On Tuesday, July 28th, six clerically garbed young men from Saint Benedict Censer, headquarters of the controversial Father Leonard Feeney, appeared on the Notre Dame campus at South Bend and managed to stir up the whole University summer school. Their apparent purpose was the conversion of Notre Dame to their own “peculiar” beliefs.
Two days later, the group of six presented themselves at the Chicago Chancery Building and demanded an appointment with Samuel Cardinal Stritch. The “rumpus” raised by them forced Chancery officials to call in Chicago police and have the noisy sextet locked up. On the following morning in a local courtroom, the young men insisted that their case was a matter for the Church, not the civil courts. They were fined. They refused to pay. They were sentenced to five days in jail. Next day, fines for the six were paid by a Chicago Catholic who did not agree with the boys doctrinally, but thought that they ought to be allowed to “go back to Massachusetts.”
This month’s issue of The Point is the twentieth. In past months, there have been many incidents which, like the Chicago one, have made Saint Benedict Center, and its director, Father Leonard Feeney, subject matter for headlines in the newspapers and for feature articles in the news magazines. Great numbers of these write-ups have been of malicious intent, deliberately disregarding the actual situation. “Hit Feeney again,” has become a popular policy with news publishers, since they are assured that none of their readers would dare or care to come right out in the open and demand a fair hearing for Father Feeney.
Even more vicious, and less solicitous for the truth, have been the Father Feeney smear-jobs in the nation’s Catholic press. With them there has been no pretense at objective reporting. Hundreds of pages of “He’s insane,” “He’s proud,” “He studied too much,” have been foisted upon the Catholic public in the hope that the sheer quantity of the calumny will cover up the fact that no one has given a dogmatic answer to Father Feeney’s charge that heresy is being taught in the American Church, that the infallibly defined dogma of no salvation outside the Catholic Church is being reduced to a meaningless formula.
Father Leonard Feeney has come off in the Catholic periodicals as the one man in the country with dangerous doctrines. In such magazines, an article praising the religious outlooks of Christian Scientists, Mohammedans or Jews is the accepted and common accompaniment to a diatribe against the “ideas” of Father Feeney. And while Catholic students in Catholic colleges delve with “permission” into every forbidden hook on the Index, the one volume that is absolutely prohibited to them is Father Feeney’s recently published Bread of Life.
In all this, The Point has consistently refrained from rushing to Father Feeney’s personal defense. For we know that his first interest has always been the defense of the dogmas of the Faith, not the rectifying of misimpressions about himself, however maliciously and widely they may have been spread. To our faithful subscribers, the great majority of them priests, we need make no apology this month for departing from our usual practice. The truth is, this Chicago issue of The Point was prompted by the most dogmatic of reasons and, for our priest readers, the most sacramentally personal of reasons. The events in Chicago have cast doubt and confusion on the inviolable dogma that a priest is a priest forever.
This is our heartache, and our privilege: that we should now have to defend, along with the Church’s doctrine on salvation, the Church’s equally sacred doctrine on the eternal character of the priesthood. It is likewise our privilege that, in defending the priesthood, and its very nature, we cannot defend it apart from the priest in whom priesthood has been lately attacked, Father Leonard Feeney of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is in this spirit that we are telling the Chicago story.
The message that they brought to Notre Dame was a simple, straightforward one: that no one can get into Heaven who does not love the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later, the newspapers scoffingly reported that the six Brothers had come to “convert” the Notre Dame students. This was the strange doctrine to which they wanted to convert them.
The Brothers talked to more than three hundred Notre Dame students and priests. They told them that Notre Dame was letting Our Lady down. They said that there had once been a time when every Catholic American boy had thought of the Notre Dame football team as somehow representing Our Lady; but now, they said, it had turned into an eleven-man Interfaith meeting, many of whose members would refuse even to say the Hail Mary.
It was this attack on the sacred Notre Dame football team that really aroused the press. There was hardly a newspaper in the country that did not print the Brothers’ statement. Of course, it was twisted to try and make it sound queer and absurd: “The first sign of your approaching damnation is that you have Protestants on your football team.” But people could see through the way the papers had put it to what the Brothers had said, and they could see that a very telling point had been scored against Notre Dame. The University was officially upset enough to issue a statement on its policy regarding Protestants in the athletic department.
It was in identifying the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Order to which the Brothers belonged, that the damage was done. Father Leonard Feeney, the superior of the Order, was referred to as everything from a “former priest” and an “ex-priest” to “Mr. Feeney.” This was a clear, overt attack on the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and the Brothers could not overlook it. Since the Chicago newspapers had been the most frequent offenders, the Brothers decided to go to Chicago.
