ascended into heaven, Christ commanded His apostles: “Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Luke 16:15,16). Yet Leonard Feeney, as he toiled in the vineyard of academic Cambridge, seemed to be almost a singular exception in carrying out Our Lord’s commission to His Church.
So well regarded were Father’s accomplishments at St. Benedict Center by his Jesuit superiors and the Archdiocesan authorities that he was assigned as its spiritual director full time. To Father that meant devoting himself full time to the salvation of souls. The more successful he was at it, however, the more he reflected on the sudden neglect in the 20th Century of other Catholics, lay and religious, in their duty to do likewise. For he did not believe one had to be a learned theologian or a dynamic preacher to win souls, but simply to love Our Lord and Our Lady sincerely, and to share their desire for men’s salvation. “When piety is genuine,” he said, “it is always attractive.”
By personal example, his own apostolic methods were disarmingly simple, direct and all but irresistible. If you met him on the street as a stranger, his first question would be: “Are you a Catholic?” If you were not, he would invite you to become one. If you were unresponsive, he would try to get you to recite the Hail Mary with him. (Father routinely used to drive to the home of Dr. Paul Dudley White, the eminent heart specialist who treated President Eisenhower, just to have the physician recite the Hail Mary with him. Dr. White came into the Church before his death.)
If, on the other hand, you answered that you were a Catholic, Father would next inquire if you attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly. Should you answer that you don’t, he would likely take you aside to hear your confession on the spot. The sight of Father hearing someone’s confession in a doorway along some city street was not an unusual one.
Never have I known or heard of a priest challenging total strangers so directly, and yet so paternally. My own first meeting with Father Feeney will never be forgotten. I was one of a dozen guests being entertained, one Sunday afternoon, by Brother Francis on me lawn at St. Benedict Center’s Still River Monastery. Father by then was old, and the dulling effects of Parkinson’s Disease to his mind were immediately recognizable. Yet, when he came among us, his first words to us were: “Did you all go to Mass today?” With a collective voice, the group answered, “Yes. Father.” His next question, “And did you all receive Holy Communion?” likewise received an affirmative group reply. But the dear priest wouldn’t settle for a collective reply this time. So great was his love of the Blessed Sacrament, and so essential to the life of every soul did he hold It, that he polled each and every one of us in that group to make absolutely certain all had received our Eucharistic Lord.
If I may be allowed another digression to show the lovingly simple heart of this priest, I’ll mention a charming encounter that Brother Robert Mary, the member of our Third Order* who authored Father Feeney and the Truth About Salvation, had with our founder about three years after my own just mentioned one. I’ve known him as Bob for 35 years now, so I’ll address him by that name here.
*Our Third Order members (Tertiaries) are laymen and women who participate in the work of Saint Benedict Center. They are not Religious consecrated by vows, as are the Brothers and Sisters who live in the Monastery and Convent respectively. However, they do consecrate their lives to the Immaculate Heart and commit themselves for life to defending our doctrinal crusade by a promise. When they act on behalf of the Center (such as when they write for publications), they are entitled to use their Third Order names, beginning with the title “Brother” (or “Sister”), and followed by “M.I.C.M., Tert.” A religious name in our Order without the Tert. behind it denotes a professed Religious Brother or Sister consecrated by vows and living in community.Bob was then working for a non-profit educational organization in a Boston suburb, but had moved near Still River so he could attend lectures at the Center. His youngest son was also a student in the Center’s high school at the time. Bob attended Mass at every opportunity. But this was a weekday morning, and he was already late for work, some thirty miles hence, when he was dropping his son off for school at St. Anne’s House.
As he began to pull away in his car, he saw our elderly priest, escorted by another Religious, coming down the drive. Respectfully, Bob stopped to bid him “good morning.” Father, taking the man to be a stranger, asked if he were coming to Mass. Bob explained his situation, telling Father Leonard (as he was affectionately known among us) that he was on his way to work and, unfortunately, could not attend that morning. Disappointment unmistakably evident on the old priest’s face, he inquired where this “stranger” worked. When Bob told him the name of his organization, Father in innocent simplicity responded, “And what do they think of Our Lady?”
