Salvation Theology: Against Mitigated Feeneyism


Fr. Leonard Feeney and his present-day followers have rejected the teaching of the Magisterium on baptism of desire and baptism of blood. They believe that only the formal Sacrament of Baptism can take away original sin and bring a human person into the state of grace. They therefore conclude that, in the present day, all non-Christians are condemned to Hell, unless they convert and receive baptism with water. What happens to prenatals who die in the womb, who have no chance of a baptism with water? Feeney’s followers believe that they are sent to the limbo of Hell, to be forever deprived of the Beatific Vision of God and all the joys of Heaven.

Feeneyism is abject heresy and Fr. Feeney was excommunicated (ferendae sententiae). His present-day followers are heretics and schismatics, who claim that the Church has gone astray by her teachings on salvation theology.

Recently, in discussing salvation theology with fellow Catholics online, I was dismayed to learn that some Catholics — unassociated with Fr. Feeney and his followers — hold the same or similar views on salvation theology.

Some Catholics (without realizing that this is heresy) take the same condemned position as Fr. Feeney: that only baptism with water can save, and that all persons who die without baptism are lost to Hell. Why don’t they accept the many magisterial teachings to the contrary of this heresy? The answer seems to be that they place their own erroneous interpretation of Scripture and past magisterial teachings above the Magisterium. They reject any magisterial teaching contrary to their own understanding. Their position is material heresy, and at some point, if then eventually realize that they are contradicting the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on salvation, their heresy will become formal. And formal heresy carries the penalty of automatic excommunication (latae sententiae).

mitigated Feeneyism

Other Catholics have taken a position on salvation theology that I call “mitigated Feeneyism”. They allow a baptism of blood, but only in the narrow cases of catechumen martyrs and the Holy Innocents. They allow a baptism of desire, but only when it is explicit. They believe that any human person who is truly cooperating with grace, so as to qualify for (what I would term) an implicit baptism of desire will necessarily be led by God to explicit desire for baptism and, usually, to the formal Sacraments. They restrict invincible ignorance to very few cases, on the claim that if a person is sincere in conscience, God will bring them to the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church. These Catholics are ignorant of magisterial teaching on salvation theology. Yet they feel themselves qualified to judge the path of salvation of all human persons. And like so many Catholics today, they do not accept correction from any magisterial teaching which seems incorrect to their minds.

What do there near-cousins of Fr. Feeney say about prenatals who die in the womb? They claim certitude that such souls are sent to the limbo of Hell. Their narrowing of baptism of desire and blood does not allow any path of salvation for prenatals. All agree that baptism with water is impossible for prenatals in the womb. So it would seem that such souls cannot be saved.

My Position

The formal Sacrament of Baptism is the ordinary path of salvation. For those who are in a state of invincible ignorance about our holy religion, including those who know about Christianity, but sincerely do not believe it is the path to God, a non-formal baptism of desire is available by the grace of God. This baptism can be implicit, and so it is broadly available, even to unbelievers, as long as they cooperate with grace in the true love of neighbor.

As for prenatals, infants, and little children, who die at that tender age, a baptism of blood is available to them to grant the state of grace prior to death.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17). In the New Testament, the universal salvific will of God is closely connected to the sole mediation of Christ: ‘[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ ” (1 Timothy 2:4-6). [Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Jesus, n. 13.]

Scripture and the Magisterium teach that God wills all human persons to be saved. So how can it be the case that unbaptized prenatals end up in the limbo of Hell, deprived forever of the Beatific Vision and all the blessings of Heaven? It cannot be the case. And since prenatals cannot be baptized with water, they must have a different path available: either a baptism of desire or of blood.

My opinion is that we must broadened our understanding of the baptism of blood, to include these innocents whose great suffering of dying at such a young age unites them to Christ on the Cross. Christ then grants to them salvific grace before death. For if unbaptized prenatals, infants, and little children are not saved, despite their lack of personal sin, then the universal salvific will of God would be thwarted by accidents, disease, injury, and abortion. And that cannot be true.

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]

Prenatals, infants, and little children are not guilty of deliberate sin, and so they do not suffer the eternal punishment of the deprivation of the Vision of God, which is the chief punishment of Hell.

“The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035)

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

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