The Abbot of St. Benedict Abbey in Still River has made an important contribution to the historical literature on Father Feeney and his Crusade. Abbot Gabriel Gibbs, O.S.B., one of the early members of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has told “the story of Saint Benedict Center’s becoming Saint Benedict Abbey,” to quote the book’s subtitle. In a conversation I had a with the Abbot last summer, he told me of the book’s imminent publication. He promised to send a copy to Brother Francis, adding that we would not agree with everything in it.

It was obvious from this conversation that Father Gabriel’s intention was to tell his side of the history of the Center (as the subtitle suggests), but it was also obvious that he wanted to do so in a kind way, mentioning some of the controversies that divided Father Feeney’s original followers without recounting them in an acerbic or belligerent manner. Having now read the book, I can say he accomplished just that. From my point of view, what is notably indicative of the author’s kindly approach is his most respectful treatment of Brother Francis throughout, even where he disagreed with something our beloved Superior did. I hope that in reviewing the volume frankly, I will stay within the bounds of civil and (more importantly) charitable discussion that the Abbot has initiated in publishing his reflections of the Center’s history.

There are many things to recommend the book. First, it is very readable. The early history of the Center is delightfully written by a first-hand witness with a good memory for names, faces, and dates, as well as access to very detailed records in the Abbey’s archives. Accounts are published here of life in the Cambridge days that haven’t previously been put in print. Too, the odd relationship between Harvard and the militant Catholics of the Center is put in a broader historical context than any previous work has done, and very effectively. I will get to some other good points soon. First, I should explain my approach to the book review. Then, I would like to be frank about my perspective, for it is evident that I have a bias and I want to expose it right away.

My review will be done in two principal divisions (probably comprising more than two editions of «Ad Rem»). The approach will be simple: What I liked in the book and what I didn’t. If I end up dwelling more on the specifics of material I disagree with, this is not an indication that such material dominates the book. The contrary is true, for most of Harvard to Harvard was a very positive reading experience for me. Brother Francis’ assessment was the same. This leads to the question of my bias: Relative to the Abbot, I am on the “other side,” to use a phrase that recurs throughout his work. That is, I am one of those Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who do not think that Saint Benedict Center should have become Saint Benedict Abbey — surely not the way it did so. Or, to be more precise, we don’t think that the majority of the male members of the original Saint Benedict Center should have taken the direction that terminated in their becoming Saint Benedict Abbey. The reasons for this will become manifest as this review progresses.

Frank Assessment of Liberal Hierarchy. First, the “good points.” Father Gabriel Gibbs is now an Abbot of the Benedictine Order, a prelate of the Catholic Church in good standing with the Church’s hierarchy, both local and Roman. Yet, in narrating the history of Father Feeney and his run-ins with the liberal hierarchy (both local and Roman), the mitered author pulls no punches. He speaks as candidly as Father Feeney did, and we still do, about the episcopal malfeasance in orthodoxy and orthopraxy that led to Father Feeney’s standing alone in a hostile ecclesial environment. The Abbot is openly critical of Father’s Jesuit superiors and, especially, of Cardinal Cushing. (It is an aside, but those who think the Cardinal takes too much criticism from Father Feeney’s disciples should realize that the Cardinal is now freely criticized for his liberalism by many others. E.g., do a Google Search for these terms “Cushing” and “personally opposed, but” for a real eye opener!)

Some of the book’s criticism is downright embarrassing for our hierarchy. I write within days of the newly-appointed Archbishop of Warsaw retiring his post in the midst of scandal. This was caused by Archbishop Wielgus’ lie (there’s no other word) concerning his collaboration with communist thugs in Poland. Another Polish bishop stepped down in the immediate wake of the controversy and the tremors are still reverberating as I write. The Abbot’s book shows something similar — that the liberals who had legitimate authority in the Church in America lied in the case of Father Feeney, and more than once. The comparisons, from the public record, of who-knew-what-and-when to public statements made by Cardinals Cushing and Wright would leave these eminent churchmen with faces as red as their hats, if they were alive to read the book.

The approach to this episcopal dishonesty is subtle, or, at least, indirect. After presenting the evidence, the Abbot gives the reader the tools to make his own assessment. One is led to the brink, but to cry foul is left to the reader.

The Americanist Milieu. Another plus for the book is its placing of the events surrounding Father Feeney in their sociological context. It was not simply a matter of a priest defending a dogma against a liberal archbishop. It was that, but it was also much more. The milieu is important to explain what really happened, for Archbishop Cushing was neither a theologian nor a stickler of doctrine (of any kind). If the major priorities for Boston’s Ordinary had not been interfered with, things would have gone along swimmingly. But what interested Archbishop Richard Cushing was power and the means to arrive at it (politics and money). Social respectability was important for acquiring these things. Writes the Abbot:

The old guard among the Boston Yankees, which the classic “Harvard Man” typified, was growing increasingly alarmed at the sheer number of Roman Catholic personalities moving into major public roles. They sought to blunt this Catholic ascendancy by promoting a sort of pietistic nationalism in which no religion could dominate the culture. Within this pluralistic framework, claims on an exclusive truth were viewed as bigotry. Both Archbishop Cushing and the Harvard authorities, by 1949, had undoubtedly enshrined the virtue of tolerance as their sacred cow.