Why, I have often asked myself, are there no other priests today with the same passion for winning souls to the True Faith? Father Feeney was asking himself the same question back in the 1940s at St. Benedict Center. What had happened to quench the apostolic vigor and vitality of the Catholic Church that was still so much in evidence throughout the world only a hundred years earlier, producing great numbers of saints? What had so widely and so completely chilled the fiery zeal for souls? What had diluted the Church’s sound apologetics into snivelling apologies, her triumphalism into timidity? Were Freud’s spiritless psychology, or Darwin’s faithless evolutionism, or Marx’s godless communism to blame? In part, yes. But Leonard Feeney sensed some larger, some less conspicuous, some more universal force at play. And he was restless, once again, to identity it.
After long and reflective thought, he one day called Dr. Maluf and Mrs. Clarke to his office, and in a somber tone announced, “I think I am putting my finger on what’s causing the decadence and the corruption in the Church and it’s summarized in one sentence. They are trying to bury one fundamental dogma, and that is ‘outside the Church there’s no salvation.’ ”
The definitive point at which Father Feeney’s contest with the Church hierarchy began, was when the Center’s new publication, FROM THE HOUSETOPS, carried an article in its September, 1947 issue by Professor Maluf, entitled “Sentimental Theology.” By presenting a compelling defense of the dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, he chastened liberal Catholics who were superimposing the vagueries of sentimental reasoning, in matters of salvation, upon the infallible certitudes of the Deposit of Faith. Dr. Maluf wrote:
“Sentimental thinking about religious matters is very much with us today. A great deal of what is being said by Catholics today sounds in very sharp contrast with the accent of the authentic voice of the Church, teaching, warning, and defining. The sharp weapons of Christ are being blunted, and the strong, virile doctrines of the Church are being put aside in a conspiracy of silence. ... The Catholic Church does not proclaim the exclusive salvation of one race of people, but invites every man to the great joy of being united with Christ in the communion of Saints. The Catholic truth is not a sad story for which we need to apologize: it is a proclamation of the greatest good news that could ever be told. No matter how sternly its message is phrased, it is still the one and only hope in the world. Only love and security can afford to be severe. When we say that outside of the Church there is no salvation, we are also and at the same time announcing that inside the Church there is salvation.... This is not a story which can be taught with the subdued and hesitant voice of sentimental theology.”No noticeable repercussion was immediately felt at the Center. After all, earlier issues of the magazine had carried articles attacking Catholic liberalism, followed only by the expected reaction from critics of the Center.
In fact, the month after “Sentimental Theology” appeared, Archbishop Cushing, who himself had contributed two articles to the HOUSETOPS, made an official visit to the Center. On that occasion, as mentioned in our booklet Architects of Confusion, His Excellency lavished “praise on the work of Father Feeney and his associates. Citing the many conversions and, even more, the many religious vocations credited to Saint Benedict Center, Archbishop Cushing declared several times that the Center had the official sanction and gratitude of the Archdiocese.” In further fact, Archbishop Cushing, seven months later, on May 2, 1948, hosted 1200 members of the Center who had come in procession with Father Feeney to his Brighton residence to honor the Infant of Prague.
It stunned Father, therefore, to learn that the Archbishop soon after had attended a dinner at Harvard’s Lowell House, at which he was asked: “Do you approve of St. Benedict Center?” The Archbishop’s reply was: “I don’t know anything about them.... I am not sure that I approve of their method. I will have to look into that.” Then was raised the issue of students dropping out of Harvard because of what they learned at the Center. “Well, we’ve been getting all kinds of complaints from the parents of these boys,” the prelate replied. “Something is going to be done about it.”
