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Fr. Feeney and Catholic doctrine
A reissue of the article appearing in Verbum, No. 24 (1986), prefaced by the previous Editorial, clarifying the teaching of the Church regarding Baptism

Many of our friends have heard of Fr. Leonard Feeney, and some of them have a great esteem for this priest who fought against the liberal ecumenism by recalling again and again that outside the Church there is no salvation. But, to make his point, Fr. Feeney went so far as to exclude Baptism of desire (and martyrdom) from the means of salvation. His teaching was then condemned by the Holy Office in 1949, and he himself was excommunicated in 1953. It should be sufficient to recall that this happened under the pontificate of the saintly Pope Pius XII, and that the letter of the Holy Office was signed by Cardinal Ottaviani, who was not a liberal either. However, certain good Catholics still try to exculpate Fr. Feeney by saying that the Holy See was misinformed, etc.

Well, we have just to open his book The Bread of Life (first published in 1952), to see that his doctrine contradicts the Churchís teaching. Let St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian the Church has ever known, be the witness for the prosecution. His Summa Theologica [ST] is the reference book that all seminarians (Fr. Feeney not excepted) had to study according to the directives of St. Pius X and the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Original Sin, Sacramental Character, and Grace

It seems that the fundamental error of Fr. Feeney is that, according to him, original sin is wiped away ONLY by the character imprinted on the soul by Baptism:

Let us suppose an act of perfect love has occurred in a manís soul. Can this man be said to be freed from original sin by this perfect act of love of God? He cannot, in the true and full sense. There has not been imprinted on his soul, by reason of this perfect act of love of God, the character which Baptism imprints, to seal him as redeemed and outfit him for the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. (Bread of Life, ch.V, p.98)

Fr. Feeney does not deny that sanctifying grace can be obtained by an act of perfect charity, but he says it is not enough to be saved; according to him, just as nobody can become a priest without receiving the character of Holy Orders, so nobody can be saved without receiving the character of Baptism. Thus, since Baptism of desire and martyrdom do not imprint this character on the soul, they cannot save anyone! The flaw of his reasoning appears when we ask what happens to the souls in the state of grace who die without Baptism. He is at a loss to try to explain it; these souls are not saved, but he is obliged to say that they are not lost either!

Where do these souls go...? I do not know. (Bread of Life, ch.VII, p.137)

Now, the teaching of the Church is that original sin is blotted out by sanctifying grace, which is the only necessary title to be admitted to see God. To understand that, let us ask the help of St. Thomas. He explains: The sacramental character is "a certain spiritual power ordained unto things pertaining to the divine worship," a consecration by which the soul is marked so that it may receive the sacraments (baptismal character), or bestow them on others (priestly character), "a certain participation in Christís priesthood" (ST, IIIa, Q. 63).

Sanctifying grace is "a participation in the divine nature" (cf. II Pet. 1:4) whereby man is united to God and "adopted as His son to whom the inheritance is due by right of adoption, according to Rom. 8:17: Ďif sons, heirs alsoí" (ST, Ia IIae, Q. 110, 111, 114). Thus, with these words of the Angelic Doctor, we can understand why the Council of Trent declares that original sin is washed away, not by the character, but by the grace of Baptism:

If anyone denies that by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ which is conferred in Baptism the guilt of original sin is remitted... let him be anathema!1

Indeed, it is grace, not the sacramental character, which is the remedy against sin:

Man is sanctified by each of the sacraments, since sanctity means immunity from sin, which is the effect of grace. But in a special way some sacraments, which imprint a character, bestow on man a certain consecration, thus deputing him to the divine worship. (ST, IIIa, Q. 63)

Here is the crux of the matter, for, although no sacramental character can be conferred without a sacrament, sanctifying grace can be given outside the sacraments:

The divine power is not confined to the sacraments. Hence man can receive spiritual strength to confess the Faith of Christ publicly without receiving the sacrament of Confirmation just as he can also receive remission of sins without Baptism. (ST, IIIa, Q. 72).

And thus we arrive at the question of Baptism of desire...

"Three Baptisms"?

In his book (ch.VII), Fr. Feeney suggests that Cardinal Gibbons invented the "heresy" of the three kinds of Baptism taught by the Baltimore Catechism. But, long before the "opportunist" Cardinal, St. Thomas spoke of these three kinds of Baptism, explaining:

Baptism of water has its efficacy from Christís Passion, to which a man is conformed by Baptism, and also from the Holy Ghost as first cause. Now, although the effect depends on the first cause, the cause far surpasses the effect, nor does it depend on it.... Consequently, a man may, without Baptism of water, receive the sacramental effect from Christís Passion, insofar as he is conformed to Christ by suffering for Him (i.e., martyrdom). Hence it is written: These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and have made them white in the Blood of the Lamb. (Apoc. 7:14)

In like manner a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of water, but also without Baptism of blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins. Wherefore this is also called Baptism of repentance....Thus, therefore, each of these other Baptisms is called Baptism forasmuch as it takes the place of Baptism" (ST, IIIa, Q. 66). And St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine (who died in 430) himself relying on the teaching of St. Cyprian (who died in 258).

