Sentimental Theology Revisited

“Sentimental Theology Revisited” is an article published in issue #32 of From the Housetops (this issue is unfortunately out of print), discussing Brother Francis’ article, “Sentimental Theology” and its significance to the Crusade of Saint Benedict Center.

An Introduction to a Challenge of Faith

The little student center called St. Benedict Center already had been operating just around the corner from Harvard University some seven years.

Father Leonard Feeney, renowned theologian and author, had already been at the Center attracting hundreds of students and others to evening lectures for five years. Even though its activities had been broadened to include publishing a magazine called From The Housetops, Saint Benedict’s remained essentially a study center pursuing under Archbishop Cushing its simple commission from the late Cardinal O’Connell, to defend “without compromise” the Church’s authentic teachings primarily amongst college students of the Boston area. Nor was any other purpose ever contemplated for it.

When, however, an article entitled “Sentimental Theology,” by a Boston College professor of philosophy named Fakhri Maluf, appeared in the September 1947 issue of the Housetops, unwittingly, yet instantaneously and irrevocably, St. Benedict Center became the headquarters of a crusade. For this innocent little composition and its defense of the doctrine Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the Church no salvation) are what detonated the explosion of controversy not only heard ‘round the world’, but still reverberating globally to this very day.

No one was more surprised by this outcome than the author himself. As he readily confesses today, at the time he wrote “Sentimental Theology” 43 years ago, he hadn’t yet fully come to understand this doctrine with quite the same preciseness that, as he would come to realize very soon, the fathers, doctors, popes, and saints of the Church uniformly proclaimed, taught and defended it for all the nineteen centuries since the time of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Discovering the Dogma

Not that Dr. Maluf would claim to have discovered the crucial importance of the doctrine. That credit, as is well known, belongs to the late Father Feeney, the first man to identify widespread denial of the doctrine as the root of most of the upheaval and dissolution in the Church in modern times.

With a sense of achievement comparable to finding in one instance both the cause and the antidote for some deadly plague, Father on a day in 1947 announced to Dr. Maluf that he had at last “put his finger” on what he believed was the principal force behind the erosion of faith within the Catholic Church. Having then recently completed his course in Theology under Father Feeney, it was natural that Dr. Maluf’s own analytical mind became thoroughly preoccupied by this shared insight. As a matter of fact, the philosopher’s every thought now ran to the Dogma of Faith and its newly realized fundamental importance.

All this mental energy would come to a climax a short time later, compelling Dr. Maluf to get out of bed in the middle of the night, and to put in writing a sudden eruption of thoughts on the subject. The result was “Sentimental Theology.”

It was intended to be provocative,” the author says. To provoke whom? Not non-Catholics so much, for it was not addressed to them. Not even liberal Catholic theologians of the day. No, it was aimed at those who then regarded themselves as theological conservatives, the mainstay of the Church. For, by ignoring the importance of the doctrine Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, it was these more traditional Catholics, far more than it was the irreverent liberals, who were opening a wide breach in the bulwark of the Faith, through which ruinous error and infidelity was increasingly penetrating the Church.

Admittedly meant to stir the Church’s hierarchy, Dr. Maluf’s article was submitted to Father Feeney with full expectation that the noted theologian would politely dismiss it as being a bit too strong. Instead, Father became so enthused after reading it that he insisted it be made the feature article in the next issue of the Housetops, and he stashed it away for safekeeping.

As a matter of fact, Father hid it so well that, come the time to publish the magazine, he had forgotten where he left the article! A long, thorough and frantic search was commenced, but to no avail. The article was lost. To Father’s great disappointment, forever, it would have seemed. Unless Dr. Maluf somehow could recapture that initial flood of inspiration – the very suggestion of which must have left a sinking feeling in the author’s heart. But fortunately, one day, the whole community at the Center was startled by Father’s shouts of “Eureka! Eureka!” He had found the missing article.

Put into Perspective

The essential point to this background sketch is that “Sentimental Theology” was the very first public defense from St. Benedict Center of the defined doctrine “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Thus, it marked the definitive birth of the doctrinal Crusade for which Father Feeney and St. Benedict Center became known worldwide. But, being the first such defense, understandably, it was not the most theologically refined. Consequently, a very slight lingering residue of somewhat vague theological concepts and terminology managed to surface in the article.