Ominous words! Reports already were circulating that the Center would be closed down, which prompted several of its students to call on Archbishop Cushing and inquire if there were any substance to them. The prelate received them cordially, but gave evasive answers to their inquiry. Making a grand attempt to change the subject, he complained about the failure of Boston College and other Catholic schools to teach religion. “Why doesn’t Father Feeney,” said His Excellency, “go over to Boston College and do something about that?”
Indeed, it was at the Jesuits’ Boston College that pressure began to bear on several faculty members for their association with Father Feeney and the doctrine of no salvation outside the Church, and it was becoming clear that their positions on the faculty were in jeopardy. Professor Maluf, author of “Sentimental Theology,” was among them.
On August 25,1948, Father Feeney received a letter from his Jesuit Provincial, Father McEleny, informing him that he was being transferred from St. Benedict Center to Holy Cross College, outside the Boston diocese, some fifty miles away. When Father contacted the Provincial to inquire about the reasons for his transfer, he was answered: “Higher authorities.”
Father McEleny would not specify what “higher authorities,” but at length did acknowledge to Father Feeney that it was objection to “your doctrine” that motivated the decision.
“Higher authorities” and “your doctrine” defined the issue succinctly. It is a universal law of all ordered society that an inferior authority cannot supercede a superior authority. The supreme Authority, of course, is God Himself. Every man has a duty to obey His laws, which are supreme to all other laws, civic or religious. Therefore, religious obedience is subject to the divine law. (A bishop, even a pope, for an extreme example, could not lawfully command the worship of an idol, for such an act would violate the First Commandment.) Moreover, as stated before, every Catholic is duty-bound to profess and to defend all truths taught by Our Lord to His Apostles, and preserved by the Magisterium of the Church. No authority can justly prevent the exercise of that duty.
Here is St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter: “[I]t is written (Acts 5:29): ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.”
Had the Provincial given any practical reason for the decision to transfer Father Feeney out of the Center, he would have stood on solid authority. But by naming Father’s “doctrine” as the reason, Father McEleny now had brought entirely different implications of conscience to the matter.
For, were Father Feeney teaching false or flawed doctrine, his superiors would have had not merely the right, but the duty to take disciplinary or remedial action against him. By the same token, he would nonetheless be entitled, under Canon Law, to a hearing in his own defense.
If, instead, Father were being transferred to silence him and St. Benedict Center precisely because they were faithfully teaching and defending a doctrine as it had been infallibly defined by three popes and an ecumenical council of the Church, then he not only had the right, but a duty before God to request a hearing on the matter.
And he did so — repeatedly — to his Jesuit superiors, to Archbishop Cushing, and to Auxiliary Bishop John Wright, who had been intimately involved with Father Feeney and the Center. Members of St. Benedict Center did likewise. And each attempt was summarily ignored!
Also to be considered is the fact that Father, as spiritual director of the Center, had a pastoral duty to its members and students — to the B.C. teachers and their families, and to hundreds of its other students. Many of these had quit Harvard and other prestigious colleges in protest to their anti-Catholic teachings, many had converted to Catholicism under Father’s guidance, and some had done both. More often than not, these young men and women were repudiated by family and friends for their courageous acts, and their only spiritual haven was St. Benedict Center, under Father Feeney’s paternal care. It was fully evident that once Father were removed, the diocese would close the Center and that would be the end of the matter, so far as the Archdiocese was concerned. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter!” What, then, would become of these pious men and women and their souls?
No Religious ever surpassed Leonard Feeney, however, in his sense of obedience to superiors. On Our Lady’s Birthday, September 8, 1948, his two bags were packed, and he was ready to depart for Holy Cross. That same morning, his disciples from the Center made one last attempt for a hearing of their own with the Jesuit Provincial, but were rudely and contemptuously snubbed. He would not even talk to them.
