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The three errors of the Feeneyites

Fr. Francois Laisney

Originally printed in the September 1998 issue of The Angelus magazine, this article is a follow-up to Fr. Joseph Pfieffer’s article in The Angelus of March 1998. It seems that some of the followers of Fr. Feeney took objection to his convincing dissertation proving the Catholic teaching concerning "baptism of desire." In fairness, the purpose of this article by Fr. Laisney is to clarify the three principle errors of the followers of Fr. Feeney which explain why they refuse the common teaching of Catholic theologians concerning "baptism of desire."

Error I:

Misrepresentation of the dogma, "Outside the Church There Is No Salvation"

The first error of those who take their doctrine from Rev. Fr. Leonard Feeney, commonly known as "Feeneyites," is that they misrepresent the dogma, "Outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation." The Feeneyites misrepresent this as, "Without baptism of water there is no salvation."

St. Cyprian (c.210-258) was the first Catholic saint to use in writing[1] the expression "extra ecclesiam nulla salus," ("Outside the Church there is no salvation"). In the very passage in which he uses this phrase, St. Cyprian also expresses that baptism of water is inferior to baptism of blood. Since baptism of blood, he says, is not fruitful outside the Church, because "outside the Church there is no salvation," baptism of water also cannot be fruitful outside the Church. The reason for this is that it would imprint the character of baptism but would not give sanctifying grace, i.e., justification, which opens the gates of heaven.

In the very next paragraph, St. Cyprian teaches, with all the fathers, doctors, popes and unanimously all theologians, that baptism of blood, that is, dying for the Catholic Faith, is the most glorious and perfect baptism of all, explicitly stating "even without the water." In the paragraph following this one, St. Cyprian teaches that Catholic faithful who, through no fault of their own, were received into the Catholic Church without a valid baptism,[2] would still go to heaven. This is to say that they would die with the requisite Catholic faith and charity, necessary to go to heaven, though without the waters of baptism. These requisites are exactly the conditions of "baptism of desire."

Why not then believe the dogma "outside the Church there is no salvation" "...with the same sense and the same understanding - in eodem sensu eademque sententia"[3] - as the whole Catholic Church has taught it from the beginning, that is, including the "three baptisms"? Fr. Leonard Feeney and his followers give a new meaning, a new interpretation, to this dogma.

This traditional interpretation of this dogma, including the "three baptisms," is that of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Fulgentius, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Peter Canisius, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Pope Innocent II, Pope Innocent III, the Council of Trent, Pope Pius IX, Pope St. Pius X, etc., and unanimously all theologians (prior to the modernists). St. Alphonsus says: "It is de fide [that is, it belongs to the Catholic Faith - Ed.] that there are some men saved also by the baptism of the Spirit."[4]

The traditional interpretation of "Outside the Church there is no salvation," was approved by the Council of Florence (1438-1445). The Council Fathers present made theirs the doctrine of St. Thomas on baptism of desire, saying that for children one ought not to wait 40 or 80 days for their instruction, because for them there was "no other remedy."[5] This expression is taken directly from St. Thomas (Summa Theologica, IIIa, Q.68, A. 3) and it refers explicitly to baptism of desire (ST, IIIa, Q.68, A.2). Despite the fact that the Council of Florence espoused the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is astonishing to see Feeneyites opposing this council to St. Thomas!

None of the arguments of the Feeneyites have value against the rock of Tradition. But, to be consistent, let us refute two more of their major errors.

Error II:

The doctrine of baptism of desire is optional

The Feeneyites present the Church’s doctrine of baptism of desire as a question to be freely discussed within the Church: "...what amounts to an academic difference to be settled by the Church."[6] If this were the case, each school of thought would then have to be accepted until the pope later defined this doctrine. This is false. The error here is to claim that only that which has already been defined belongs to the deposit of Faith, and everything else is opened to free discussion. The truth is that one must believe everything which belongs to the deposit of Faith, that being what has already been defined and that which is not yet defined but is unanimously taught by the Church.

Such is the case for the doctrine on baptism of desire, by the Feeneyites’ own admission. They write: "This teaching [on the "three baptisms"] indeed was and is the common teaching of theologians since the early part of this millennium."[7] However, this was not only the "common teaching of theologians," but also that of popes, Doctors of the Church, and saints! In addition, it is found even before this millennium in the very early years of the Church without a single dissenting voice.

Therefore one ought to believe in the doctrine of "three baptisms," as it belongs to the Catholic Faith, though not yet defined. That is why St. Alphonsus can say, as we have already reported: "It is de fide...."

We can concede that if a point of doctrine is not yet defined, one may be excused in case of ignorance or may be allowed to discuss some precision within the doctrine. In the case of baptism of desire, for instance, we are allowed to discuss how explicit the Catholic Faith must be in one for baptism of desire. But one is not allowed to simply deny baptism of desire and reject the doctrine itself. Rigorism always tends to destroy the truth.

