In 1953, Pope Pius XII excommunicated Father Feeney for refusing to submit to ecclesiastical authority. The issue in question was Feeney’s rejection of the liberalization of Catholic Doctrine (a broad movement culminating in Vatican II). Specifically, Feeney was excommunicated for his insistence on the traditional, historical doctrine of the church, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (There is no salvation outside of the church). Feeney maintained that salvation was only for those who had been baptized, rejecting the idea that good people throughout history who may not have had the opportunity to know about the church could receive salvation. This conservative position earned him global fame and a direct confrontation with the Pope.
The relevant issues in this case are manifold for Mormons. First, how do issues of authority of leaders and the authority of doctrine intersect? When we take them to be in tension, which one are we bound to follow? In our case, the issue generally seems to favor current prophetic authority over past authority, but in a sense this is also true for Catholics. But the tensions between the past and the present rarely come to the surface. For instance, one is hard pressed to find anything like President Kimball’s insistence that mothers stay home full-time from modern leaders, yet this view is taken as binding for many still.
Second, are there any parallel doctrines for which Mormons could be excommunicated? There are a number of progressive ideas that can get one excommunicated (at least in the sometimes exaggerated fears of many who hold such ideas), such as the belief in the 19th century origins of the Book of Mormon, the belief that women should have the priesthood, and others. Yet, at the same time, there are certainly a number of traditional doctrines which are often portrayed as official, but which do not enjoy such status, such as a certain view of evolution, infallibility of prophetic leadership, literalist biblical hermeneutics, a belief that abortion is murder, and other conservative doctrines. Why don’t those who espouse these conservative views face ecclesiastical discipline in the same way that those who espouse more liberal views are subject to scrutiny? Aren’t these false doctrines just as destructive to the faith of the community?
In the end, Father Feeney was reinstated by Pope Paul VI. The retrenchment of the Catholic Church after Vatican II gradually moved away from the reform movements and attempted to make room, if not priority, for more traditional theological positions. I think that this episode serves as a case study for how theological positions can be enforced with ecclesiastical power. The controversy surrounding Feeney’s case shows can easy it is to politicize “tradition” and “reform” at the expense of others. But how would such an issue be decided in a Mormon case? What value do excommunications on the basis of “doctrinal” apostasy serve?