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Religion: Feeney Forgiven

2 minute read

Of the handful of priests expelled from the Roman Catholic Church in modern times for doctrinal error, none was more celebrated than Boston Jesuit Leonard Feeney. Technically, the Vatican excommunicated him in 1953 for refusing to meet with the Pope, but his beliefs caused his earlier 1949 suspension by Archbishop Richard Gushing. Feeney’s undoing was his hard-line reading of the formula, first proposed by Church Fathers Origen and Cyprian in the 3rd century, that “outside the church there is no salvation.”

Before the Second Vatican Council, that meant salvation was limited to Roman Catholics, but even the anti-liberal Pope Pius IX offered hope to “invincibly ignorant” outsiders. Feeney offered damnation. Feeney retained a following at the nearby Catholic intellectual center he continued to operate after his ouster from Boston College. In 1958 he moved to Harvard, Mass., setting up a farm commune with his followers, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

In the years since Feeney’s excommunication, Catholicism has grown remarkably tolerant of far-left theologies, so it is perhaps only fair that it should seek a truce with its right-wing extremists. Now word has come from Bishop Bernard Flanagan of Worcester, whose diocese includes the Slaves’ farm, that the excommunication of the aging, ailing Feeney was removed secretly in 1972 without a requirement that he recant. The Vatican’s doctrinal office acted, with at least pro forma approval by the Pope, after a plea from Cushing’s successor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros.

As for Feeney’s followers, Flanagan visited the Slaves’ farm last March to conduct a Mass during which 29 of them read vows that returned them to the faith. Though 27 true-believer Slaves refused reconciliation, Celebrated Rebel Feeney, now 77, is no longer “outside the church,” and his case is closed.

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