He who denies a point of doctrine of the Church, knowing that it is unanimously taught in the Tradition of the Church, even though it is not yet defined, is not without sin against the virtue of Faith "without which [Faith] no one ever was justified" (Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 799; hereafter abbreviated Dz).

Error III:

The Council of Trent teaches that baptism of desire is sufficient for justification "but not for salvation"

Let us preface this section by saying the Council of Trent clearly teaches that baptism of desire is sufficient for justification. The Council anathematizes anyone believing the contrary. It is very explicitly stated in Session VII, Canon 4 on the sacraments in general:

If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation, but that they are superfluous; and that men can, without the sacraments or the desire of them, obtain the grace of justification by faith alone, although it is true that not all the sacraments are necessary for each individual; let him be anathema (The Church Teaches, 668; Dz 847).

We must be wary of ambiguous translations from the original Latin. (The accuracy of Latin is supreme and must be respected.) In a recent flyer published by the Feeneyites entitled, "Desire, Justification and Salvation at the Council of Trent," an ambiguous translation of Session VI, Chapter 7 (Dz 799) is used: "...the instrumental cause [of justification - Ed.] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the ‘sacrament of faith,’ without which no one is ever justified....". Now the Latin has: "sine qua nulli unquam contigit iustificatio." In the Latin original, therefore, the phrase "without which" (or, in the Latin original, "sine qua", is a feminine pronoun meant to agree with a feminine noun) refers to the "faith" (a feminine noun in Latin) and not to "sacrament" (a neuter noun in Latin meant to agree with a neuter pronoun). If it was "sacrament" the Council Fathers wanted to highlight "without which no one is ever justified," they would have written "sine quo."

The English translation of Chapter 7 as found in The Church Teaches (TCT 563) accurately reflects the Latin (The Church Teaches, TAN Books & Publishers). In this edition, this important sentence is correctly translated: …The instrumental cause [of justification - Ed.] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the ‘sacrament of faith’; without faith no one has ever been justified."  The correct translation of the original Latin expresses the Church’s traditional teaching and refutes the Feeneyite error.

When the Council of Trent is read carefully, we see that the Council teaches that: is necessary to believe that the justified have everything necessary for them to be regarded as having completely satisfied the divine law for this life by their works, at least those which they have performed in God. And they may be regarded as having likewise truly merited the eternal life they will certainly attain in due time (if they but die in the state of grace) (see Apoc. 14:13; 606, can. 32), because Christ our Savior says: "He who drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst, but it will become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting" (see Jn. 4:13 ff.)[8] [Session VI, Chap. 16; Dz 809].

In other words, salvation, which is at the end of the Christian life on earth, only requires perseverance in the state of grace received at justification, which is at the beginning of the Christian life on earth. Baptism is the sacrament of justification, the sacrament of the beginning of the Christian life. If one has received sanctifying grace, which is the reality of the sacrament - res sacramenti - of baptism, he only needs to persevere in that grace to be saved. Perseverance in grace requires obedience to the Commandments of God, including the commandment to receive the sacrament of baptism. Thus there remains for him the obligation to receive baptism of water. But, this is no longer absolutely necessary (by necessity of means), since he has already received by grace the ultimate fruit of that means. It still remains necessary in virtue of our Lord’s precept to be baptized by water. When and if circumstances independent of our will prevent us from fulfilling such a precept, the principle taught by St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and others is to be applied: "God takes the will as the fact."[9] This means that God accepts the intention to receive the sacrament of baptism as equivalent to the actual reception of the sacrament.

It is false to pretend that Canon 4 of Session VII (TCT 668) of the Council of Trent (quoted above) on the "Sacraments in General" deals with justification as opposed to salvation. Desire is explicitly mentioned in this canon, for when it uses the expression "aut eorum voto," it admits that the grace of justification can be obtained by desire of the sacraments. It is also false to say that Canon 5 on the Sacrament of Baptism from Session VII of the Council of Trent deals with salvation as opposed to justification. Indeed Canon 4 (of Session VII) deals explicitly with the necessity of sacraments "for salvation." In that context, the expression "grace of justification" appears manifestly as being precisely the only essential requisite for salvation, as is taught explicitly in Session VI, Chapter 16. That which is said of the sacraments in general applies to each sacrament in particular, without having to be repeated each time. Simplistic reasoning which disregards the explicit teaching of the Church on baptism of desire only arrives at false conclusions.

