A Reply To Father Hartnett
Mons. Joseph Clifford Fenton
The statement that persons who die “outside the Church” are not saved is a Catholic dogma, a supernatural truth revealed by God and presented to us as such by the Catholic Church. It is a dogma enunciated by the Fourth Lateran Council when it taught that “There is one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved (extra quam nullus omnino salvatur).” The Index systematicus to Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum refers to more than twenty pronouncements of this same revealed truth.
is perfectly true that, in From the Housetops, the organ of the St.
Benedict’s Center group in
of course, was precisely the contention of the men and women of St. Benedict’s Center. Indeed the strongest support these people
received in their obstinate opposition to the archdiocesan authorities and to
the direction from the Holy Office came from this inept passage in the
editor of America, in the course of his article, brought out the fact
that Fr. Feeney’s group had erred in denying the possibility of salvation for
persons who had an implicit desire to join the Church. Yet, even here he succeeded in aiding
the cause of his former co-worker and in further confusing the entire
question. In backing up his teaching, he made the assertion that “the
fathers of the Vatican Council taught that an explicit knowledge and profession
of the Catholic faith are by no means necessary for salvation.” This assertion by the editor of
“the fathers of the Vatican Council taught” are the truths set forth in the two
constitutions, the Dei Filius and the Pastor
Aeternus. Needless to say, the proposition
which the editor of
satisfied with the confusion and the inaccuracy he had already contributed to
the discussion, Fr. Hartnett returned to the fray with an editorial in the
The full statement of the way the Church understands her doctrine should put an end to misunderstanding about it. This doctrine, which the letter terms “infallible,” is explained as meaning that “…no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely established by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience from the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ.
“In his infinite mercy,” however, God has willed that “in certain circumstances” men can be saved whose union with the Church is “only in desire and longing.” Moreover, “when a person is involved in invincible ignorance,” God accepts “implicit desire” of a person to belong to the Church – so called because it is included [i.e. implicit] in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.”
The Holy Office called attention to the way
Pope Pius XII had explained “membership” in the Church in his encyclical on The
Mystical Body of Christ issued
this summary, the editor of
The actual text of the Holy Office letter shows that the Church understands itself to be necessary for salvation in two distinct ways, with the necessity of precept and with the necessity of means. The statement that “no will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely established by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church, or withholds obedience from the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ,” is in the letter as an explanation of the Church’s necessity of precept, and not as a complete explanation of the axiom itself.
Moreover, the letter also insists that the Church is necessary with the necessity of means, “not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution.” Because of this fact, in order “that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing (voto et desiderio).” It goes on to explain that “this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance, God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.”
The Holy Office letter then goes on to explain that the possibility of salvation for persons who implicitly desire to become members of the Church was indicated in the encyclical Mystici Corporis, in which the Holy Father “clearly distinguishes between those who are actually incorporated into the Church as members, and those who are united to the Church only by desire.” The letter goes on to say:
Discussing the members of which the Mystical Body is composed here on earth, the same August Pontiff says “Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.”
Toward the end of this same Encyclical Letter, when most affectionately inviting to unity those who do not belong to the body of the Catholic Church, he mentions those who “are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire (desiderio ac voto),” and these he by no means excludes from eternal salvation, but on the other hand states that they are in a condition “in which they cannot be sure of their salvation” since “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.”
After reminding us that this teaching by the Holy Father in the Mystici Corporis “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 (aequaliter) in every religion,” the letter goes on to a very important point which the editor of America completely ignores in his explanation. The Holy Office letter states:
But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith.
The doctrinal portion of the Holy Office letter to Archbishop Cushing ends with a reminder that the teachings set forth in that letter make it “evident that those things which are proposed in the periodical From the Housetops, fascicle 3, as the genuine teaching of the Catholic Church are far from being such and are very harmful both to those within the Church and those without.” In other words, the Holy Office stigmatizes the teaching of the St. Benedict’s Center group as inaccurate. It does not point out the individual mistakes that entered into their publication. One of those mistakes, however, was the teaching that, in order to be saved, a person “must have an explicit will to join the Catholic Church.” I indicated this passage as erroneous teaching by the St. Benedict’s Center group in the course of an article written more than a year and a half ago.
