Ecumenical Christmas Reflection

by Rev. Dr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conv.

In Preparation for the
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – January 18-25, 2019

Bl. John Duns Scotus and St. Paul VI have a little remembered but powerful relationship that has a bearing on the Franciscan emphasis on the Incarnation as the most important doctrine. In addition, Fr. Ed retrieves the ecumenical intention of our new St. Paul VI in a Franciscan register. Fr. Ed discovered a “jewel,” a scotistic focused ecumenical project that never quite made it out of the starting gate after the Council.

December 14, 2018

Bl. John Duns Scotus and Pope Saint Paul VI

Is the Catholic Church of Pope Paul VI and Vatican II long gone? Is there anything worth retrieving or recalibrating? Was Vatican II a de-figuration and derangement of the Catholic Church or was the Council a re-figuration and “irreplaceable?” A half century after the Council, these questions evoke a panoply of competing answers, but, if the truth be told, we expect our world to stay intact even as we recognize that the pace of our culture is fast. Vatican II inaugurated high expectations for change and renewal in the Catholic Church that would retrieve philosophical and theological riches and recalibrate them. Lumen Gentium is the dogmatic constitution on the Church, and, Gaudium et Spes is the pastoral constitution on the Church. Together, they are the driving engine to “rebuild the Church.” LG 1: “The Church is a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind, that is, she is a sign and an instrument of such union and unity.” GS 3: The Council set out to provide proof of its solidarity with the entire human family and respect and love for that family by engaging in conversation with the whole People of God about the flood of new problems in the world and sharing insight with the Church. Prayer, education, and willingness to stretch without breaking are presupposed for reform and renewal which are constant in the Church.

This essay highlights the distinctiveness of the official fraternal greetings between Michael Ramsey, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and Paul VI in their joint declaration on March 24, 1966 (AAS, 58, 1966, p. 287). They were in the vanguard of mutual recognition of the problem of being Christian in an age when the standard language of the modern age will not work to convince the world about religion. Their declaration thanked God for the action of the Holy Spirit in creating a new atmosphere of Christian fellowship between the Roman Catholic Church and Churches of the Anglican Communion. Based upon charity, they sought to remove the causes of conflict and to re-establish unity, to leave in the hands of the God of mercy all that in the past has been opposed to this precept of charity. Serious dialogue founded on the Gospels and ancient common traditions may lead to unity in truth. Undeterred by serious obstacles in the way of a restoration of complete communion of faith and sacramental life, they promoted responsible contacts where the members strive in common to find solutions for all the great problems. Only by the grace of God would efforts for progress towards unity also strengthen peace in the world, the peace that only God can give. The declaration is high energy.

Paul VI made a further step in July that same year in his letter about the Oxford Franciscan, John Duns Scotus (d.1308). The Council had set the stage in Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism with the intention of the restoration of unity among all the baptized. Principles, practices, historical accountability, a reminder that a “hierarchy of truths” exists, and the duty to “impose no burden beyond what is indispensable“ (Acts 15:28) radiated a new tone to overcoming the clashes and divergences that openly contradict the will of Christ to proclaim the good news to all. The Council expanded with the contributions of Protestant scholars to engage the solvent of confessional Christianity in modernity.

In his letter, Alma Parens, (July 1966), Paul VI took a remedial retrievalist stance. He knew that Duns Scotus had not been afforded the kind of respect and study fitting to defend his metaphysics and theology. Alma Parens mentions the plea in Aeterni Patris by Leo XIII about the study of philosophy to revive scholasticism especially that of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1905, St. Pius X added a refinement with St. Bonaventure as “the second leader of Scholasticism.” In Alma Parens, Paul VI wrote: “it is universally recognized that John Duns Scotus surpassed the Seraphic Doctor” (St. Bonaventure), a view that may have competitors. What is at stake from Leo XIII to Paul VI is the common critique of the primacy of reason’s universality in modernity rather than linking reason and faith.

Paul VI was prescient to bring forward a relatively unknown and misunderstood Franciscan Mariologist, Duns Scotus, as a light for the implementation of Vatican II and future ecumenical movement in Great Britain. Amplifying Alma Parens, Peter Damian Fehlner, a contemporary Franciscan constructive theologian in his own right, takes the position that the valid insights of moderns as Kant are already present in the thought of Duns Scotus, a point for further development.

