Thursday, April 14, 1949. Newspapers across the country, from the New York Times to the Sacramento Bee, were running a story about a university in Boston “ousting” four faculty members over a religious dispute. Three professors at Boston College and one teacher at B.C. High School had accused the Jesuit, Catholic university of spreading heresy.
It was Holy Week, and Father William Keleher, president of BC, had just fired the teachers for promoting a narrow interpretation of an antiquated church axiom that contradicted the theology department teachings, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
“Outside the Church, there is no salvation”
The firings sparked a media frenzy, and BC suddenly found itself in the national spotlight as reporters detailed the genesis of what would later be called the Boston Heresy Case. The conflict intensified as Catholics rallied on either side, each defending their own interpretation of church doctrine. Catholic supporters of the teachers protested at Boston churches the following day, Good Friday, one of the most sacred days in the liturgical calendar.
It was after months of internal correspondence and failed negotiation between the administration and the four faculty that Keleher made the decision to fire them. Keleher understood that this was a critical moment for BC. With the war over and student enrollment at historic levels, BC stood on the brink of entering the national stage as an elite academic institution. The Boston Heresy Case had the potential to alter BC’s course dramatically, for better or worse.
While in its origins the Boston Heresy case was about BC, the undisputed face of the story was Father Leonard Feeney. A talented and vivacious Jesuit scholar, Feeney captivated large audiences at St. Benedict’s Center in nearby Cambridge. There, he gave moving sermons and preached the rigorist doctrine of salvation that had resounded so strongly with the four BC teachers. It would soon prove his downfall.
Feeney was larger than life and headstrong, which can be dangerous when combined with an eager press. As soon as he went public and defended the teachers, the spotlight shifted off of BC and onto Feeney.
As headlines emerged with Feeney more at the forefront and BC buried deeper in the details, Archbishop Cushing of Boston was eventually forced to respond. He swiftly issued a statement effectively excommunicating Feeney, making it clear that “weighty points of dogma are not debated in headlines” and that this was an issue of discipline rather than doctrine. In a twist of irony, Feeney found himself outside the Church, where he had preached that there is no salvation.
Not long after, the Vatican issued a revised Catholic catechism to address the issue of salvation as well as other modern concerns. What had started in a physics classroom and with a philosophy syllabus resulted in changes that affected millions of Catholics in America. From the teachers, to Feeney, to Cushing, to the Vatican, the Boston Heresy Case evolved to have an unexpected and enormous ripple effect. However, in the beginning was Boston College.
- Chrissy Lorica BC 2017, History & Spring 2015 Making History Public Student
The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit#WeWereBC, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. This exhibit was curated and organized byProfessor Seth Meehan’s Spring 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.