There is a certain irony to all this. For the author, of course, is known today by his religious name, Brother Francis, M.I.C.M., our beloved editor and publisher, as well as successor the late Father Feeney in heading our doctrinal Crusade. Sad to say, the most vocal critics of Brother Francis nowadays are not liberal theologians, but actually those who call themselves traditionalist Catholics. Together with even the most liberal of Catholics, however, they rather consistently follow a pattern that is worth noting.

Making No mean Yes

It is a paramount dogma of the Catholic Faith that any truth solemnly defined by the Church is protected by the Holy Ghost and therefore must be believed by all Catholics. To reject, to doubt, or to call into question any article of the Faith, in effect, would be to deny its divine source – to deny even the Church’s divine Founder. Three popes and an ecumenical council have proclaimed de fide that no one who is not united to the Church under the supreme pontiff can be saved. Other popes, as well as doctors of the Church and saints beyond number, have reaffirmed it again and again since the Apostolic Age.

Those determined to repudiate the doctrine usually attempt to establish their personal credibility by first insisting that, yes, indeed it is a doctrine of the Faith that outside the Church there is no salvation. The more conservative ones among them – who generally are our most strident antagonists – seem compelled to establish more conservative credentials by further insisting that, according to this same doctrine, it is therefore almost – almost – impossible for one outside the Church to be saved.

In so doing, these “conservatives” oftentimes appear to be invoking a more restrictive doctrinal interpretation than perhaps one might even have inferred from “Sentimental Theology”! In other words, the very same types – in some instances, the very same persons – who thunderously inveighed against the “un-Christian” and “uncharitable” if not “heretical extremes” of St. Benedict Center’s earliest published defense of Extra ecclesiam nulla salus today can seem to stand to the right of that initial, less refined defense!

A Deadly Deceit

Of course, it’s all just deceit. It is self-deceit by which they pretend their own disbelief in the doctrine is, by some contorted logic, consistent with the Catholic Faith that demands belief in this same doctrine. And it is deceit calculated implicitly to portray Father Feeney and Brother Francis as overzealous fanatics, so as to distort an infallible teaching that these imposters refuse to accept, despise with every fiber of their being, but certainly would never dare to deny openly.

When a pope solemnly proclaims a de fide truth, he does so, under guidance from the Holy Ghost, to define a truth, to protect it against abuse and misuse by making clear precisely what the Church teaches – what a Catholic must believe. When popes and councils have declared that there is no salvation outside the Church, they have not proposed some fuzzy formula to be manipulated and twisted at will by constructionist theologians and sentimentalists of little faith.

They did not mean, for example, that the Virgin Mother of God “almost” was assumed body and soul into heaven. They didn’t mean that we can not be absolutely certain Jesus Christ had both a human and a divine nature. They didn’t mean that under some circumstances human souls might not contract original sin, or might not suffer its effects if those souls remain “sincere.” They didn’t mean that only for Catholics is abortion a heinous sin crying to Heaven for vengeance, or that an immortal spiritual soul, the principle of human life, might not be infused by God into an embryo at the very instant a mother conceives, if she happens to be a non-believer.

Any faithful Catholic – and certainly every traditionalist Catholic – must know that to propose such notions in direct contradiction of explicit articles of the Faith would be an act of heresy. How, then, would anyone dare to pretentiously nod assent to the doctrine Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, while fashioning emasculating exceptions and qualifications never in any way hinted by the Supreme Magisterium of the Church!
This issue of the Housetops celebrates a new beginning for our Crusade marked by the recent renewal of our Third Order. We thought it fitting, therefore, to reprint the explosive little article that began it all 43 years ago. In so doing, however, we felt it advisable to offer, by way of this introduction, a caveat to our readers, explaining that, were its author writing it today, he would express some of his points differently. And we are inserting occasional footnotes approved by Brother Francis to serve that same purpose.

For we’re also conscious of the fact that some of our “conservative,” traditionalist detractors otherwise would be all to eager to pounce on those points which might be construed as self-contradictory, to try to discredit Brother Frances and the Crusade. We can fully expect as much, because the very same ploy was used against Father Feeney when one of his early writings was republished in recent years.
In defense against such an eventuality, we note that in writing “Sentimental Theology” to defend an abused doctrine of the Faith, the author’s use of imprecise language was unintentional. On the other hand, there are the many “theologians” who presume to interpret what the popes really meant when defining the doctrine. They can hardly claim such innocence when they mingle some orthodox language with the gall of error to deliberately misrepresent the Church’s teaching.

It is, in fact, an unspeakable offense on their part to falsely brand as heretics those who teach the doctrine in precisely the same language that Our Lord Himself taught it, and who defend it in exactly the same language that popes and saints used to defend it.