The last two paragraphs of Fr. Hartnett’s Sept. 20 editorial contain some very grave doctrinal charges against myself. It will be impossible to discuss these charges, or even attempt to defend myself against them, unless the two pertinent paragraphs from Fr. Hartnett’s editorial are quoted in full. Fr. Hartnett wrote as follows:
Unfortunately, the proper interpretation of this doctrine has again been clouded, this time in a recent criticism, by a Catholic theologian, of James M. O’Neill’s excellent reply to Paul Blanshard. In his Catholicism and American Freedom, Mr. O’Neill called the Catholic doctrine on the necessity of membership in the Church for eternal salvation, as portrayed by Mr. Blanshard, “this ancient nonsense.” Mr. O’Neill was not attempting to explain the full meaning of the doctrine in theological terms. He was answering Blanshard and his answer was substantially correct. Why, then, has the reviewer in the June issue of the American Ecclesiastical Review taken Mr. O’Neill severely to task?
If what the reviewer himself has written about this doctrine were interpreted as harshly as he interpreted what Mr. O’Neill wrote, it would be found to fall far short of the Holy Office’s authoritative explanation. By brushing off Mr. O’Neill’s clarification without unfolding the doctrine in its fulness, he seems to have helped revive the very misunderstanding which the letter of the Holy Office aims to dispel.
Here are three definite charges stated explicitly, and one more implied. Fr. Hartnett accuses me of 1) beclouding the interpretation of that teaching on the Church’s necessity for salvation which has been set down in the letter from the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing; 2) having written on this subject in such a way that, should these writings be interpreted other than charitably, these writings will be found to fall far short of the Holy Office’s authoritative explanation; and 3) having helped revive the very misunderstanding which the Holy Office letter meant to dispel.
The last sentence in the first of the two paragraphs just quoted from Fr. Hartnett’s editorial is a question which charges me by implication, but nonetheless clearly, with having criticized Mr. O’Neill’s book unjustly.
Any Catholic, and particularly any priest, can see that these charges are quite serious. The first three are frightfully serious. They have to do with the priestly work I have been called upon to do for the past several years. If it be true that I have brought confusion into the Holy Office’s explanation of the Catholic dogma of the Church’s necessity for salvation, that my rather extensive writings on this subject are in some measure opposed to the Holy Office teaching, and that I have caused a revival of the erroneous teachings which had been set forth by the St. Benedict’s Center group, and which had occasioned the issuance of the Holy Office instruction; then it is rather obvious that I have failed lamentably in my work of teaching the tractatus de ecclesia in our pontifical University’s school of sacred theology, and that I have misused my position as editor-in-chief of The American Ecclesiastical Review. Should the first three of Fr. Hartnett’s charges be true, then it would be obviously necessary for me to relinquish these positions.
if, on the other hand, these charges turn out to be false, then Fr. Hartnett
has certainly been guilty of bearing false witness against a brother priest,
and has abused his position as editor-in-chief of
It may be objected at the very outset that I am taking too serious a view of what might be regarded, after all, as a mere academic dispute. And it may be said that the editor of The American Ecclesiastical Review, who as given many unfavorable notices on other men’s writing, is somewhat over-sensitive when he is confronted with an adverse criticism of his own material.
answer to that objection involves an explanation of one very basic process in
legitimate literary criticism. Our controversial articles and book
Fr. Hartnett, on the other hand, has followed an entirely different procedure. In writing those bitter final paragraphs of his Sept. 20 editorial, he could and should have had before him the text of the Holy Office instruction and the text of my review of Catholicism and American Freedom. He could have pointed out passages in this, or in some other section of my own writings, and indicated the part of the Holy Office instruction with which he believed my statements to be in conflict. Instead, however, he set out to make his blanket accusations on his own authority. He has set himself up as both witness and judge. Whatever evidence there might be to support his accusations, it is evidence which he has not troubled to show to his readers or to the priest he has set out to assail. His attack is not against any statement or portion of my writings, but against myself, my own doctrinal soundness and competence.