As soon as they arrived in the city, the Brothers went directly to the editor of Chicago’s largest newspaper, and told him their grievance. The editor told them that he had honestly been led to believe — from reports he had read in the Catholic press — that Father Feeney was no longer a priest. However, he assured them that if they could get some sort of statement from Cardinal Stritch’s office saying that Father Feeney was still a priest, he would be glad to print a retraction, and would never make the mistake again.
“Who are you?” the Monsignor demanded.
“We are six Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with Father Leonard Feeney,” one of the Brothers answered.
“The first appointment you are going to get,” the Monsignor snapped, “is with the police. Now get out of here!”
Stunned at this treatment, the Brothers for a moment did not know what to do. Then, as by a single inspiration, they turned and walked into the Cardinal’s office.
Cardinal Stritch was seated at his desk. He looked up, smiled, and nodded as the Brothers came in. “Your Eminence,” said Brother Hugh, one of the six, “we are Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and we would like an appointment to speak with you about a very grave matter.”
“I will be glad to give you an appointment, if you will make it properly,” the Cardinal said.
“That’s not what Monsignor Burke told us, Your Eminence,” Brother Hugh said. “He told us that the only appointment we would get would be with the police department. Your Eminence, could Brother Francis speak to you?”
The Cardinal nodded his assent.
Brother Francis told the Cardinal what a terrible scandal it was for Father Feeney to be called an ex-priest; he told him that millions of people were being made to think that the priesthood was not something abiding, but something that a priest could have one day and which could be taken away from him the next. He beseeched the Cardinal to put an end to this scandal and to give a statement to the newspapers affirming with finality that the Sacrament of Holy Orders, once administered, can never be taken away.
The Cardinal said he could do nothing.
“But don’t you see, Your Eminence,” Brother Francis protested, “that this is more than an attack on Father Feeney? It is an attack on the priesthood of every priest. If you do not want to issue a formal statement, have someone in the Chancery call up the newspapers and tell them unofficially, just so they will know.”
The Cardinal said he could do nothing.
Brother Francis then asked, “Your Eminence, do you believe that a priest is a priest forever?”
The Cardinal looked away, and did not answer.
While Brother Francis had been speaking to Cardinal Stritch, members of the Chancery staff kept coming into the office. But no one spoke, no one interrupted Brother Francis. Now, all of a sudden, someone tried to grab hold of him. The Brothers all dropped to their knees and said a prayer, in the hope of avoiding a scuffle. Cardinal Stritch then went into a more quiet office, and Brother Hugh went with him.
“Your Eminence,” Brother Hugh said, “I want to talk to you as a son to a father. Will you listen to me?”
“Yes,” said the Cardinal, “what can I do for you?”
“Your Eminence, I plead with you to stop this terrible scandal. Defend the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Tell the newspapers that Father Feeney is still a priest. Don’t you believe, Your Eminence, that a priest is a priest forever?”
The Cardinal did not answer. At this point, three laymen came into the room. Brother Hugh turned and spoke to them: “You can see that I am speaking to the Cardinal as a son to a father. I am asking you in the name of Our Blessed Mother not to hinder me.”
The men stepped back. Brother Hugh turned to the Cardinal and asked him again if he would do something to stop the scandal being given.
“Rome has spoken,” the Cardinal said, “There is nothing I can do.”
“Rome has always referred to Father Leonard Feeney as a priest,” Brother Hugh said.
“Well, in common parlance around here, we sometimes call a priest an ex-priest,” the Cardinal answered.
“Your Eminence,” Brother Hugh asked one last time, “do you yourself believe that a priest is a priest forever?”
Suddenly, two policemen seized Brother Hugh from behind. They held his arms and pulled him from the room. When Brother Hugh turned around, he saw that the policemen were acting at the direction of a priest. He realized, too, that Cardinal Stritch must have seen what was about to happen, yet he had made no motion to stop the policemen; he had given no indication that they were approaching; he had not even changed his expression.
Were it not for a certain Mrs. Thomason, Saturday August first would have been for them the first of five willing days behind bars. On that morning, however, the said Midwestern lady appeared with purse in hand, paid all six fines, and then made statements to the press about how delighted she was that Senator Robert Taft was in Heaven and the Brothers from Massachusetts were on their way back home.
Mrs. Thomason’s neighbors were not all so blithe about the whole affair. Alert Chicago Catholics began to realize just how far our bishops are prepared to go to discredit any priest who will not fall into the American pattern of compromised Catholicism.
And in Boston, Father Leonard Feeney had an answer for those who would “de-priest” him. It was to affirm more loudly than ever that defined dogma of the Faith which his enemies had hoped to disgrace by disgracing him: there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, nor without personal submission to our Holy Father, the Pope.