Salvation, The Gift of God: On The Error of the Feeneyites

Salvation, The Gift of God: On The Error of the Feeneyites October 27, 2011

A rather popular error in “traditionalist” Latin circles is one which suggests the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. This comes from the idea that, “Outside of the Catholic Church, there is no salvation,” and baptism is the entrance to the Catholic Church. This position is commonly named “Feeneyite,” after Fr. Feeney, who taught such a position. This idea denies the possibility of salvation in the Christian era to anyone who has not been baptized, even if they are ignorant of the Christian faith and have no chance whatsoever in their life to learn of it. Even if it was through no fault of their own, they can’t be saved. Baptism, and baptism alone, is the way to salvation. There are no exceptions. God has told us baptism is necessary, and if we make exceptions, that necessity would be rejected.

This idea was officially denounced, as it should be. It is said to confuse what “outside of the Catholic Church” means, but more importantly, we see it creates a problematic theology of God. It restrains God, it limits his ability to save anyone as he should like. Of course, the argument goes, if one can be saved outside of baptism, why be baptized, as if God chooses to save someone one way, we should be free to tell God how he would save us! It is as if one is complaining that they got baptized and were saved – as if they wish for something more than the salvation which was promised. Is this not similar to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, where everyone got the reward promised to them?

Hugh of Saint Victor, in his work, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, found similar arguments in his day; his stand demonstrates the official response is traditional, but also, it reiterates the reason why this view must be rejected is because we would force necessity on God:

Now God can save man without these, who can bestow upon man His virtue and sanctification and salvation in whatever way He wills. For by the spirit with which He teaches man without word, He can also justify without sacrament if He wills, since the virtue of God is not subject to elements from necessity, even if the grace of God be given according to dispensation through sacraments. Hence it is that we read that certain ones even without sacraments of this kind were justified, and we believe, were saved, just as it is read that Jeremias was sanctified in the womb and it is prophesied that John the Baptist was to be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb and those who are just under the natural law pleased God. We do not read that they had these sacraments, but upon their salvation we do not doubt at all. And those of them who received these sacraments after justification had signs of their justice in these rather than its cause from them.

They, indeed, who through the spirit of God received without these whatever is conferred in them did not lack them to damnation, because the fact that they did not receive these was never due to contempt for religion but either the nature of time did not demand it or necessity did not permit it. Therefore, let no one so establish the law of divine justice in the elements as to say that man cannot be justified without these, even if he has justifying grace, nor can be saved without these, even if he be just, when either the stress of necessity prevents him from receiving these or, as we have said, the nature of time does not constrain him to receive them. [1]

Now, we see that some of those Hugh was concerned with were those who were born of a time in which the sacrament of baptism was not prescribed: they could and did attain salvation, even if they were not baptized. However, this shows the principle that salvation can be had without baptism, for such salvation is already known. And from this, he is able to present that those who do not get baptized, not because they scorn the decree, but by reason of necessity they cannot get baptized (such, for example, would have been Native Americans in the Americas for the centuries without Christian contact), they too can find and have the faith that saves. This is not to say that there is no benefit for baptism, that it is not a higher form of grace which strengthens one further in the faith necessary for salvation, nor that those who have been justified should not be baptized when they learn of it and can be baptized – but rather, it shows us that in the hidden recesses of God, God can save those whose heart leans upon him. If they lack the full understanding of the Catholic faith through no fault of their own, but their faith is pure and aimed toward God, God in his gracious love can bring salvation to them – salvation which is assured in and through the work of Christ.

Peter Lombard calls this the receiving the thing (the grace) of the sacrament, but not the sacrament itself – and he points out that this could be achieved through suffering for Christ (baptism of blood), but also, it can be achieved by a proper faith alone.[2] Here, his main authority is none other than St. Augustine, whose work On Baptism states:

That the place of baptism is sometimes supplied by martyrdom is supported by an argument by no means trivial, which the blessed Cyprian adduces from the thief, to whom, though he was not baptized, it was yet said, “Today shall you be with me in Paradise.” On considering which, again and again, I find that not only martyrdom for the sake of Christ may supply what was wanting of baptism, but also faith and conversion of heart, if recourse may not be had to the celebration of the mystery of baptism for want of time. For neither was that thief crucified for the name of Christ, but as the reward of his own deeds; nor did he suffer because he believed, but he believed while suffering. It was shown, therefore, in the case of that thief, how great is the power, even without the visible sacrament of baptism, of what the apostle says, “With the heart man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” But the want is supplied invisibly only when the administration of baptism is prevented, not by contempt for religion, but by the necessity of the moment.[3]