I believe that there is no real parallel whatsoever between the method of criticism employed in
first of the charges made against me by Fr. Hartnett is contained in the
sentence: “Unfortunately, the proper interpretation of this doctrine has
again been clouded, this time in a recent criticism, by a Catholic theologian,
of James M. O’Neill’s excellent reply to Paul Blanshard.”
Here “this doctrine” is manifestly the teaching that “outside the Church there
is no salvation.” The “proper interpretation” is that contained in the
letter of the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing. The “recent criticism”
was my own review of Prof. O’Neill’s book in the June, 1952, number of
Hence, taking out the meaning involved in the figurative term “clouded,” Fr. Hartnett’s first charge is that I have confused or misinterpreted in my review of Prof. O’Neill’s book, the teaching on the Church’s necessity for salvation contained in the Holy Office letter. Only the last four paragraphs of that review have anything to do with the content of the Holy Office letter to Archbishop Cushing. Consequently, whatever concerns the interpretation or statement of the doctrine contained in that letter is to be found in these four paragraphs.
In this section of the review I took exception to three statements made by Prof. O’Neill in his book. The first of these statements read as follows: “Either Mr. Blanshard does not know the Catholic doctrine’s concerning salvation ‘outside the Church’ and the ‘priority of conscience,’ or else he does not wish his readers to know them.”
My own comment was that “Any Catholic should know, especially after the sharp and timely teaching on this subject brought out in the present Holy Father’s encyclical Humani generis, that there are not and there cannot be any Catholic teachings whatsoever about salvation ‘outside the Church.’ There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.”
The Holy Office letter makes the following pronouncement: “Now, 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 that there is no salvation outside the Church.”
To me it would appear that the assertion that there is a Catholic doctrine of salvation outside the Church contradicts the teaching that there is no salvation outside the Church. The point at issue here is not, and cannot be twisted into, an interpretation of the dogma. It is obviously and definitely a matter of the statement or enunciation of the dogma. I do not believe that an assertion that there is a Catholic doctrine of salvation outside the Church is objectively compatible with the acceptance of the dogma itself in any act of divine faith. At any rate, in this section of the review, far from confusing the teaching set forth by the Holy Office, I stated it clearly and accurately.
The second of Prof. O’Neill’s statements to which I took exception in this part of the review has his application of the term “ancient nonsense” to Blanshard’s statement that “the doctrine is still official that: outside of the Church there is no salvation.” The passage in Prof. O’Neill’s book reads as follows: “Mr. Blanshard makes another brief reference to this doctrine (p. 32), which he characterizes as ‘narrowness of outlook,’ and adds that ‘the doctrine is still official that: outside of the Church there is no salvation.’ For Mr. Blanshard to repeat this ancient nonsense is inexcusable.”
On this point we have a commentary by Fr. Hartnett in his editorial. “Mr. O’Neill,” he tells us, “called the Catholic doctrine on the necessity of membership in the Church for eternal salvation, as portrayed by Mr. Blanshard, ‘this ancient nonsense.’ Mr. Blanshard was not attempting to explain the full meaning of the doctrine in theological terms. He as answering Blanshard and his answer was substantially correct.”
As the sentence stands in Prof. O’Neill’s book, the term “this ancient nonsense” might be said to apply to all the statements attributed to Blanshard in the previous two pages, or merely to the brief citation included in the previous sentence. My review took cognizance of this difficulty, and stated that “From the context, it is difficult to see how the teaching that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church could fail to be included in what Professor O’Neill designates as ‘this ancient nonsense.’”
Furthermore, Fr. Hartnett’s indignation has led him here into another of his characteristic misstatements. Fr. Hartnett speaks of “the Catholic doctrine on the necessity of membership in the Church for salvation.” Here again, of course, he has seriously beclouded the teaching of the Holy Office letter and of the Humani generis, both of which speak of the necessity of the Church, rather than of membership in the Church.
The third statement to which I took exception in this portion of my review was his use of Fr. John Carroll’s assertion that “the members of the Catholic Church are all those who, with sincere heart, seek true religion, and are in unfeigned disposition to embrace the truth wherever they find it.” With reference to this statement, my own review said that “The teaching contained in that passage is quite completely at variance with the doctrine brought out on the same subject in the present Holy Father’s encyclical Mystici Corporis.” The Holy Office letter quotes in its entirety the passage from Mystici Corporis to which I alluded.
Such, then, is the evidence with reference to the first of Fr. Hartnett’s charges. I objected to the use of the expression “Catholic doctrine of salvation outside the Church” and asserted that there is no salvation outside the Church. I took exception to the inclusion of the statement of this dogma in what Prof. O’Neill classified as “this ancient nonsense.” I declared that an assertion about the members of the Catholic Church was unacceptable, because it was incompatible with the Holy Father’s teaching in the Mystici Corporis.
It is difficult to see how this could honestly be interpreted as a beclouding or a confusing of the teaching set forth in the Holy Office letter. On this point I believe the evidence shows that Fr. Hartnett has borne false witness.
Fr. Hartnett’s second accusation reads as follows: “If what the reviewer himself has written about this doctrine were interpreted as harshly as he interpreted what Mr. O’Neill wrote, it would be found to fall far short of the Holy Office’s authoritative explanation.”
Some comment on this particular charge is absolutely necessary, but at the same time that comment must be an extremely disagreeable task. I have written several articles on the Church’s necessity for salvation and on the requisites for membership in the Church. In all of those articles there is not one line which in any way contradicts or misinterprets any of the teachings contained in the Holy Office letter. Fr. Hartnett’s charge is absolutely and completely untrue.
That charge is also viciously unjust and uncharitable. I have now entered on my fifteenth year at the University, teaching the tractatus de ecclesia in the University’s school of sacred theology. For many years I have written for this Review and, during the past nine years, I have edited it and written for it very extensively. What I have written on the subject of ecclesiology in the Review I have taught in my lectures at the University.
Now I find that a brother priest, without adducing one scintilla of evidence, without quoting as much as one word form any of my writings, has published a statement obviously meant to convey the impression that some of my writings, and, by implication, a portion of my teaching at the University, fall far short of Catholic orthodoxy. He has taken upon himself, upon his own authority and responsibility, to defame his brother priest in the eyes of those among his readers who are prepared to take his word under such circumstances. The numerous “crank” letters I have received since the publication of Fr. Hartnett’s editorial show that there are people who have taken Fr. Hartnett’s word in this affair. It is difficult to see how Fr. Hartnett’s action here can be judged as other than slanderous. It is to be hoped that, in the future, he will not accuse a brother priest of infidelity to Catholic doctrine without at least supplying some bill of particulars.
Fr. Hartnett’s third accusation is likewise false, but this one has some interesting implications. He writes: “By brushing off Mr. O’Neill’s clarification without unfolding the doctrine in its fulness, he seems to have helped revive the very misunderstanding which the letter of the Holy Office aims to dispel.”
In the first place, any competent reader of my review will see in a moment that there was no clarification by Prof. O’Neill “brushed off” in any way whatsoever. The statement that there is a Catholic doctrine of salvation outside the Church, and the inclusion of the dogma that outside the Church there is no salvation in the category of ancient nonsense, can certainly never honestly be considered as “clarifications” by any competent Catholic student. Neither can the statement about the members of the Catholic Church, taken from Fr. Carroll and manifestly incompatible with the teaching of Mystici Corporis. Nothing else in this section was in any way “brushed off.”
Again Fr. Hartnett seems to have forgotten that he is criticizing me for the content of a book review. It was definitely not my business there to set forth a complete explanation of the Catholic dogma of the Church’s necessity for salvation. What I set out to do, and what I actually did, was to evaluate the book to the best of my ability. I pointed to what I considered its strong points, and to some weak points as well. I also considered it my duty to indicate some passages which should not have been included in a Catholic book. Two of those passages had to do with the Church’s necessity for salvation, and one with the requisites for membership in the Church. The Holy Office letter has shown that I judged accurately about these three passages.
Now comes the interesting point of this particular accusation. It is Fr. Hartnett’s considered judgment that, by reason of this review, I seem “to have helped revive the very misunderstanding which the letter of the Holy Office aims to dispel.” The misunderstanding which occasioned the Holy Office letter was, as the letter itself testifies, contained in the teaching of the St. Benedict’s Center group. Fr. Hartnett’s charge then, is that I appear to revive this particular teaching.