Now, after having stormed heaven with prayers, their last recourse was to implore Father Feeney himself as his spiritual children. All well understood the gravity of obedience in religious life. But clearly this was a matter of an authority commanding obedience to itself in defiance of a higher authority — the Highest Authority. Father’s greater duty, they insisted, now was to Our Lord Jesus Christ — to teach and defend His divine truth. His removal from the Center indisputably was being enforced in contempt of a Church doctrine and of Our Lord’s command to teach all peoples “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’’ (Matt. 28:20).
Make no mistake, Father Feeney had weighed this matter long and carefully and prayerfully. He agonized over it. He would continue to do so in the coming months, each time he was faced with having to choose between obedience to superiors and obedience to God. And each time he conformed his decision with what he believed in his heart was his duty to God.
The following morning, a letter was sent to the Jesuit Provincial respectfully advising him that, as a matter of conscience, Father Feeney would remain at St. Benedict Center pending a fair hearing of the matter.
This time, the Provincial did respond. Immediately! In a brief but officious letter, he urged Father “to follow the order given,” under obedience. By reply, Father wrote: “In one last letter, I am asking you solemnly in the Sacrament of my Priesthood and the sanctity of my vow, to desist at once from endeavouring to remove me from St. Benedict Center.... If as you told me, my removal is not of your doing but that of a higher authority, I demand [to have] brought to the attention of that higher authority at once the nature of my protest as a priest.... I shall prepare a full and detailed report of my serious conscience difficulties and the reasons why, for the glory of God, the good of the Society, and the salvation of hundreds of souls who are depending upon me in this terrible emergency ... at this moment I cannot in conscience leave until I can do so with dignity and as their Father; — and I shall present this report to every one of my major superiors whom it may concern.”
Father McEleny’s next response totally evaded the issues of conscience and of a hearing. It simply restated more harshly his demand that the original order be obeyed.
On December 6th, with the appearance in the HOUSETOPS of the article entitled “Liberal Theology and Salvation,” another letter arrived from the Provincial repeating the same instructions with regard to Father’s transfer to Holy Cross. In answer to which Father reiterated that his “unwillingness to leave St. Benedict Center ... is a matter of conscience, the details of which you are not willing to receive.”
But this only provoked yet another missive from Father McEleny, on December 29th, threatening termination of priestly faculties and expulsion from the Society of Jesus. This automatically escalated the matter to one all the more clearly entitling the beleaguered priest to a hearing. But still a hearing was denied.
On January 17, 1949, Monsignor Augustine Hickey came to the Center to serve verbal notice that, by order of the Chancery and the Archbishop, permission to publish FROM THE HOUSETOPS was suspended — the Center was ordered to cease its publication. The Monsignor was advised that the Center desired to have the order in writing, but no written order was ever provided.
In the meantime, the Center had been keeping its collective ear to the ground and almost daily was receiving reports of inside goings on within the Archdiocesan offices, the Society’s provincial office, and in even higher levels. The picture becoming increasingly and chillingly more clear was that nowhere in those quarters did there exist any theological approval of, much less support for, the Center’s doctrinal stand. Rather, both the Jesuits and the Archdiocese were embarrassed by it, and were determined to eliminate the source of that embarrassment by any means.
Father Leonard Feeney and St. Benedict Center — and the doctrine No Salvation Outside the Church — now were under full siege.
St. Louis Marie de Montfort foretold that the devil, in the last days before the Antichrist, “will presently raise up cruel persecutions, and will put terrible snares before the faithful and true children of Mary.... But the power of Mary over all the devils will especially shine forth in the latter times, when Satan will lay his snares against her heel; that is to say, her humble slaves and her poor children, whom she will raise up to make war against him. They shall be little and poor in the world’s esteem, and abased before all, like the heel, trodden underfoot and persecuted as the heel is by the other members of the body. But in return for this, they shall be rich in the grace of God, which Mary shall distribute to them abundantly. They shall ... crush the head of the devil and cause Jesus Christ to triumph.”