When one is given the grace of baptism outside of the sacrament itself, it is expected that they would receive baptism, and not show contempt for it, when they are given the chance for it.  But if one is not given the chance, especially if they know nothing of it and its need, how can they be expected to receive it? Yet, if the grace is given, they can still be saved.  Thus, Augustine uses the example of St Cornelius, who received the grace first and then later learned of the need for baptism and was bapitzed:

For much more in the case of Cornelius and his friends, than in the case of that robber, might it seem superfluous that they should also be baptized with water, seeing that in them the gift of the Holy Spirit, which, according to the testimony of holy Scripture, was received by other men only after baptism, had made itself manifest by every unmistakable sign appropriate to those times when they spoke with tongues. Yet they were baptized, and for this action we have the authority of an apostle as the warrant. So far ought all of us to be from being induced by any imperfection in the inner man, if it so happen that before baptism a person has advanced, through the workings of a pious heart, to spiritual understanding, to despise a sacrament which is applied to the body by the hands of the minister, but which is God’s own means for working spiritually a man’s dedication to Himself.[4]

Saving faith, which is granted salvation by God’s mercy, even if it happens before baptism, does not make baptism superfluous.  Baptism unites one into the body of the visible Church, and grants one greater graces through the sacraments of the Church. Instead of being merely saved, one is able to have graces to strengthen one’s faith, to increase one’s charity, to confirm one’s hope. And it is because we know God, we know the freedom and mercy of God, we know we will not limit God by the normative means he works with us. God is free and all piety requires us to accept God will work with others as he sees fit. Hugh of Saint Victor forcefully answered the “Feeneyites” of his day, and he provides the answer of the Church:

You ascribe a necessity to sacraments and from the Author of sacraments you take away power and to Him you deny piety. You may say  to me that he who has not the sacrament of God cannot be saved, and I say to you: ‘He who has the virtue of the sacraments of God can not perish.” Either deny that there can be virtue where there is no sacraments, or if you can concede the virtue deny the damnation. Which is greater, the sacraments or the virtue of the sacrament? Which is greater, water or faith? If you wish to speak the truth, say “faith.”[5]

The danger of the Feeneyite is it ascribes a necessity to God, that he has become trapped in his own devices. It is right to indicate the normative role of baptism, but it is founded upon a rather magical understanding of the sacraments, one which places demands on God. It thinks the only way God can work is in and through these sacraments, and so, those who control the sacraments have a control over God. This is not how sacramental theology works, and it is not the teaching of the Christian faith. We have a duty to God, to love him, and those who, through no fault of their own, love him, will find such love covers a multitude of sins. Love, not propositions, is the foundation of salvation. The sacraments are ways God shows his love to us, and, if we love God, we will accept them when we see these gifts, thankful for his tender mercies. But one who does not know, can still have faith, because most have faith without comprehension, a simple faith in God. Indeed, many who are learned and study the teachings of the faith often end up being those who lack faith, because they confuse cognition with faith. If they cannot understand something, they lose faith. Faith is, of course, enhanced by knowledge if knowledge is regulated to faith, if it is faith seeking understanding through love, but when it becomes a pursuit of knowledge for pride, that faith becomes squashed, showing that though one might know quite a bit, they can easily lack saving faith, and so in their learning they become blind to the truth. If this is true with those who have been baptized, we can see how and why God can save those whose faith are in him, despite a lack of knowledge of all of God’s work in the world. It is God’s grace which saves, not knowledge. It’s God grace which saves, whether or not it is through the normative means of the sacraments or the extraordinary means he chooses for those who do not receive them. It’s God’s grace which saves—who are we to question God if he decides to save someone in an extraordinary means? Let’s not complain like the laborers in the vineyard. We still get our reward, if we follow God in the reception of the sacraments!

[1] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith. Trans. Roy. J. Deferrari (Cambridge: The Medieval Academy of America, 1951), 161.

[2] St Peter Lombard, The Sentences, bk4 c4.

[3] St. Augustine,  On Baptism in NPNF1(4):460 [bk4 c22].

[4] Ibid., 460-1.

[5] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments, 162.

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad