The Corner

Augustine. Aquinas. Luther. Bobby Kennedy?!

Yes, it looks like all four played historic roles in the shaping of Christian theology. Reading Teddy Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, just published today and already No. 2 on Amazon, I discovered a remarkable anecdote about how Bobby Kennedy may have been a crucial figure in the suppression of the controversial Boston Jesuit, Fr. Leonard Feeney. In Senator Ted’s account, Bobby, while a student at Harvard, was outraged at hearing Feeney declare that no non-Catholic can be saved:

[Bobby] discussed it with our father one weekend at the Cape house. I well remember the conversation.

Dad could not believe that Bobby had heard Father Feeney correctly. “But,” he said, “if you feel strongly that you did, I’m going to go into the other room and call Richard. Maybe he’ll want you to go up to Boston and see him.”

“Richard” was Richard Cardinal Cushing. Dad and the cardinal enjoyed a long and profound friendship. . . .

Bobby said he felt strongly indeed. Bang! Dad called up “Richard” and arranged for Bobby to visit him. The cardinal, as nonplussed as Dad, sent some of his people over to hear Father Feeney’s Thursday evening lecture. When he found that my brother was right, Cushing banned Feeney from speaking there; Feeney refused to obey the order, and in September 1949 the archdiocese formally condemned the priest’s teaching. . . . In February 1952, Father Feeney was excommunicated.

I knew someone a few years ago who was a close friend of Father Feeney; I have it on his authority that Feeney was a very decent fellow. But Feeney was, in fact, teaching a crudely literalistic understanding of the doctrine of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (outside the church, no salvation) in which “ecclesiam” meant the visible, hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and “extra” meant outside of it in the most visible sense. No Rahnerian “anonymous Christians” here — or, for that matter, Ratzingerian “as many [ways to God] as there are people.” The excommunication of Feeney was a public declaration by Pius XII’s Vatican that Feeney’s interpretation was impermissible in Catholic theology. How important was Bobby Kennedy’s intervention? Teddy doesn’t exactly underemphasize it: “I believe, though I cannot be certain, that Bobby’s concern resulted, over time, in . . .  a major shift in Catholic teaching regarding the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics. . . . Bobby wasn’t the only critic of Father Feeney, of course, but he was among the first to achieve results. Nor did his principled gesture end with the banishment of Feeney. Reinforced by Cardinal Cushing’s discussions with the papal hierarchy in Rome, it became an animating impulse of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962.”

(I need to confess, yet again, my weakness for Irish blarney.) A confrontation between Father Feeney and the young Bobby Kennedy has been written about already; but I have never seen it alleged that Bobby and his father played an active role in the downfall of Feeney and his doctrine. This incident would go a long way toward explaining the later attitude of the Kennedys (most of them) to the Catholic Church: that it’s basically an ecclesiastical counterpart to the U.S. Senate, a place where reasonable people — who know whom to lean on, and how — can get mistakes in the law corrected.

N.B. Unlike certain other Massachusetts senators who shall remain nameless, Teddy got the Pope’s name right.

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