Fr Leonard Feeney is undoubtedly one of the most polarising figures in the history of the American Church. Having died in 1978, he is still well-known for his strict interpretation of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: “outside the Church there is no salvation”. Broadly speaking, “Feeneyism” is the belief that, unless one is baptised with water and the Trinitarian formula, there is no hope of going to heaven. But the details of this theological debate are complex, and continue to be hashed out even today.
The most zealous “Feeneyite” group in America is the Saint Benedict Center in Richmond, New Hampshire. The Center is run by the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary – a group of men and women who live as Benedictine monks and nuns (habits and all), but whose orders aren’t canonically recognised by the Church. The Slaves also run a school and the popular blog Catholicism.org. They operate within the Diocese of Manchester, which covers the state of New Hampshire and which until recently allowed a priest in good standing to celebrate Mass in their chapel, while also warning on its website that the Slaves “are not a Catholic organisation (de facto or otherwise)”.
The Saint Benedict Center has a long-standing dispute with the Church hierarchy – not only in New Hampshire, but also in Rome. On October 20, 2016, Mgr Giacomo Morandi, the Undersecretary (and now Secretary) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) wrote to the Slaves’ leader, Brother Andre Marie Villarrubia. Morandi called the Slaves’ position on extra Ecclesiam nulla salus “unacceptable”.
According to Morandi, Br Andre Marie argued that recent statements in the Catechism and the CDF document Dominus Iesus were unclear, but that it is permissible to hold that they “contradict what was previously taught”. In his response, Br Andre Marie said that he had been misunderstood. He did not deny either the Catechism or Dominus Iesus, he insisted. On the contrary, he was prepared to affirm a list of propositions from Morandi’s own letter.
It was a messy exchange, in which the participants could not even agree what they were debating. But Morandi had already had enough: he had concluded his letter by telling the Center that his letter “officially closes the discussion on this matter”.
Then, on January 7 this year, the Diocese of Manchester imposed stringent penalties that may very well spell the end for the Saint Benedict Center. As of that day, said the diocese, “under no circumstances may Catholics receive the sacraments of the Church at the Saint Benedict Center or any of its locations, nor should they participate in any activity provided by this group or school”. Furthermore, as of that date, “Catholic priests are under strict prohibition from celebrating the Sacraments of the Church there”.
When I asked him about the penalties, Fr Georges de Laire, the vicar for canonical affairs for the Manchester diocese, said that he “met with the [current] Undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [Fr Matteo Visioli] this past May, and upon that conversation the Congregation made recommendations to us for steps that should be imposed upon the Saint Benedict Center and the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These are included in the precepts imposed on Monday, January 7.”
Certain Catholics will write off the CDF’s sanctions as mere anti-traditionalist animus. After all, the Slaves are attached to the Latin Mass, as well as being “Feeneyites”. Certainly, the move will do little to allay the fears in traditionalist circles generated by rumours that Francis intends to suppress the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. The commission was established to heal the rift between Rome and followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founders of the ultra-traditional Society of St Pius X (SSPX). Some suggest that Rome is walking away from the negotiating table once and for all.
Yet one must note that Bishop Peter Libasci of Manchester has arranged for a Latin Mass to be celebrated at a diocesan parish near the Saint Benedict Center while the January 7 prohibitions remain in effect. The CDF (or at least Manchester) is taking great pains to make clear that this dispute is about the dogma of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus and not about the status of traditionalists in the Church more broadly. Bishop Libasci himself is considered broadly conservative and has made generous provisions for the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP) to operate within the diocese.
In 1948, Evelyn Waugh visited Boston and decided to go and see what Fr Feeney was like. He left an acid description: the priest was “surrounded by a court of bemused youths of both sexes and he was stark, raving mad”. Waugh sat patiently through the priest’s “rambling denunciation of all secular learning”; but, when Feeney turned his sights on Waugh’s friend Ronald Knox, Waugh spoke up with some force. “His court sat absolutely aghast at hearing their holy man addressed like this. And in an unbroken silence I walked out of the house.”
Feeneyism today sounds chastened rather than furious. Br Andre Marie has responded to the diocese’s order by asking people to pray to St Joseph – patron of the Slaves, and of the diocese.