Father Feeney and his devoted followers held no delusions of being saints. But they surely wanted to become saints. And they were determined to continue to teach and defend the doctrine on salvation at any cost to themselves, and against whatever forces. In the midst of the mounting siege, therefore, on January 1st, they joined in a formal resolution to bind themselves together as a religious institution “dedicated to the glory of God and the protection of the doctrines of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church.”
And, on January 17, 1949, Father Leonard Feeney, Catherine Goddard Clarke, Fakhri Maluf and 53 other members of St. Benedict Center professed themselves by vows in a new religious congregation, under the name of Mancipia Immaculati Cordis Mariae — The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort was adopted as patron of their new order.
Meanwhile, other behind-the-scenes machinations of the Jesuits began to come to the fore. A canon-law expert at Weston, Father John Crowley, drew up a summary of regulations for teaching in a Jesuit institution, specifically stating that religion in colleges be taught only by priests: “This applies equally to a lay professor who wishes to expound theological topics. Unless he ... has had a systematic training in theology, he is not allowed to ‘teach’ theology.” Father Crowley delivered his summary to Dean O’Connell at Boston College on March 5th, saying, “If I run into any other pertinent regulations, I will pass them on. Happy hunting!”
On April 13th, Dr. Maluf and two other professors from the Center were dismissed from the faculty of Boston College. These were young men with young families who were now without means of support. When word of the dismissals reached the Boston Globe, a reporter called B.C. for confirmation. At that point, the college contacted every newspaper in Boston trying to quash the story. All complied, with the exception of the Boston Post, which headlined it the next day. It appeared on the front page of the New York Times the day following. And in no time it was being carried by wire services across the globe.
With the story now public, William J. Kelleher, S.J., President of Boston College explained the reason for dismissing the professors to the press in this way: “They continued to speak in class and out of class on matters contrary to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, ideas leading to bigotry and intolerance.” (Emphasis added.)
As the controversy escalated over the coming weeks, the whole world was hearing the doctrine “No Salvation Outside the Church,” and was attentively following the story of a single Boston priest who withstood Church hierarchy to defend it. But the hierarchy struck back. On April 18th, Archbishop Cushing published a formal edict forbidding Catholics to attend the Center or to take part in any of its activities.
Clare Booth Luce, a highly influential woman who knew Pius XII personally, was a friend and strong supporter of Father’s. She called him after learning of the censure: “Is there anything I can do?” she asked. “No, Dear,” he replied. “Just pray.”
John Farrow, a Hollywood figure, also offered to assist. As did Spyros Skouras, President of Twentieth Century Fox.* But Father didn’t want the kind of help they could offer. This was a doctrinal fight. He sought to be vindicated by the Church, not protected by friends with influence.
*Spyros Skouras was Greek Orthodox, but had an Italian Catholic wife and a daughter, Daphne, who was also Catholic. In what became an award-winning social event of the year, Father married Daphne Skouras to Orin Root in a ceremony in New York’s Saint Vincent Ferrer Church, a Gothic-style Dominican church considered one of the most beautiful in the country. Root was one of Father’s converts and was the grandson of Elihu Root, a Roosevelt cabinet member and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. There were other “connected” ecclesiastical and political persons of national and even international prominence who offered their help to Fattier Feeney. In all cases he declined, wishing instead to settle his differences with the hierarchy “on the issue.”Late in October, Father received a registered, special-delivery letter. Even before reading it, he knew its Latin contents. “My dear boys and girls,” he announced to his spiritual family, holding the unopened letter. “I have been dismissed from the Jesuit Order.” He was correct.
St. Benedict Center was a legally authorized school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, making its students who were veterans eligible for funding under the G.I. Bill. In June, 1950, the Board of Collegiate Authority refused to renew state approval. Father Feeney, with three others from the Center, went to the State House to appeal the matter directly to Governor Paul Dever. “The Governor is not available. He’s not here,” Father was told by the receptionist.
“My dear,” Father said, “it’s a very bad thing for a Catholic girl to lie, especially to a priest.” The girl broke down and cried.
