Leonard Feeney said there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Then he was excommunicated.
Leonard Feeney’s name has faded somewhat in history, but there was a time when he made headlines in the United States for his ideological battle with the Catholic Church and his eventual excommunication. Long before the pugnacious Jesuit priest insisted that the idea that “there is no salvation outside the church” was an absolute rule and formed his own schismatic community, he was the literary editor of America and an accomplished poet and satirist.
It remains to this day the only America literary publisher to be excommunicated. (Crossed fingers.)
Leonard Feeney was a kind of Jesuit Michiko Kakutani, an intimidating critic with strong opinions and a willingness to poke fun at even cultural icons like Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.
Feeney worked at America from 1936 to 1942, writing book reviews, short stories, poems, and sometimes attacks on popular culture. He had previously published Fish on Friday, a collection of humorous essays on theological subjects that remains in print today; Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York from 1984 to 2000, said in 1994 that he had read Fish on Friday every Lent. After a brief stint at Weston College outside of Boston to serve (expect it) as “professor of sacred eloquence,” in 1943 Feeney was appointed spiritual director of the Saint Benedict Center, a Catholic student center adjacent to the ‘Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Feeney was immediately popular for his wit and driving sermons; even being at America, he had often preached at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as on the radio. Catholic students from Harvard and Radcliffe showed up in droves during the early years of Feeney’s tenure, with some leaving the school to become full-time devotees of the Saint Benedict Center. By one estimate, the center sparked more than 200 converts to Catholicism and more than 100 vocations to religious life under Feeney.
Feeney’s downfall began with her rendition of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus», the Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. Catholics had long allowed exceptions and the presence of God’s grace to bring salvation to unbelievers – otherwise the vast majority of humans who have ever lived are in hell – but Feeney wouldn’t have it. To interpret the teaching as anything other than an absolute rule evoked for him religious indifferentism and failure to uphold the eternal teachings. His sermons and talks on the subject took on an uglier, more pugnacious tone. (Two people who didn’t care about Feeney’s rhetoric were Robert F. Kennedy, who stormed out of one of Feeney’s lectures, and Evelyn Waugh, who upon hearing him speak called Feeney “a case of demonic possession”.)
By 1951, Feeney was giving weekly speeches on the Boston Common, railing against Cushing and the Jesuits, but also taking vicious, bigoted jabs at perceived enemies right and left.
At the end of 1948, the Jesuit Provincial of Feeney transferred him to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Feeney refused to go. When four Boston College and Boston College High School teachers were fired for teaching Feeney’s radical approach to salvation, Feeney published a staunch defense of the four and suggested that his Jesuit superiors and Cardinal Richard Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, advocated heresy. Cushing withdrew his faculties as a priest and banned Catholics from visiting St. Benedict Center. The Jesuits fired Feeney for disobedience. Finally, in 1953, Pope Pius XII excommunicated him.
Rome moves slowly. Already in 1951, Feeney was giving weekly speeches on the Boston Common, railing against Cushing and the Jesuits, but also taking vicious, bigoted jabs at perceived enemies right and left. The Harvard Crimson reported that Feeney had sworn to “rid our town of all liberal Catholic cowards, Jewish dogs, Protestant bullies and 33rd degree Masons who try to suck the souls of good Catholics and sell the true faith for greenbacks”.
Leonard Feeney remains to this day the only America literary publisher to be excommunicated. (Crossed fingers.)
He and many of his devoted followers, then known as Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, eventually moved to Still River, Mass. While some members later formed a new schismatic community in New Hampshire, the Still River community is in full communion with the Catholic Church.
After Feeney’s death in 1978, Avery Dulles, SJ, wrote a lengthy eulogy for America, noting that Feeney had been reconciled to the church in 1974. “There are certain texts in the Bible that I can never read without hearing, in my imagination, the voice and intonations of Leonard Feeney,” Dulles wrote, who had been among the founders of the Center Saint Benoît. With Feeney’s death, “the United States has lost one of its most colorful, talented, and dedicated priests. Obituaries, on the whole, tended to overlook the luster of his career and focus only on the storm of doctrinal controversy associated with his name in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Dulles called him one of the most adept orators he had ever encountered, saying he “had an incomparable gift for expounding the deepest mysteries in the simplest terms”. While acknowledging that things had gone wrong for Feeney, Dulles remained grateful to him for his gifts but also for his determination. “In a time of accommodation and uncertainty, he went to extreme lengths to avoid even the appearance of compromise,” Dulles wrote. “With unfailing generosity, he put all his talents and energies at the service of the faith as he saw it.”
Leonard Feeney, SJ, on Robert Frost: “It’s hard to believe he chops nearly as much wood as he claims.”
During his tenure at America, Feeney was already showing some of the pugnacity that was to become his trademark; he was a sort of Jesuit Michiko Kakutani, an intimidating critic with strong opinions and a willingness to poke fun at even cultural icons like Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. A 1937 essay was titled “Resentments and Raptures Concerning My Contemporaries”, and its content did not disappoint.
What did he think of the aforementioned Hemingway? “Do you know a good way to convince women who love he-men that you are a he-man and not a wimp? Lift a tough mustache,” Feeney wrote. “Write a humorless book full of hells and damnations and sex related phrases, then come out blatantly in favor of the Loyalist cause in Spain.”
Do you remember comedian Ed Wynn? He was so big in the 1930s that he turned down the role of the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”, considering it too minor. For decades he also had a radio show. Feeney didn’t care: “Ed Wynn: The only thing worse than him on the radio is all static.
But it was Robert Frost who really made Feeney cringe. In a 1936 review, Feeney made his feelings clear. “It’s hard to believe that he chops nearly as much wood as he claims, or that cows, chickens and barnyards are his main passions. He is known to enjoy the tea life of England society and is currently a college poetry teacher,” he wrote. “There is evidence in An additional range that Robert Frost risks misunderstanding his own powers. His Build Soil – A political pastoral is exceptionally bad.
“It is not a spirit”, concludes the magazine, “and its ten epigrams inserted in this collection have not been successful.”
The man, it was clear from an early age, knew how to get around an anathema.
In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.
Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:
Telling truth and lies with the Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize
Paul Farmer, Graham Greene and the politics of liberation
Myles Connolly has a question: Why are Catholic writers so boring?
The author you probably never considered Irish: John Steinbeck
Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life
James T. Keane