The Feeneyite Saint Benedict Center cult in Richmond, New Hampshire has posted the following at its website with the heading, "This just in: Pope Says 'Feeneyites' ok":
"With regards to those who hold strictly the absolute necessity of water baptism, it would be quite wrong to charge them with heretical constructs. As they merely assert that which was the near-universal consensus of the Patristic era, such a charge would be proximate to condemning all but a few of the Fathers as heterodox." (Der Glaube das Pimmelkopfgelauben, Communio April 1997 p 13. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.)
Now our Holy Father, then Cardinal Ratzinger, was not suggesting that Feeneyites are correct or that Feeneyism is "ok." He was merely indicating that it would be wrong to charge them "with heretical constructs." Not all willful rejection of a truth proposed by the Church constitutes heresy. The Feeneyites rejection of the Church's understanding of the dogma "Outside the Church there is no salvation" is not strictly speaking heresy. However, it is a serious sin against Catholic faith.
On August 8, 1949, the Holy Office sent a letter to Archbishop Richard James Cushing of Boston condemning Father Feeney’s error. In this letter, the Holy Office explained 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 that there is no salvation outside the Church. However, this dogma must be understood in that sense in which the Church herself understands it. For, it was not to private judgments that Our Savior gave for explanation those things that are contained in the deposit of faith, but to the teaching authority of the Church."
This teaching is reaffirmed in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of the Second Vatican Council, No. 10: "..the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." See also: Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Humani Generis (Aug 12, 1950): AAS 42 (1950), 568-69; Denz. 2314 (3886).
The Holy Office concluded its letter to Archbishop Cushing with these words: "..let them who in grave peril are ranged against the Church seriously bear in mind that after ‘Rome has spoken’ they cannot be excused even by reasons of good faith. Certainly, their bond and duty of obedience toward the Church is much graver than that of those who as yet are related to the Church ‘only by an unconscious desire.’ Let them realize that they are children of the Church, lovingly nourished by her with the milk of doctrine and the sacraments, and hence, having heard the clear voice of their Mother, they cannot be excused from culpable ignorance, and therefore to them apply without any restriction that principle: submission to the Catholic Church and to the Sovereign Pontiff is required as necessary for salvation."
What does this mean for the Feeneyites? It means that the Lord Jesus will require more from them (children of the Church who have been "lovingly nourished by her with the milk of doctrine and the sacraments," See also Luke 12:48) and that, having heard "the clear voice of their Mother" (the living teaching office of the Church), they have no excuse in rejecting the Church’s understanding of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. In fact, since "to them[as children of the Church] apply without any restriction" the principle that "submission to the Catholic Church and to the Sovereign Pontiff is required as necessary for salvation," the Feeneyites place their salvation in jeopardy by ranging themselves against the Church.
Feeneyites who want to rationalize their pick and choose "cafeteria Catholicism" will no doubt continue to ignore Church documents which do not suit their agenda while plucking out selective quotes as deftly as a fundamentalist would in a vain attempt to justify their particular view. But the Church has spoken:
"Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking." (Lumen Gentium, No. 25).
These same Bishops, gathered at the Second Vatican Council, taught that:
"..those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.." (Lumen Gentium, No. 16).
Can one reject this teaching and still call himself a Catholic? As Ralph McInerny [professor at the University of Notre Dame] explains in his book "What went wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic crisis explained":
"Contemporary accounts of Vatican II portrayed it as a battle between two forces, conservative and liberal, the hidebound and progressive. As a result, the documents of the council came to to be looked upon as the triumph of one side over the other. The good guys who had won were the progressives. That such a political division existed among members of the press who covered the council is undeniable. That a similar division could be found among the theological experts [periti] who advised individual bishops or national conferences of bishops is also true. And there doubtless were prelates who regarded the members of the Vatican Curia as obstacles to the renewal that John XXIII had called for. Does this mean that the council was a victory for one side and a defeat for the other? This question indicates the limitations of such a factional interpretation. The Church is not merely a human organization. She is a divinely instituted mystery whose life is guided by the Holy Spirit. Whatever wrangling went on outside St. Peter's, however much a partisan spirit might have been carried within, when the various schemata were argued over and revised, once they received a majority of the votes of the Fathers of the council and were promulgated by Paul VI, they could no longer be looked upon as the product or property of some party within the Church. Now they were regulative of the faith of all Catholics. No Catholic could presume to reject the council and think that he remained a loyal member of the Church." (pp. 150-151).
Related reading: Did Father Feeney really reconcile with the Church? See here.