The Excommunication of Father Feeney

In 1953, Pope Pius XII excommunicated Father Feeney for refusing to submit to ecclesiastical authority. The issue in question was Feeney’s rejection of the liberalization of Catholic Doctrine (a broad movement culminating in Vatican II). Specifically, Feeney was excommunicated for his insistence on the traditional, historical doctrine of the church, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (There is no salvation outside of the church). Feeney maintained that salvation was only for those who had been baptized, rejecting the idea that good people throughout history who may not have had the opportunity to know about the church could receive salvation. This conservative position earned him global fame and a direct confrontation with the Pope.

The relevant issues in this case are manifold for Mormons. First, how do issues of authority of leaders and the authority of doctrine intersect? When we take them to be in tension, which one are we bound to follow? In our case, the issue generally seems to favor current prophetic authority over past authority, but in a sense this is also true for Catholics. But the tensions between the past and the present rarely come to the surface. For instance, one is hard pressed to find anything like President Kimball’s insistence that mothers stay home full-time from modern leaders, yet this view is taken as binding for many still.

Second, are there any parallel doctrines for which Mormons could be excommunicated? There are a number of progressive ideas that can get one excommunicated (at least in the sometimes exaggerated fears of many who hold such ideas), such as the belief in the 19th century origins of the Book of Mormon, the belief that women should have the priesthood, and others. Yet, at the same time, there are certainly a number of traditional doctrines which are often portrayed as official, but which do not enjoy such status, such as a certain view of evolution, infallibility of prophetic leadership, literalist biblical hermeneutics, a belief that abortion is murder, and other conservative doctrines. Why don’t those who espouse these conservative views face ecclesiastical discipline in the same way that those who espouse more liberal views are subject to scrutiny? Aren’t these false doctrines just as destructive to the faith of the community?

In the end, Father Feeney was reinstated by Pope Paul VI. The retrenchment of the Catholic Church after Vatican II gradually moved away from the reform movements and attempted to make room, if not priority, for more traditional theological positions. I think that this episode serves as a case study for how theological positions can be enforced with ecclesiastical power. The controversy surrounding Feeney’s case shows can easy it is to politicize “tradition” and “reform” at the expense of others. But how would such an issue be decided in a Mormon case? What value do excommunications on the basis of “doctrinal” apostasy serve?

9 Replies to “The Excommunication of Father Feeney”

  1. What value do excommunications on the basis of “doctrinal” apostasy serve?

    So far as I know, these are extremely rare, and are typically only done in cases where it is believed the person is attempting to lead people out of the church or against the church, etc.

  2. Fantastic post!

    “Why don’t those who espouse these conservative views face ecclesiastical discipline in the same way that those who espouse more liberal views are subject to scrutiny?”

    I’m really ignorant of the subject, and you don’t really provide the supporting data, but if your premise is correct then I’d say it has something to do with Matt W says: those espousing false conservative views are less likely to be seen getting people to leave the Church over those “doctrines.”

    Not that “doctrinal conservatives” are less arrogant, etc. than “doctrinal liberals,” just that the conservatives’ ideas aren’t as offensive to the Church in practice. For example, if I insist that abortion is murder, I may be wrong but at least I still avoid abortion (something the Church wants me to do). On the other hand, if I preach that women should have the priesthood, then I’m up against orthopraxy.

    (I’d have to think of some more liberal/conservative “false doctrines” to see if this holds up.)

  3. I think that part of the issue here is that some of our more cherished, highly conservative doctrines come from the top. Or at least they did. The pervasiveness of the Joseph Fielding Smith/Bruce R. McConkie school for conservative Mormon thinking is well documented and known. We haven’t had nearly as many liberal Priesthood authority figures as conservative ones and the ones we can look to (BH Roberts, etc) are from three or four generations ago. With the most recent outspoken apostles being so heavily conservative, church culture was bound to lean that way. Lean right and you lean with the crowd. Lean left and you fight the crowd.

  4. Although it’s a sightly different, there was a “purge” of sorts against those who were too right-wing in the early 90’s, the Southern Utah survivalist-type Mormons.

  5. The polygamy insisting have a very quick ticket out, I am not seeing your point. I believe one of the “September 6” was espousing conservative views.

    Adam-God and refusing the idea Blacks and the priesthood are staples of the fundamentalists, the foundation on which they build. Their is also the White horse prophecy extremists of the Bo Greitz stripe that apostatize.

    Frankly, I am glad these things are pushed out, some of them are dangerous taken to the extreme, just as doctrinal certainty in any of your above examples can be divisive and dangerous.

  6. I think I’d use the labels “progressive” and “reactionary” instead of “conservative” and “liberal.” They do a better job revealing the central issue, which is that if you get too far ahead of, or behind, the current leadership, you stand in danger of excommunication for “doctrinal” apostasy.

  7. such as the belief in the 19th century origins of the Book of Mormon, the belief that women should have the priesthood,

    The former won’t get you exed. I’m living proof of it. Although I don’t teach it publicly, my bishopric knows I think JS wrote the book of mormon, and they know that I can prove it to them better than they can prove to me that it’s ancient. So we don’t talk to each other about it. And yet they don’t care that I teach the Bible in SS. Nor do they care to ex me for it.

    The latter might get you busted (ala Margaret Toscano), but again, JS was giving women the fullness of the priesthood anointing since September 1843, which implies they were getting the priesthood, which I think is Toscano’s thesis. She was exed for her writings, however, not her beliefs.

    I have a hard time thinking that anyone would be exed for deep and personal beliefs, like Toscano’s or mine. What people are exed for is trying to sway others in those directions, especially in church forums like sac. talks or the classroom.

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