However, Fr. Feeney tries to make us believe that the Fathers of the Church are on his side, and for this purpose he is obliged to interpret the sermon of St. Ambrose (died 397) quoted by the Catholic Encyclopedia concerning Baptism of desire (cf. Bread of Life, ch.VII, p.123). But Fr. Feeneyís interpretation does not stand the reading of the complete text:

But I hear that you grieve because he did not receive the sacrament of Baptism. Tell me now, what else is in us, if not will, if not desire? He, in very truth had this wish that, before he came to Italy, he should be initiated into the Church, and he indicated that he wanted to be baptized by me very soon, and that is why he thought I had to be called before everything else. Did he not obtain the grace which he desired? Did he not obtain what he asked for? Certainly, because he asked for it, he obtained it. "But the just man, if he be prevented by death, shall be in rest" (Wisd. 4:7).... But if people are absolved in their own blood, then this manís piety and desire absolved him. (De Obitu Valentiniani, 51-53).

Clearly, according to St. Ambrose, the desire of Baptism, like martyrdom, replaces Baptism of water. It is also the teaching of the last of the Fathers, St. Bernard (died 1153), who recalls that with God the intention counts as the act when the act is excluded by necessity (cf. De Baptismo, II, 7). Finally, let us mention the case of the Jew who, at the point of death, baptized himself since he lived among Jews and could not get anyone to do it. Pope Innocent III (died 1216) says that this Baptism is not valid and that he should be baptized by another.

If however, such a one had died immediately, he would have rushed to the heavenly home without delay because of the faith of the sacrament although not because of the sacrament of Faith.2


Against this doctrine of the three kinds of Baptism, Fr. Feeney brings up the words of St. Paul: "One Lord, one faith, one Baptism" (Eph. 4:5). But this objection has already been answered by St. Thomas:

The other two Baptisms are included in the Baptism of water, which derives its efficacy both from Christís Passion and from the Holy Ghost. Consequently, for this reason the unity of Baptism is not destroyed. (ibid)

In other words, Baptism of desire and Baptism of blood are called "Baptisms" only analogically, inasmuch as they supply the principal effect of the sacrament of Baptism, namely the grace that remits sins.

Fr. Feeney raised another objection, this time from the words of our Blessed Lord: "Unless a man be born again of water and of the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God" (Jn. 3:5). Likewise, St. Thomas had not waited for Fr. Feeney to answer:

As it is written: "man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart" (I Kings 16:7). Now, a man who desires to be "born again of water and of the Holy Ghost" by Baptism is regenerated in heart though not in body.... The sacrament of Baptism is said to be necessary for salvation insofar as man cannot be saved without, at least, Baptism of desire, "which, with God, counts for the deed" (St. Augustine). (Summa Theologica, Part IIIa, Q. 68)

Any Kind of Desire?

Fr. Feeney thunders against "the heretical theology that turned Baptism of water into any dry desire one might have in the general direction of heaven" (cf. Bread of Life, ch. VII, p.117). But we do not claim that "any dry desire" is sufficient, not even a firm resolution to be baptized. St. Thomas explains:

(A) man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of "faith that worketh by charity," whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. (Summa Theologica, Part IIIa, Q. 68)

More precisely, in the letter condemning the teaching of Fr. Feeney, the Holy Office declares:

But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: "For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him!" (Heb. 11:6). (August 8, 1949, to the Archbishop of Boston)

In other words, someone not baptized cannot be saved without an act of perfect charity including, at least implicitly, the will to do all things necessary for salvation (and thus to receive Baptism). Our Lord Himself tells us that true charity remits sins and obtains His friendship:

He that loves Me shall be loved of My Father and I will love him... and We will come to him and will make Our abode with him (Jn. 14:21-23), Many sins are forgiven her (Mary Magdalen) because she has loved much. (Lk. 7:47)

These last words of our Lord to the repentant sinner are echoed by the teaching of the Council of Trent: contrition perfected by charity reconciles man to God.3

Now, Fr. Feeney rightly points out that it is not at all easy to make a perfect act of charity and to remain in the state of grace without the help of the sacraments:

How a man knows he has made a perfect act of love of God, I do not know!... Without the sacraments, we cannot determine for certain what is the value of our private acts. It is by way of discouraging this sanctificational self-sufficiency, that the inspired writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes was led to say: "man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred" (Eccl. 9:1).... Actually, no one who has not been baptized can stay in the state of Christian justification very long, because he does not have the sacramental helps to keep justification alive.... If we who are Catholics have a hard enough job to keep in the state of sanctifying grace, with all the prayers and sacramental helps we have, good God!, how is anyone without them going to stay in the state of a perfect act of love of God? (cf. Bread of Life, ch. VII, p.125,121).

But, by saying that it is practically impossible, Fr. Feeney goes too far and wrongs Godís power (which is not limited to His sacraments), Godís mercy (which desires the salvation of all men, [I Tim. 2:4]), and Godís justice (no one is condemned if not guilty through his own fault).


Let us finally quote the letter of the Holy Office condemning Fr. Feeneyís teaching:

That one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing. However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance, God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wants his will to be conformed to the Will of God. These things are clearly taught in the dogmatic letter which was issued by the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, on June 29, 1943 (Mystici Corporis)... he mentions those who are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer "by a certain unconscious yearning and desire," and these he by no means excludes from eternal salvation; but on the other hand, he states that they are in a condition "in which they cannot be sure of their salvation" since "they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church!" With these wise words he reproves both those who exclude from salvation all united to the Church only by implicit desire, and those who falsely assert that men can be saved equally as well in every religion. (Letter to the Archbishop of Boston, August 8, 1949).


1. Cc. Trid.: sessio V. Decretum de peccato originali, Dz 1515.

2. Debitum officii pontificalis, August 28,1206; Dz 788.

3. Cc. Trid.: sessio XIV, cap. IV; Dz 1678. © 2013                    home                    contact