At length, Dever did see them. Noticeably nervous and at one point pausing to take some pills, he insisted he could do nothing. With that, Father arose and said, “I will take my case to the people.”
The following Sunday, on July 23rd, Father Feeney, with an entourage from the Center and a wooden platform, arrived on Boston Common, across from the State House, and he began to preach the Catholic Faith. He would do so every Sunday, at 3:00 p.m., rain or shine, summer and winter, for the next eight years.
It was unmistakably certain to the Archdiocese that Father Feeney and the salvation doctrine were not going to go away quietly.
After Father realized his case had no hope of receiving a fair and proper hearing from the Jesuit Society, the Boston Archdiocese, or the Church hierarchy in general, he clung to the singular hope that Pope Pius XII, the Holy Father and Protector of all Christendom, would come to the defense of his doctrinal cause. On August 8,1949, Rome issued an official letter to the Archbishop of Boston concerning the Boston Heresy case, signed by Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani, Secretary of the Holy Office. In stark contrast to all the accusations of heresy against Father Feeney widely published by the Jesuits and the Archdiocese, it stated that “among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also that infallible statement by which we are taught that there is no salvation outside the Church.”
It further stated that “we are commanded to be incorporated by baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, and to remain united to Christ and His Vicar, through whom He Himself in a visible manner governs the Church on earth. ... Not only did the Saviour command that all nations should enter the Church, but He also decreed the Church to be a means of salvation without which no one can enter the kingdom of eternal glory.”
“However,” it continued, “this dogma must be understood in the sense in which the Church herself understands it.” And “it is not always required that [a person] be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that he at least be united to her by desire and longing.” This is in contradiction to the three infallible papal definitions reprinted on the inside back cover of this magazine, and to the Syllabus of Errors promulgated in the previous century by Pope Pius IX. Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center had understood this dogma in the very sense and only in the precise words by which it was defined, by three Supreme Pontiffs and two General Councils of the Church. Nowhere in those infallible definitions is any mention made of belonging to the Church “by desire and longing.”
The Holy Office, accusing Father Feeney by name, charged, “he does not hesitate to attack the catechetical instruction proposed by lawful authorities, and has not even feared to incur grave sanctions threatened by the sacred canons.”
Long after the death of Pope Pius XII, John Cardinal Wright, a former friend of Father’s who had been the architect of his terrible persecution, claimed Pope Pius personally edited this letter for the Holy Office with then-Bishop Wright’s assistance. It was a self-serving claim on the face of it, and, some believe, a specious one. For, at the urging of Cardinal Segura of Spain, who shared Father’s doctrinal position, Pope Pius would later chastise “those who would reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the One True Church.” in his Encyclical Humani Generis. He surely was not speaking of Father Feeney! So it is most probable that Wright drafted the letter.*
*Exactly what Pope Pius XII’s involvement in the whole affair was is nearly impossible to tell. We had the word of Cardinal Segura that the Holy Father would address the issue in his “next encyclical.” That encyclical was Humani Generis, which barely mentioned the doctrine, but did so obviously in Father Feeney’s favor. How the same Holy Father could allow the letter of Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani — which itself reduced the dogma to “a meaningless formula” — to be used to counter Father Feeney, is something we will only know in eternity. What may shed some light on the matter, however, are some other facts about Pius XII which show that he was not “the last conservative Pope” as many regard him: It was Pius XII who set a bad precedent when he allowed Annibale Bugnini — the future concoctor of the New Mass — to alter the liturgical ceremonies of Holy Week. It was Pius XII who employed Father Bea — His own confessor — to translate the 150 psalms as they are used in the priest’s breviary from Hebrew into a new Latin version, thus replacing St. Jerome’s ancient Latin translation. (Cardinal Bea would later become known for his deplorable ecumenism. especially with Jews.) Pope Pius XII also allowed the first real chink in the Church’s heavy armor against modern scientism, by making unfortunate references friendly toward the bogus theory of evolution. The argument has been made by some that, far from being the “last traditional Pope,” Pius XII was, in fact, the first “modem” Pope. Still, he remains an enigma.Archbishop Cushing, on September 4th, 1952, wrote to Father: “By direction of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, with the complete approval of His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, I am ordered to invite you to come to me and to make an explicit profession of your submission both to the local Ordinary and to the Apostolic See....” And “you are also warned to desist immediately from your activities as leader of the St. Benedict Center movement....” The Archbishop added: “The Holy Office, with full approval of the Holy Father, has placed St. Benedict Center under local interdict and yourself under personal interdict.” The Archbishop had the letter published in the Archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot.