That it is not necessary to repeat the clause "re aut voto" is so much the more true since baptism of desire is an exception, a special case, not the normal one. One need not mention exceptions each time one speaks of a law. For instance, there are many definitions of the Church on original sin that do not mention the Immaculate Conception. This does not invalidate the Immaculate Conception! For instance Pope St. Zosimus wrote: "nullus omnino  —absolutely nobody" (Dz 109a) was exempt of the guilt of original sin. Such a "definition" must be understood as the Church understands it, that is, in this particular case, not including the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the same way, it is sufficient that baptism of desire be explicitly taught by the Church, by the Council of Trent, in some place, but it is not necessary to expect it on every page of her teaching. Silence on an exception is not a negation of it. This principle is important to remember so as not to be deceived by a frequent technique of the Feeneyites. They accumulate quotes on the general necessity of baptism as if these quotes were against baptism of desire. The very persons they quote hold explicitly the common teaching on baptism of desire! These quotes affirming the general necessity of baptism do not refer exclusively to baptism by water, nor do they exclude baptism of blood and/or of desire. They are to be understood "in the same sense and in the same words" as the Catholic Church has always understood them, which means to include baptism of blood and/or of desire along with that of water.

Lack of proper Thomistic theology is the root of the error of the Feeneyites

To remedy the errors of Modernism, St. Pius X ordered the study of St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy and theology. A book like Desire and Deception,[10] authored and published by Feeneyites, is very dangerous for its opposition to St. Thomas. Let us hear St. Pius X:

We will and strictly ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences. And let it be clearly understood above all things that when We prescribe scholastic philosophy We understand chiefly that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us. They cannot set aside St. Thomas, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave disadvantage.[11]

In obedience, we must consider the sacramental theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. He distinguishes three elements in each sacrament:

  1. the exterior sign, called sacramentum tantum - sacrament itself, signifying and producing the other two elements. This exterior sign is composed of matter such as water, and form such as the words of the sacrament.

  2. An intermediate reality, called sacramentum et re - sacrament and reality, which, in the case of baptism, is the character. This intermediate reality is both signified and produced by the exterior sign and further signifies and produces the third element.

  3. The ultimate reality, res sacramenti - the (ultimate) reality of the sacrament, which is the sacramental grace, i.e., sanctifying grace, as source of further actual graces to live as a child of God, as soldier of Christ, etc.

A sacrament may be valid but not fruitful. To be valid the exterior sign needs valid matter, form, intention and the proper minister. If these are present, then it always signifies and produces the second element. To be fruitful, there must be no obstacle. Therefore, baptism in an heretical church, if done with proper matter, form, and intention, gives the character of baptism but does not give sanctifying grace. The person thus remains with original sin and actual sins. He has not become a child of God. Baptism is thus deprived of its ultimate effect, the most important one, because of the obstacle of a false faith, i.e., of heresy. In the same way, baptism in a Catholic Church of a person attached to his sin, for example, a person who has stolen and refuses to render that which he stole, places an obstacle which deprives his baptism of its ultimate effect, that is, sanctifying grace.

It is a fact that one can go to hell despite having the character of baptism. Yet, we know there are saints in heaven, such as the saints of the Old Testament (Abraham, David, etc.) who do not have the character of baptism. But nobody, however, dying with sanctifying grace goes to hell, says the Council of Trent. Contrariwise, nobody dying without sanctifying grace goes to heaven.

For the third element of baptism, i.e., the infusion of sacramental grace, the necessity of baptism for salvation is absolute. This third element is found in each of the "three baptisms," and even more perfectly in baptism of blood than in baptism of water, as is the constant teaching of the Church. Hence the common teaching on the necessity of Baptism[12] includes the "three baptisms."

The necessity of the exterior element (#1 above) of baptism, i.e., the sacrament itself, is relative to the third element as the only means at our disposal to receive the third element, that is, living Faith. The sacrament itself is "...’the sacrament of faith’; without faith no one has ever been justified," says the Council of Trent (TCT 563). See how the Council of Trent clearly sets the absolute necessity on the third element, i.e., living faith, faith working through charity? One finds the same distinction in the Holy Scripture, in St. John’s Gospel (chap. 3). That which is absolutely necessary is the new birth, that is, the infusion of new life, sanctifying grace, the life of God in us. Five times Our Lord insists on the necessity to be reborn, "born of the Spirit." The water is mentioned only once as the means for that rebirth, the only means at our disposal. This is not meant to limit God’s power. He can infuse this new life (justification) even without water, as he did to Cornelius (Acts 10).

There is an appalling confusion in the writings of the Feeneyites when they deal with the sacramental character and with what they refer to as "fulfilled/unfulfilled justice." Their confusion regards the second and third elements (see above) of the sacramental theology of the Catholic Church. Dare one add with St. Pius X, as the cause of their error, a certain pride that makes them more attached to their novelty than to the age-old teaching of the popes, fathers, doctors, and saints?


Brethren, the will of my heart, indeed, and my prayer to God, is for them unto salvation. For I bear witness, that they have a zeal of God,[13] but not according to knowledge (Rom. 10:1-2).