In a Lutheran Protestant register, Kierkegaard (d.1855), the father of existentialism, offered a critique of modernity obliquely along the concerns of Archbishop Ramsey and Paul VI’s scotistic lines. Modern thought is motivated by curiosity. Kierkegaard’s hyperbolic discourse in comparison to Duns Scotus include the will, the individual, love and forgiveness in an existential register. Duns Scotus argues for the primacy of the will and its self-determination which is oriented towards the good and love, hence, the primacy of love. In his anatomy of modernity, Kierkegaard’s relentless criticism of the primacy of reason over faith which took hold in Danish culture in Kantian and Hegelian forms leads to a de-creation or the loss of understanding that he thought is dangerous to faith. To Kierkegaard, Kant and Hegel have different objective points of view but these great thinkers leave massive footprints with valid points not to be dismissed. Paul VI was well versed in the Kantian and Hegelian inspired historical reality and the consequences that take a turn, for example with the nihilism of Nietzsche and his epigones. Nihilism plays out as if we killed God and have forgotten that we killed him with the result that God has no longer any social or existential purpose and we have failed to be cognizant of our crime. Since we have displaced and replaced God, the only answer is to choose the self as the architect of meaning.

Archbishop Ramsey and Paul VI were not strangers to this Kantian deformation of the will and Hegelian “web.” To them, God is love and that love is inscrutable. Only the grace of God in collaboration will bring God’s disciples nearer. Paul VI carried the primacy of the will and primacy of love further with a scotistic understanding of the will as radically ordered and intuitive, far removed from the willfulness in modern philosophy. Unfortunately, Duns Scotus on the primacy of the will is underdeveloped in academia and pastoral practice. A half century ago, this overarching backdrop ignited the conviction from Paul VI that “the teachings of Duns Scotus could perhaps provide the golden framework for this serious dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion as well as other Christian communities of Great Britain.” He recalibrated the doctrine of Duns Scotus as commonly taught in the schools in Great Britain and brought to flower on the fertile soil where he was born and now brings glory to Great Britain by his universal genius and practical wisdom. Duns Scotus was a constructive theologian centering on the Franciscan determinative attitude that “true love is a practical thing” (Ordinatio, prol, n. 303, Vat ed. I, p. 200). “Duns Scotus Oxford,” a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, names him the “one who most sways my spirits to peace.” Hopkins does not substitute poetry for religion as Shelley and the Romantics did but has a retrievalist stance. Unlike the Romantic take, God is not dead, nor is the God of Christianity inconsequential, or moribund at best. Clearly, Paul VI joins Hopkins with a common conviction about Duns Scotus.

Moreover, Paul VI’s Marian approach is substantively in agreement with Hopkins that Duns Scotus is “the rarest veined unraveler, be it rival Italy [Thomas] or Greece [Aristotle], who fired France for Mary without spot [Immaculate Conception].” Hopkins’ retrievalist stance is open, flexible, and accepts the problem of being Christian that Michael Ramsey and Paul VI identified, i.e., the standard language of the modern age will not work. Hopkins and other retrievalists from Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, in an Orthodox stance, Gabriel Marcel, Le Monde Cassé, in a Catholic existentialist stance, and Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, in a post Calvinist Protestant stance, respond to the question: can Christianity survive? They are stepping up to answer the modern gap between religion and literature and the need for transcendence that no longer seems satisfiable by forms of Christianity. Such a gap was not there for Dante whose Divine Comedy is not retrievalist but faithful to Catholic doctrine even as he, in Cyril O’Regan’s view, is a theological adventurer. O’Regan means that Dante was using his theological imagination to deal with things that are not excluded by tradition, a genius in stretching Catholic doctrine without breaking, which Vatican II set out to inaugurate anew.

