Credo’s Spiritual Adviser Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S. has a new two-part theological essay published in the online version of Living Tradition titled “Father Feeney and the Implicitum Votum Ecclesiae”. The Latin there means “implicit desire for the Church”. The essay defends the Church’s teaching, only quite recently developed explicitly, that sometimes non-Catholics can be linked to the Church by an implicit or unconscious desire that is sufficient for their salvation. The late Fr. Leonard Feeney and his followers have claimed this is heretical. According to them, “Outside the Church, no Salvation” means that only those who are consciously Roman Catholic at the moment of death can reach Heaven. All the rest, he said, even the most devout Protestants and Greek Orthodox, die “outside the Church” and thus are damned.
Most Catholic writers dismiss “Feeneyism” as extremism, if not bigotry; but they rarely face up honestly to the arguments he deployed, based on older, medieval magisterial teachings (including infallible ones) that were promulgated in a decidedly pre-ecumenical age, and that seem to support Fr. Feeney’s rigorous position.
In this essay Fr. Harrison does not address in detail the question of whether those dying as non-Christians can enter the Kingdom of Heaven; he focuses mainly on the case of those who die believing in Christ, but without sincerely professing the Catholic Faith (including submission to the Roman Pontiff). Catholics (and other Christians) generally agree on the meaning of “no salvation”. But what does it mean to be “outside the Church”?
The first part of his essay Fr. Harrison explores this precise question; in the second part he argues – contrary to Feeney’s view – that an accurate interpretation of both the modern and medieval magisterial documents shows that there is no contradiction between them – they may be read in the “hermeneutic of continuity” that Benedict XVI has called for in interpreting and applying Vatican II’s teachings.
Fr. Harrison gives Fr. Feeney his due however – the indifferentism that Fr. Feeney was reacting to has only grown since 1948 and ought to be reacted to and we should say very directly to our Protestant, lapsed Catholic and non-Christian brethren “Jesus Christ wants YOU to be a Roman Catholic!” both because it is true, and because people will respond to it. In the very last footnote, Fr. Harrison gives a personal testimony about this:
During the months of 1971-1972 when I was struggling, with much prayer, reading and reflection, over the decision whether to enter the Church, more than one well-meaning Catholic acquaintance, imbued with the new and heady “spirit of Vatican II”, blandly advised me just to “follow my conscience”. One even advised me to become an Anglican, since that, he suggested, would be for me a “congenial” mid-way position between Catholicism and the Calvinism of my upbringing. I was living in Papua New Guinea at the time and had occasion to share these reflections and suggested options with the late Archbishop Virgil Copas of Port Moresby. This fine missionary prelate, himself a Father of Vatican II, did not share that alleged “spirit” of the Council. He told me, kindly but bluntly, “Brian, I am sure Our Lord would want you to join the Church He Himself founded.” These uncompromising words from a Successor of the Apostles remained fixed in my mind and definitely helped me to make the decision to become a Catholic.