Now the one definite error contained in Mr. Karam’s article (the only writing of the St. Benedict’s Center group to which the Holy Office letter alludes) is a denial of the possibility of salvation for a man who wills, with an implicit intention or desire, to join the Catholic Church. Fr. Hartnett mentioned that error in his 1949 editorial and I spoke of it, and indicated the place where it was expressed, in my article “The Meaning of the Church’s Necessity for Salvation.”
In my review of Mr. O’Neill’s book there is absolutely no trace of any such error. There is no statement which could be interpreted in any way to mean that a person with an implicit desire to join the Church cannot be saved. I believe that Fr. Hartnett himself is quite aware of this.
There is, however, another aspect to this charge. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, there are some people who seem to persist in imagining that the St. Benedict’s Center group’s doctrinal fault lay precisely in the assertion that there is no salvation outside the Church. This vulgar, but still widespread, error was encouraged by the publications emanating from the St. Benedict’s Center. Sad to relate, it was also greatly encouraged by Fr. Hartnett’s “boner” in his April 1949 editorial. When the highly regarded America carried the story that a group had been disciplined because “They contended that persons dying ‘outside the Church’ could not be saved,” it is not to be wondered that many, even among the better instructed Catholics, were led to imagine that the statement of this Catholic dogma in some way constituted the fault for which the St. Benedict’s Center group was punished.
Apparently Fr. Hartnett is still under this false impression. Fr. Feeney’s followers were, he fondly imagined, subject to ecclesiastical censure because they had contended that persons dying outside the Church could not be saved. To this horror, he found this same dogma set down in my review, where I had objected to a Catholic writer’s contradicting this dogma and calling it “ancient nonsense.” He obviously believed that the assertion of a Catholic dogma of salvation outside the Church, the classification of the dogma itself as “ancient nonsense,” and the statement about the Church’s members incompatible with the teaching of the Mystici Corporis were “substantially true.” He seems to favor the explanation of the dogma given in the Holy Office letter but not to have relaxed his hostility to the dogma which that letter set out to explain. At least, that dogma, presented in the terminology used by the Holy Office itself, still seems to annoy him.
The fourth charge is the implication of injustice to Prof. O’Neill. To that charge I can only say that I tried to be just. I tried also to be charitable. But, as a priest, my first loyalty is to Our Lord in His Church.
Where there are reasons for praising Prof. O’Neill’s book, I have tried to indicate them. But where there are statements at variance with the accurate and authoritative Catholic teaching, I believed and I still believe that it was my duty to indicate them.
Hartnett seems to feel very strongly that I should not have objected to
anything in the book because Prof. O’Neill “was answering Blanshard.”
I cannot subscribe to the double standard of truth here implied. A dogma
of the Church is true, and its denial or misinterpretation is false, in any
book or in any article. To allow a seriously inaccurate passage to get by
without challenge because the book in which it is contained is a prominent and
well-written work, directed against a particularly vicious and malign enemy of
the Church, seems to be to be a dereliction of duty on the part of any Catholic
book reviewer. It is a dereliction of duty to be avoided, even at the
cost of defamatory publicity in
Joseph Clifford Fenton
 DB, 430.
 Raymond Karam, in
“Reply to a Liberal,” From the Housetops,
 Cf. “The Meaning of the Church’s Necessity
for Salvation,” Part I,
 The article was entitled “Dangers to Faith within the Church,” and was written by the Very Rev. Dr. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R. The reference to Prof. O’Neill’s book is found on pp. 406 f. Dr. Connell acknowledges that Prof. O’Neill apparently means to refer to the interpretation Blanshard gave to the Catholic dogma of the necessity of the Church for salvation, but he nevertheless characterizes Prof. O’Neill’s use of the term “this ancient nonsense” as an “error.”
 Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952), p. 202.
 O’Neill, op. cit., p. 203.
 O’Neill, op. cit., p. 202. The original text is found in Carroll’s Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America.
 P. 479.