Father did appear before the Archbishop and asked him if he agreed with what was said concerning salvation in the Vatican’s earlier letter. “All I know, Len, is what the Church tells me to believe,” the prelate answered.
“Does your Excellency mean to say,” Father rejoined, “that you didn’t know what the Catholic Faith was, antecedent to receiving this letter from Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani?” The Archbishop said nothing.
Then arrived a letter signed by the new Secretary of the Holy Office, Joseph Cardinal Pizzardo, summoning Father Feeney to Rome for a hearing. At last! Father had long pleaded for a hearing at which he could present his case, that he had been silenced solely for defending the dogma. He intended to honor the summons, and had the encouragement of several of his Religious in that decision. Others, however, feared it was a trap — that he would not be allowed to return. It was plain from the summons, after all, that Father was to appear not as the plaintiff, but as the accused. And, judging from all previous positions taken by the Holy Office in his case, it was predictable that an unfavorable decision would be rendered, thus allowing even greater scandal to the dogma before the eyes of the world.
In such matters Church law provides: “The accused shall be informed of the charges preferred against him, that an opportunity may be given him of defending himself. His accusers shall be made known to him, and lie himself shall have a hearing before his judges.”
Father thus modified his decision, qualifying his appearance in Rome. His written response to Cardinal Pizzardo stated: “This is the first official notification of a cause, judicially cognizable, in which I am an interested party. Your letter not only informs me that such a cause exists, but also that there is to be a hearing for its disposition. A hearing or trial presupposes some formal complaint or accusation which serves as a legal basis for the proceedings and which also informs the accused of the charge against him so that he can prepare to defend himself. Before I can participate in a trial I would like to know with more adequate particularity what I am to be tried for.”
Cardinal Pizzardo, by response, accused our priest of “evading the issue,” and ordered: “You are to come to Rome immediately where you will be informed of the charges lodged against you.” There it was. Father indeed was being charged. But he was not being informed of what he was charged with, as was his right.
Respectfully but firmly, Father in his reply restated his position and cited the canons that rendered the summons “fatally defective” in the absence of stated charges.
On February 16th, the official organ of the Vatican, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, published a decree from the Holy Office:
“Since the priest Leonard Feeney, a resident of Boston (Saint Benedict Center), who for a long time has been suspended from his priestly duties on account of grave disobedience of Church Authority, being unmoved by repeated warnings and threats of incurring excommunication ipso facto, has not submitted, the Most Eminent and Reverend Fathers, charged with safeguarding matters of faith and morals, in a Plenary Session held Wednesday, 4 February 1953, declared him excommunicated, with all the effects of the law. ... Given at Rome, at the Headquarters of the Holy Office, 13 February 1953. (Signed) Marius Crovini, Notary”By appeal, a Complaint of Nullity was submitted by the Center to the Pro-Secretary of State for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, citing various legal defects in the decree, including: “It is not signed by a judge of the tribunal. The Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office is a tribunal composed of several Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. Not one of these Cardinals has signed his name to this decree. For validity, the judgment of a Court must be over the signature of one of its judges.”
The only signature, in fact, was that of the Notary, whose signature only serves to attest as witness to the signing of a legal document. But no other signature appeared to which he could have been witness! Furthermore, the decree also lacked an official seal.
There was no response from Rome to the appeal.
Continue to Part III.
Read Part I.