The Resurgence of Feeneyism

Fr. Leonard Feeney taught the heresy that only the baptized can possibly be saved. He interpreted the baptism of blood to refer only to the Christian Catechumen who was willing to die for the faith, and he concluded that God would certainly make a baptism of water available to such a person. So for him, a baptism of blood is nothing other than a prelude to a baptism of water. And such was the case also for his view on baptism of desire. He saw this desire as only a prelude to a baptism of water, since he concluded that God would find a way to give the person formal baptism with water, if they had the desire.

Fr. Feeney interpreted the expression “outside the Church there is no salvation” as meaning that only persons who had formally entered the Church as baptized Christians could be saved.

Feeney’s view was condemned by the Holy See as a heresy. The correct understanding, explained by Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, is that persons can be members of the Church implicitly, that is, without being baptized Christians.

“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. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.

“For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to declare that “this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. 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.” ” [Redemptoris Missio 10)

The Church has long taught that a baptism of desire can be obtained implicitly, that is, without explicit desire for the Sacrament. I should also point out the infallible teaching of the Council of Trent that both persons who have received formal Baptism with water, and those who have entered the state of grace without formal Baptism, by a baptism of desire, are all children of God by spiritual adoption. [Trent Justification Chapter IV].


The heresy of Feeneyism has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, in various forms. While it is rare for a Catholic today to assert the heretical error of Feeneyism, in its full and specific form, similar errors are not uncommon.

1. The claim that only baptized Christians are children of God by spiritual adoption. This claim is abject heresy, as it is directly contrary to the dogmatic teaching of Trent on Justification. In truth, not only baptized Christians, but non-Christians who enter the state of grace by a baptism of desire (or of blood) are also children of God by spiritual adoption.

2. The claim that, other than Christian Catechumens, the baptism of desire and of blood may be rare or non-existent. This claim is essentially a mitigated form of Feeneyism, which rejects the teaching of the Magisterium on the universal salvific will of God: “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.” [Pope Saint John Paul II Redemptoris Missio 10]

3. The claim that prenatals, infants, and young children cannot obtain a baptism of desire or of blood, and so, if they are not baptized with water, they cannot have eternal life in Heaven. This claim is essentially a form of Feeneyism for the very young, and as such, in contradicts not only Church teaching on the universal salvific will of God, but also the words of our Lord:

“Amen I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” [Mt 18:3]

“it is not the will before your Father, who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should be lost.” [Mt 18:14]

“Allow the little children to come to me, and do not choose to prohibit them. For the kingdom of heaven is among such as these.” [Mt 19:13-14]

It is absurd to claim that the littlest children, if unbaptized, are refused entry into the kingdom of heaven, while Jesus himself said that we all must become like little children or we ourselves cannot enter.

4. A related heresy is the claim that these unbaptized little souls are sent to the Limbo of Hell, where they have perfect natural happiness, despite lacking the Beatific Vision of God, lacking the state of grace, lacking the three theological virtues of love, faith, and hope, and being eternally separated from their loved ones in Heaven. It is heresy because Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium have always taught that Hell is a place of eternal punishment. Moreover, two Ecumenical Councils infallibly taught that the souls who die in original sin alone are punished in Hell [Lyons II, Florence].

5. The claim that any person who is committing an objective mortal sin, and dies unrepentant from that sin, cannot be saved. This claim is a heresy because it rejects the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that only actual mortal sin causes the loss of the state of grace and the loss of salvation (if one remains unrepentant). And actual mortal sin requires not only that the act be objectively a mortal sin, but also that it be done with full knowledge of its grave immorality and full deliberation.

In truth, the person who dies unrepentant from an objective mortal sin might be saved, if that objective mortal sin was not also an unrepentant actual mortal sin, due to ignorance of moral truth, at least to the extent that the act falls short of actual mortal sin.

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

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