How much I wish and pray that, relinquishing their error concerning baptism of desire and blood, they might embrace the whole of the Catholic Faith. Their error caricatures the Catholic Faith and gives easy weapons to the enemies of dogma!

Not knowing the justice of God [interior sanctifying grace of justification by living faith] and seeking to establish their own [exterior belonging to the Church by exterior sacraments], [they] have not submitted themselves to the justice of God (cf. Rom. 10:3).

We must defend the Catholic Faith, the absolute necessity of interior sanctifying grace as inseparable from true faith, hope and charity, and the necessity of the exterior sacraments "re aut voto - in reality or at least in desire" as taught by the Council of Trent.

In this time of confusion in the teaching of the Church we must hold fast to the unchangeable teaching of the Tradition of the Church, believing what the Church has always believed and taught "in the same meaning and the same words," not changing one iota to the right or to the left, for falling from the Faith on one side or the other is still falling from the true Faith, "without faith no one has ever been justified" (Council of Trent, TCT 563).

Let us pray that Our Lord Jesus Christ may give them the light to see and the grace to accept the age-old teaching of our holy Mother the Church by her popes, fathers, doctors and saints, and that, correcting themselves, they may serve the Church rather than change her doctrine.


1 Letter no. 73 (§21) to Jubaianus in 256.

2 Having received an invalid baptism outside the Church, and being received into the Church without being at least rebaptized under condition. It was a hypothetical case at the time of St. Cyprian (in this was he in error) but it probably happens in some cases today, due to the laxity when receiving converts.

3 Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 1800, Vatican I, de fide.

4 "Baptism of the Spirit" is another name for baptism of desire, by the grace of the Holy Ghost; De Baptismo, cap. 1.

5 In the very decree Cantate Domino to the Armenians so often quoted by the Feeneyites (Dz 712).

6 Mancipia, July 1998, p.3.

7 Mancipia, July 1998, p.2.

8 Session VI, Chapter 16, Dz 809.

For instance, in regards of a sick person in the hospital who cannot accomplish the precept of assisting at Mass on Sundays and feast days, his will to fulfil the third commandment is sufficient (ST, IIIa, Q.68, A.2, ad 3).

9 Is it through ignorance, or by projecting his preconceived ideas, that the author claims that the Council of Florence "passed non-Thomist decrees" (p.47)?  Now to claim, as in Desire and Deception, that the Cantate Domino rejects baptism of blood is simply to ignore that the passage in question is a quote of St. Fulgentius, who, in the very same book from which that quote is taken, explicitly teaches baptism of blood. Council Fathers never quote a Father of the Church against the mind of such holy authors.

10 Pascendi, Sept. 8, 1907.

12 As in the Council of Trent, Canons on the Sacrament of Baptism, Canon 5: "If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation: let him be anathema" (Dz 861, TCT 691).

Canon 2 (Dz 858, TCT 688) does not deal with the necessity of baptism, but with the nature of the sacrament. It defines that real water, not symbolic, is of the nature of the sacrament: "If anyone says that true and natural water is not necessary in baptism, and therefore interprets metaphorically the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit’ (Jn. 3:5): let him be anathema." Water, real water, belongs to the first element of sacrament, the exterior sign.
Thus one sees clearly the sophism of the Feeneyite pamphlet where it is written: "In terms of a syllogism we have the infallible major premise: ‘baptism is necessary for salvation’ and the infallible minor premise: ‘true and natural water is necessary for baptism,’ and the infallible conclusion. ‘true and natural water is necessary for salvation.’" Here one finds a classical error of logic: the middle term "baptism" is not taken in the same acceptation in the major and the minor. The major applies absolutely to the third element of baptism, res sacramenti, the ultimate reality of the sacrament, i.e., the new birth, the new life of sanctifying grace, which is found in the "three baptisms." It applies only relatively to the first element of baptism as explained above. The minor deals only with the first element of baptism, sacramentum tantum, of which the matter is real water and not symbolic water, as some Protestants were saying.

13 The very saints the Feeneyites offer for admiration and imitation in their publications themselves taught baptism of desire! St. Alphonsus, and certainly all the holy Redemptorists after him is the most forceful in favor of baptism of desire, saying that it is de fide that there are some men saved also by the baptism of the Spirit.

Fr. Francois Laisney, a Frenchman, was ordained for the SSPX in 1982 at Econe by Archbishop Lefebvre. He was the USA District Superior from 1984-1990, it was then that he developed an interest in the uniquely American error of Feeneyism. He was then appointed District Bursar for the Australian District for a short time before being appointed its District Superior (1991-1994). He served as the SSPX’s General Bursar in Menzingen, Switzerland from 1994 until 2001. He is currently the District Bursar for the Australian District. © 2003