Leonard Feeney and the “Boston Heresy Case”

Leonard Feeney and the “Boston Heresy Case” February 4, 2009

This day in 1953 marks the excommunication of Father Leonard Feeney (1897-1978), a Boston-based Jesuit whose views on salvation were at the center of the 1949 “Boston Heresy Case.” Born in Massachusetts, he joined the Jesuits at age eighteen and was ordained in 1928. A popular lecturer, author, and poet, in the early 1940’s he was appointed head of the St. Benedict Center for Harvard’s Catholic students. His lectures attracted the likes of a young Avery Dulles, John F. Kennedy, and a couple of future cardinals. Dulles later wrote: “There are certain texts from the Bible that I can never read without hearing, in my imagination, the voice and intonations of Leonard Feeney.” Under Feeney, the center became a gathering place for Catholic students in the larger Boston area. His success was astounding; over one hundred members entered the priesthood and religious life. But starting in the late 1940’s, things took a sharp turn, and it’s not entirely clear why. Feeney was certainly disillusioned by the growing secularism of modern life, and he started teaching that everyone who was not baptized a Catholic was going to hell, and that included infants. When several of his disciples were fired from local Jesuit schools for this teaching, Feeney accused his own order, as well as Boston’s Archbishop Richard Cushing, of heresy. The case was national news, and Cushing removed the priest’s faculties and placed a ban on the center. Feeney was also removed from the Jesuits. Not long thereafter Pope Pius XII, anticipating Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, wrote that in order for someone to be saved, “it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church as an actual member, but it is necessary to be united to her by desire and longing.” AfterFeeney refused to go to Rome for a hearing, he was excommunicated. He and his followers started their own order, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which assumed an anti-Semitic stance not present in Feeney’s early writings. Toward the end of his life, he was reconciled with the Church, as are many (but not all) of his followers.

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