[…] To have some Catholics saying there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church was hardly going to sit well with the Boston Irish on their way up the social ladder — or with any Catholics on their way up, for that matter. It has been said that the American Catholic Church’s greatest sin has been to turn itself into an American “denomination.” By the time St. Benedict Center came along with extra ecclesiam nulla salus pretty much the whole Catholic hierarchy in this country wanted to soft-pedal that doctrine. (p. 40)

But the stink over Catholic orthodoxy went beyond Harvard Square or the Archdiocese of Boston, or even the United States. Americanism and its evil siblings had spread everywhere, even to Rome. To this effect, Father Gabriel cites John Deedy, the founding editor of the (Worcester, Mass.) Catholic Free Press and then managing editor of Commonweal magazine:

[Deedy is] assessing the state of the Church in the United States in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Ecumenism, which that Council embraced, was coming into vogue in the post-World War II era, Mr. Deedy observed. But, he added: “if the old Catholic premise extra ecclesiam nulla salus… were still in place… there wouldn’t be an ecumenical movement.” The “rigorist interpretation” of “the doctrine” by St. Benedict Center, Mr. Deedy speculated, “caused embarrassment so acute in the United States and in Rome so as to force suppression of the idea through the suppression of (Father) Feeney.” (p. 86.)

Deedy was a liberal, but his frankness in the matter is telling. Father Feeney got in the way of the modern program of a “kinder, gentler” Catholic Church, one which apologizes for her over-zealous history, and no longer condemns error because man is now more mature (as per Pope John XXIII). One of the ironies of the era is that, not yet used to being so kind and gentle, the hierarchy dealt with Father Feeney ruthlessly.

It is my own estimation, but there is one possible explanation for Pope Pius XII’s involvement in the Father Feeney affair. In the post-war era, the red menace was a serious concern for the supreme pontiff. Everyone knew that the only world power that could balance the USSR was the USA. Pius could not be crossing the American hierarchy at a time when he wanted American cooperation in his opposition to communism. For all his faults, like most of the American hierarchy, Cardinal Cushing was known to be anti-communist. With Bishop Wright pulling all the strings in the background in Rome, all the Pope had to do was not come to Father Feeney’s defense and the case would not have to involve him personally.

The Marchetti Selvaggiani Letter. The final positive aspect of the book I will touch on here is its treatment of the Letter from the Holy Office, Suprema haec sacra, which is commonly known by the name of its (putative) author, Francisco Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani (it is known to some Italophobes as “the Macaroni-Spaghetti Letter”). Here, I will quote from the book at length:

The Marchetti-Selvaggiani letter acknowledged that “among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also that infallible statement by which we are taught there is no salvation outside the Church.” But, it said, “This dogma must be understood in that sense in which the Church herself understands it.” And, citing Pope Pius XII’s June 29, 1943 encyclical letter, Mystici Corporis Christi, it said the Church “reproves both those who exclude from eternal salvation all united to the Church only by implicit desire, and those who falsely assert that men can be saved equally well in every religion.” However, that 1943 encyclical letter never mentions “implicit desire.” To the contrary, it defines a member of the Church in unequivocal terms:

“Only those are members of the Church who have received the Baptism of regeneration and profess the true faith and who are not, to their misfortune, separated from the Body as a whole or cut off from her through very grave faults by legitimate authority.”

Mystici Corporis Christi allows that some may, through an “unconscious desire and longing,” have “a relationship” with the Church. However, far from declaring this relationship sufficient for salvation, the Pope’s encyclical clearly states that it leaves them “deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.” Still, the Marchetti-Selvaggiani letter asserted that it was St. Benedict Center which had “misinterpreted the axiom that ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’ in a way ‘harmful both to those within the Church and to those without’.”

The direct involvement of Pope Pius XII in the translation of the Marchetti-Selvaggiani letter was detailed by Cardinal John J. Wright in “A Personal Reminiscence” of the Holy Father that he wrote for publication in the English-language edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of Vatican City, on March 11, 1976. On March 26, 1976, it was republished in The Pilot [the Boston Archdiocesan newspaper].

While there has never been independent corroboration of the events, Cardinal Wright, while the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, recalled that at the time the 1949 letter was in preparation he, a young auxiliary bishop, was dispatched to Rome “to answer certain questions about the (St. Benedict Center) movement in the mind of the astonished Supreme Pontiff.” [Sound fishy?] Without doubt Bishop Wright welcomed the assignment, not necessarily because from an early advocate he had become a bitter antagonist of St. Benedict Center, but because that summer he was marking his fortieth birthday (July 18, 1949). What better place to celebrate it that in the Eternal City where he had studied for the priesthood, where he had been ordained (coincidentally by Francesco Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani) and where he had earned his doctoral degree in sacred theology! (pp. 69-71; emphasis mine.)

After quoting Cardinal Wright’s florid description of his meeting with Pope Pius XII (which, “unfortunately, there is no way to verify”), the Abbot concludes:

The now-famous Marchetti-Selvaggiani letter has become the strongest ecclesiastical argument against Father Leonard Feeney and St. Benedict Center. However, both its roots and its legitimacy are problematic. (p. 72.)

An understated, but valid, conclusion.