On the Mitigated Feeneyism held by some Conservative or Traditionalist Catholics

It is beyond my understanding how some conservative Catholics today can claim that all little children who die without formal baptism go to the limbo of Hell, or to limbo as a third final destination. To my mind, their position is a mitigated form of Feeneyism. The heresy of Feeneyism denies that sanctifying grace can be obtained by a baptism of desire or a baptism of blood, allowing only baptism by water. It is a heresy to deny that non-formal baptism is possible. Thus, when some commentators take the position that little children are unable to obtain any baptism except by water, they adopt a type of Feeneyism, but one that is applied only to little children.

Similarly, many conservative or traditionalist Catholics today — having been instructed in the Faith by the conservative Catholic subculture, rather than by Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium — have taken a position on the salvation of non-Christian adults which is also a modified version of Feeneyism. They restrict the possibility of a baptism of desire or a baptism of blood to very limited circumstances, thereby contradicting the teaching of the Magisterium on the universal salvific will of God and on the possibility of salvation by invincible ignorance and cooperation with grace in good conscience.

But these mitigated forms of Feeneyism are untenable in the light of magisterial teaching, including that of Pope Innocent III, Pope Pius IX, Second Vatican Council, and Pope John Paul II.

Pope Innocent III: “For God forbid that all children, of whom daily so great a multitude die, would perish, but that also for these, the merciful God, who wishes no one to perish, has procured some remedy unto salvation.” [Denzinger, n. 410]

Pope Pius IX: “Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” [Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7]

Second Vatican Council: “Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.” [Gaudium et Spes, n. 22]

Pope John Paul II: “Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” [Redemptoris Missio, n. 10]

The latter holy Pontiff is very clear in his teaching, in a papal encyclical, on the universal salvific will of God. But for all of the above teachings to be true, salvation must be broadly available, even to non-Christian believers, non-believers, and little children who die without formal baptism.

Certainly, no one is saved apart from Christ, who died once for all, nor apart from the one true Church, which is His Body. But explicit membership in the Church is not absolutely required for salvation, especially when formal baptism is unavailable or when invincible ignorance unfortunately prevails.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.” [Dominus Jesus, n. 14]

Pope John Paul II: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” [Redemptoris Missio, n. 10.]

The faithful today cannot ignore the above teachings of the Magisterium, and simply adopt a theological position on the salvation of little children which was considered tenable in past centuries.

Speaking about a Roman Centurion, Jesus Christ said, “Amen I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” (Lk 7:9). But the faith of the Centurion could not be greater than that found in Israel, unless he had obtained the theological virtues of faith, love, and hope by a baptism of desire. Yet this Centurion likely believed in many pagan gods, not in the one true God of Judaism and Christianity. He did not explicitly desire baptism, or else he would have asked for it from Jesus or his disciples. He did not believe in one all-powerful Creator God. But he obtained salvation nonetheless.

Recall the parable of Jesus about Himself as the returning King:

{25:37} Then the just will answer him, saying: ‘Lord, when have we see you hungry, and fed you; thirsty, and given you drink?
{25:38} And when have we seen you a stranger, and taken you in? Or naked, and covered you?
{25:39} Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit to you?’
{25:40} And in response, the King shall say to them, ‘Amen I say to you, whenever you did this for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it for me.’

The just implicitly loved God and implicitly accepted Christ by loving and accepting the good in their neighbor in need. The just in the parable received salvation by this implicit cooperation with Christ as the one mediator. There was no need for an explicit desire for baptism. Therefore, the offer of salvation is not restricted only to Christians, or only to those who believe in God. By loving their neighbor, in cooperation with grace, these persons implicitly loved God and thereby obtained salvation.

The teaching of Jesus is that all men’s sins will be forgiven, except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, i.e. final impenitence (Mt 12:32). The sin of final impenitence occurs when someone commits an actual mortal sin and refuses to repent through the last moment of life. And that is why the Church teaches that some persons are saved by invincible ignorance and cooperation with grace in good conscience. They sincerely but incorrectly think that God does not exist, or that Christianity is not the most perfect religion, and so they are not guilty of actual mortal sin due to invincible ignorance. And they obtain a baptism of desire by the love of neighbor, which always includes (at least implicitly) the love of God. Only those persons who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin are sent to Hell. All other persons are sent to Heaven, perhaps by way of Purgatory.

The proponents of a revised form of Feeneyism are essentially rejecting the teachings of Jesus on salvation. Jesus says only those who commit final impenitence go to Hell. But these neo-Feeneyists propose that a person can go to Hell for refusing to believe in God, or for refusing to convert to Christianity, even if that refusal is not an actual mortal sin.

There is a long section in my book, Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone, about the Beatitudes, and how each is a description of the path to Heaven, which always includes the love of neighbor and, at least implicitly, the love of God. Jesus is so often ignored in discussions on salvation. His teachings in the Gospels are incompatible with the claims of the neo-Feeneyists who propose that non-Christian believers and non-believers cannot be saved unless they convert. The Beatitudes describe a path to Heaven which does not necessarily include formal baptism or explicit belief in God.

I notice, also, that some of the loudest proclamations on the limits of the path of salvation come from persons who post anonymously or who have no published theological arguments to support their position. They speak as if they understand salvation theology better than Vatican II and the recent Popes. But they have written nothing of substance on the topic.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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