Doctrine or Discipline! St. Benedict Center knew, as far back as the fateful September 8, 1948, the day on which Father Leonard Feeney was to leave the Center and report for duty as a teacher of English at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts (outside the diocese of Boston), that failure by Father to go to Holy Cross would constitute for our liberal superiors an opportunity to obscure the doctrinal challenge by making the whole thing appear to be disciplinary.
We considered this thoroughly in the bleak hours which followed our humiliating experience at the Provincial’s house. We had come back to a Center blazing with candlelight and flowers, for it was the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, but to Center members who were drawn-faced and anxious. They had been praying during the hours we were gone.
Father’s two shabby black bags were packed and waiting beside the door, not to take him on a lecture tour this time, but for the trip to Worcester, and away from us, for good. The married members of the Center had brought their babies, early in the morning of that long day, and the children, sensing something very wrong, were crying steadily the fussy complaint of little ones at such times, a cry nerve-wracking and unending.
We joined Father and the men in Father’s room, and weighed with them the problem of doctrine and discipline. Father Feeney was asked to leave the diocese because the truth he was teaching was embarrassing to too many people. The feeling of College Officials about the resignations of students from Harvard, the discomfiture of priests studying at Harvard, and social Catholics with Harvard connections- on the one hand- and, on the other, the hierarchical policy of expediency, had conspired to bring about Father’s removal from St. Benedict Center. The Church in Boston was saying, not in words so much as in action, “Hush, hush! Father Feeney. This isn’t the time to preach the doctrine of No Salvation Outside the Church. There is a time for that, but this is not the time.”
Not even with Christ saying through His Apostle, “Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.”?
No, not even then.
Our choice finally lay between two courses of action: (1) Father Feeney’s remaining at St. Benedict Center- in which case the doctrine would be upheld and championed, even though to the world, to his friends as well as to his enemies, Father would appear as merely a disobedient priest, and St. Benedict’s a center of recalcitrants. Or (2) Father would leave St. Benedict Center and go to Holy Cross- in which case the doctrine would be completely discredited and Liberal Catholicism more deeply entrenched than ever, with no challenge to it worth mentioning in the United States. With the first course there was, too, the hope of a hearing eventually, when Archbishop Cushing returned from Europe. With the second course Father Feeney’s distinguished reputation as a Jesuit writer would be saved, and St. Benedict Center would enjoy its former esteem.
We chose the first course. We would so choose again. Despite the avalanche of prestige, power and politics which has been hurled upon us for over a year, despite the cry of “Discipline!” which has been made against our protest of “Doctrine!” people everywhere know that there is a group of Catholics who hold for the safeguarding of the Deposit of Faith in the way the Church has always protected the Faith for its children- by the unequivocal rendering of the defined doctrines of the Church. It were better that we should lose all we have than that the Truth should die.
We sent, on the following morning, a letter to the Provincial of the Jesuits:
September 9, 1948.
Very Rev. John J. McEleney, S.J.,
Provincial of the Society of Jesus,
297 Commonwealth Ave.,
Dear Father McEleney:
In as much as you have consistently and rudely refused us a hearing, we, the members and students of Saint Benedict Center, wish to inform you that Father Leonard Feeney of the Society of Jesus has commitments towards us to be our director and instructor throughout this academic year. On the basis of Father Feeney’s promise, we have made all our plans and undertaken very serious commitments. We have placed before Father Feeney’s conscience the seriousness of his commitments to us, and the fact that he has no right under God’s law to break his contract with us at this time.
We are hereby informing you that by our unanimous request Father Feeney will continue to lead our work until we get a fair hearing from higher authorities.
The members and students of St. Benedict Center.
(There followed the signatures of many Center members.)
St. Benedict Center received no reply from the Jesuit Provincial, but Father found a letter from him in his mail-box the next day:
297 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston 15, Massachusetts
Society of Jesus
Province of New England
September 10, 1948
Dear Father Leonard, P.C.
For your own sake and for the Society’s, I plead with you to end all connection with Saint Benedict’s Centre at once and to report to Holy Cross next Monday.
Further refusal to obey in this matter will only embarrass the Society and the Province and will detract from whatever good you have done at the Centre.
I therefore ask you, as your Major Superior, to follow the orders given you for the love you bear the Society and Almighty God.
Yours in Corde Jesu,
(signed) J. J. McEleney, S.J.
To which letter Father Feeney made reply:
Reverend and dear Father Provincial,
In one last letter, I am asking you solemnly in the Sacrament of my Priesthood and the sanctity of my vow, to desist at once from endeavouring to remove me from St. Benedict Center and from Newbury Street, and to leave my appointment as of the Status you issued at the beginning of the summer.
If, as you told me, my removal is not of your doing but that of a higher authority, I demand that it be brought to the attention of that higher authority at once the nature of my protest as a priest. I realize fully the serious consequences to my immortal soul if there is, as you are said to have suspected, legal trickery or subterfuge. 1
I shall prepare a full and detailed report of my serious conscience difficulties and the reasons why, for the glory of God, the good of the Society, and the salvation of hundreds of souls who are depending upon me in this terrible emergency in an heretical university in which I am presently placed, at the moment I cannot in conscience leave until I can do so with dignity and as their Father; and I shall present this report to every one of my major superiors whom it may concern.
Sincerely yours in the Society of Jesus,
(signed) Leonard Feeney, S.J.
