Leonard Feeney said there was no salvation outside the Catholic church. Then he was excommunicated.
The name Leonard Feeney has faded somewhat into history, but there was a time when he made headlines around the United States for his ideological battle with the Catholic Church and his eventual excommunication. Long before the pugnacious Jesuit priest insisted that the notion that “there is no salvation outside the church” was a hard and fast rule and formed his own schismatic community, he was the literary editor of America and an accomplished poet and satirist.
He remains to date the only America literary editor to be excommunicated. (Fingers crossed.)
Leonard Feeney was sort of a Jesuit Michiko Kakutani, an intimidating reviewer with strong opinions and a willingness to deride even cultural icons like Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.
Feeney worked at America from 1936 to 1942, writing book reviews, short stories, poems and the occasional broadside against popular culture. He had previously published Fish on Friday, a collection of humorous essays on theological topics that remains in print today; Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York from 1984 to 2000, said in 1994 that he read Fish on Friday every Lent. After a brief stint at Weston College outside Boston to serve as (wait for it) a “Professor of Sacred Eloquence,” in 1943 Feeney was appointed the spiritual director of the Saint Benedict Center, a Catholic student center adjacent to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Feeney was immediately popular for his wit and his rousing sermons; even while at America, he had preached often at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as on the radio. Catholic students from Harvard and Radcliffe were showing up in droves for the first few years of Feeney’s tenure, with some leaving school to become full-time devotees of the Saint Benedict Center. By one estimate, the center prompted over 200 converts to Catholicism and over 100 vocations to religious life under Feeney.
Feeney’s downfall began with his interpretation of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” the Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church. Catholics had long allowed for exceptions and for the presence of God’s grace to bring salvation to nonbelievers—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 but an absolute rule smacked to him of religious indifferentism and of a failure to uphold eternal teachings. His sermons and talks on the subject took on an uglier and more pugnacious tone. (Two people who didn’t care for Feeney’s rhetoric were Robert F. Kennedy, who stormed out of one of Feeney’s lectures, and Evelyn Waugh, who after hearing him speak called Feeney “a case of demonic possession.”)
By 1951, Feeney was delivering weekly speeches on the Boston Common, railing against Cushing and the Jesuits but also taking vicious and bigoted swipes at perceived enemies right and left.
In late 1948, Feeney’s Jesuit provincial transferred him to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Feeney refused to go. When four teachers at Boston College and Boston College High School were fired for teaching Feeney’s hardline approach to salvation, Feeney published a fiery defense of the four—and suggested both his Jesuit superiors and Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston, were advocating heresy. Cushing removed his faculties as a priest and forbade Catholics to visit the St. Benedict Center. The Jesuits dismissed Feeney for disobedience. Finally, in 1953, Pope Pius XII excommunicated him.
Rome moves slowly. Already by 1951, Feeney was delivering weekly speeches on the Boston Common, railing against Cushing and the Jesuits but also taking vicious and bigoted swipes at perceived enemies right and left. The Harvard Crimson reported that Feeney had vowed to “rid our city of every coward liberal Catholic, Jew dog, Protestant brute, and 33rd degree Mason who is trying to suck the soul from good Catholics and sell the true faith for greenbacks.”
Leonard Feeney remains to date the only America literary editor to be excommunicated. (Fingers crossed.)
He and many of his devoted followers—then known as the 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, S.J., wrote a long encomium for America, noting that Feeney had been reconciled to the church in 1974. “There are certain texts from the Bible that I can never read without hearing, in my imagination, the voice and intonations of Leonard Feeney,” wrote Dulles, who had been among the founders of the Saint Benedict Center. With Feeney’s death, “the United States lost one of its most colorful, talented and devoted priests. The obituary notices, on the whole, tended to overlook the brilliance of his career and to concentrate only on the storm of doctrinal controversy associated with his name in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.”
Dulles called him one of the most skilled orators he had ever met, saying “he had an incomparable gift for putting the deepest mysteries in the simplest terms.” While acknowledging that things had gone awry for Feeney, Dulles remained appreciative of him for his gifts but also for his determination. “In an age of accommodation and uncertainty, he went to extremes in order to avoid the very appearance of compromise,” Dulles wrote. “With unstinting generosity he placed all his talents and energies in the service of the faith as he saw it.”
Leonard Feeney, S.J., on Robert Frost: “It is hard to believe that he chops nearly as much wood as he pretends to."
During his tenure at America, Feeney was already showing some of the pugnacity that would become his trademark; he was sort of a Jesuit Michiko Kakutani, an intimidating reviewer with strong opinions and a willingness to deride even cultural icons like Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. One 1937 essay was titled “Resentments and Raptures Concerning My Contemporaries,” and its contents did not disappoint.
What did he think of the aforementioned Hemingway? “Do you know a good way to convince ladies who adore he-men that you are a he-man and not a sissy? Raise a challenging mustache,” Feeney wrote. “Write a humorless book full of unabridged hells and damns and kindred phrases in the field of sex, and then come out blatantly in favor of the Loyalists’ cause in Spain.”
Do you remember the comedian Ed Wynn? He was so big in the 1930s that he turned down the role of the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz,” believing it too minor. For decades he also had a radio show. Feeney didn’t care for it: “Ed Wynn: The only thing worse than him on the radio is all static.”
But it was Robert Frost who really made Feeney grind his gears. In a 1936 review, Feeney made his feelings clear. “It is hard to believe that he chops nearly as much wood as he pretends to, or that cows, hens, and barnyards are his chief loves. He has been known to enjoy the tea life of social England and is at present a professor of poetry in a college,” he wrote. “There is evidence in A Further Range that Robert Frost is in danger of mistaking his own powers. His Build Soil— A Political Pastoral is exceptionally bad.”
“His is not a wit,” the review concluded, “and his ten epigrams inserted in this collection are not successful.”
The man, it was clear from an early age, knew his way around an anathema.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
Talking 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 thought of as Irish: John Steinbeck
Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations
James T. Keane