Father McEleney’s answer to Father Feeney’s letter of September 12th was a reiteration of his order that Father transfer to Holy Cross and terminate his work at St. Benedict Center. He refused to recognize Father’s conscience difficulty by the statement:
“The whole question at issue is your transference to Holy Cross and the termination of your work at Saint Benedict Center.”
And he made it entirely a matter of obedience:
“Your priestly vows on the day of your Priesthood involve your promise of obedience to your Provincial whoever he may be through the years. As a Jesuit who is to excel in obedience even above many other virtues, the clear way Almighty God is pointing out to you is in accepting the orders I have given you. . . . Your own happiness in the vindication of all the apostolic zeal and devotion you have in your heart is involved in your filial acceptance of this decision.”
We never could understand how it was possible for Father McEleney to think that the “vindication of Father’s apostolic zeal and devotion” could be had, as a priest, in the abandonment of doctrine! Especially when that doctrine had come so blazingly clear, not only to Father Feeney but to everyone in St. Benedict Center. There are some excellent minds in St. Benedict Center, people who have gained recognition for scholarship, not only in the United States but in various parts of the world.
As for Father Feeney’s “own happiness ” — yes, it was contained in the Society of Jesus. He had been a Jesuit for thirty-four years, at this time. His love for the Society, as he conceived the Society, had been the inspiration for all the boys he had sent to follow him in the Jesuit Order. We were always conscious of Father’s devotion to the saints of his Order, and particularly to St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Peter Canisius, the Japanese Jesuit martyrs.
Father had thought long on the results of his apparent disobedience on the lives of those closest to him. His beloved mother and father were very old, and had had serious illnesses. He had his two brothers to think of, each a priest, one in the Society of Jesus, and one a parish priest in New Hampshire. The children of his devoted sister, Eileen, were at an impressionable age.
Calvary did not, as far as anyone could see, bring about the happiness of Jesus; and the suffering Calvary caused His Mother is incomprehensible. Yet doctrine is the cause for which Jesus was crucified — the doctrine that He was the Son of God. St. Ignatius of Loyola told his sons that they were, in all things, to be the followers of Christ. They were the Company of Jesus.
St. Ignatius himself had come up before the Inquisition, on a matter of doctrine. Yes, it will be said, but St. Ignatius was correct in his doctrine. Granted, we answer, but he was before the Inquisition precisely because he was accused of error in doctrine. The Inquisition gave St. Ignatius a hearing on his doctrine- which is all that Father Feeney asked for. In this age of ours, which considers itself superior to an Inquisition, Father was denied what would have been his right in the sixteenth century- a hearing.
We turned, finally, to St. Thomas Aquinas for confirmation of what our consciences told us to be true. We found it in the Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae, Question 104, Article 5, wherein St. Thomas distinguishes three kinds of obedience:
“Accordingly we may distinguish a threefold obedience; one, sufficient for salvation, and consisting in obeying when one is bound to obey; secondly, perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful; thirdly, indiscreet obedience, which obeys even in matters unlawful…
…[Moreover], it is written (Acts V 29): ‘We ought to obey God rather than men: Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things
May I say that it has been left to the reader in this chapter to fill in the story. It is not possible to tell how much it cost us all to enter upon this course. The early history of the Center will have indicated with what veneration we held the will of those God had constituted our lawful superiors. It cost us a very great deal to go against our tradition, our training, against the love we bore these superiors- not in their persons so much, for many of them were not lovable as persons, but because they were a necessary part of the Church we loved. We seemed to be going against the very thing which we were fighting to uphold- the authority of the Church. We had asked for nothing more than the peace to study in the school we had built, the quiet to contemplate, to know God more fully, and joyfully to bring His message to others. We found ourselves stopped, on our way, by the necessity to do battle for the doctrines of the Church, that the Faith might continue to exist at all. We found ourselves stopped before the revelation that the Liberalism we had come to know and dread had reached even to the highest places. Our superiors, every one of them, we now realized, were Liberal Catholics.
It is true we were tempted to belittle our stand by asking ourselves the question: Are you the only orthodox Catholics? Are you the only group in the United States who are holding the doctrine of No Salvation Outside the Catholic Church or without personal submission to the Holy Father?
Father Feeney answered for us: “We hope not. However, we take great courage from the fact that the great Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, was exiled five times and excommunicated by every Bishop in the East for holding out alone for Catholic doctrine. The creed which bears his name, the Athanasian Creed, states, ‘Whosoever wishes to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith, which unless one preserves whole and inviolate without doubt he will perish eternally.’
“The great jurist and Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More, on trial for his life, was asked by the prosecutor, ‘What, More? You wish to be considered wiser and of better conscience than all the bishops and nobles of the realm?’ St. Thomas More replied: ‘My lord, for one bishop of your opinion I have a hundred saints of mine; and for one parliament of yours, and God knows of what kind, I have all the general councils for a thousand years.’ ”
And so, under a cloud, St. Benedict Center entered upon a period of hidden struggle, which lasted for seven months. The courage, fortitude, strength for it were given to us by Her who is the Mediatrix of all Graces.
1 Word had reached Father Feeney of a purported statement of the Provincial’s, upon hearing that Father’s reason for remaining at St. Benedict Center was one of conscience, Father McEleney was reported to have said, “Anyone can trump up a conscience difficulty.” This had shocked Father Feeney since it would be a violation of the sacred right of conscience. However, it is a fact that from this time on, Father’s right of conscience in defending the doctrine of No Salvation Outside the Church was consistently denied by everyone of his superiors in the Jesuit Order, right up to the General himself, as well as by the local Hierarchy.