A caveat is fitting here that has to do with the perception of the relation between metaphysics and experience, which Duns Scotus does not separate from each other. Metaphysics is the study of what is, being, as opposed to what is changing, or coming to be, or becoming. Christian metaphysics is prior to personal experience in the assessment of truth. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II confirms this interrelationship of metaphysics and experience. However, he had difficulty with personalist phenomenology as a substitute for metaphysics. From what I remember listening to Michael Ramsey in Oxford in 1983, he was especially attuned to ‘what is’ and ‘what is changing’ in the culture. Similarly, Paul VI’s broad scholarly synthesis was due to a lasting friendship with Jacques Maritain. They understood the arguments from modern and medieval critics of scholasticism who criticized the syntheses of St. Thomas and Bl. Duns Scotus for assigning priority to metaphysics over experience. The critics saw such a synthesis as static and meaningless. What was taking hold were systems assigning the priority to becoming, what is coming to be, what is experienced. The worry for Paul VI was that this shift no longer made tradition, but future novelty, the criterion of theological truth and vitality. The Holy Father worried about the genuine hermeneutic of reform and adaptation in continuity with tradition.

Thirty years later, in Fides et Ratio, John Paul II would diagnose with a phenomenological register and inimitable defense of metaphysics in the intellectual life of the Catholic Church. Benedict XVI followed suit in his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia in 2005. By pointing to a key theological problem of our times, the correct interpretation of Vatican II, Benedict is in line with Paul VI in his own response to an aspect of Hegelian substitution of becoming for the being of metaphysics. All three Popes worried about an incorrect and dangerous approach vs. a genuine hermeneutic of reform and adaptation in continuity with tradition. Another way to put it is in the context of a parasitic scheme, one that feeds on Catholic doctrine but de-figures it, then re-figures it in all kinds of ways that can be a massive violation of Christianity.

Leading with Alma Parens, Paul VI’s genial diagnostic-symptomatic analysis of modernity is incomparable to a reaction formation. The entire Second Vatican Ecumenical Council diagnosed deformations and called out practices that were imbued with an excessive asceticism and/or inhibiting growth. Duns Scotus assists in the rebooting of the ecumenical movement by the Council. Michael Ramsey and Paul VI wanted nothing less than serious dialogue founded on the Gospels and on ancient traditions, which they hoped may lead to the unity in truth for which Christ prayed. The scholar, Paul VI, was confident that Duns Scotus provided the golden framework for launching serious dialogue. The will, according to Duns Scotus, is the power to self-determine and is not moved by something other than itself. The power to initiate is essentially free and object of the will is love. The will is distinct from and more excellent than knowledge that is moved by its object, truth.

In Alma Parens, Paul VI uses the metaphor of the black cloud of atheism which hangs darky over our age and looked to Duns Scotus as a ‘light” by which we are able to understand the object of our experiences and what is trans-experiential and trans-conceptual in them. A black cloud is understandable since he knew of the collective madness and horror of the World Wars and Auschwitz. “The most beautiful ideal of perfection of St. Francis of Assisi and the ardor of the Seraphic Spirit is imbedded in the work of Duns Scotus and inflame it most obviously by holding virtue of greater value than learning. Teaching the pre-eminence of love over knowledge, the universal primacy of Christ, who was the greatest of God’s works, the magnifier of the Holy Trinity and Redeemer of the human race, King in both the natural and supernatural orders, with the Queen of the world, Mary Immaculate, standing beside him, resplendent in her untarnished beauty, Duns Scotus develops to its full height each point of revealed Gospel truth: those St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul understood to be preeminent in the divine plan of salvation.” For academics in particular, Paul VI was advocating study of Duns Scotus’ Trinitarian thought, Christology, Mariology, and ecclesiology. Towards a more pastoral end, he hoped, along with Michael Ramsey in his Anglican way, that Duns Scotus emphasis on true love as practical would be far more than nostalgia and be able to cultivate an open ecumenical field ripe for harvest for the Anglican and Catholic Churches and beyond to the Christian Churches in England. That implied a stance that was more than Anglican and Catholic retrieving and cultivating a respect of the Reformers post Lutheran and post Calvinist theology.

Every age has crises. The thirteenth century Church had a harmony between religion and literature that was exemplified in Dante. He used his imagination to stretch Catholic doctrine without breaking. Dante included the iconic experience of St. Francis of Assisi as he prayed before the crucifix: “rebuild my Church” which set a movement in motion that was developed by his theologian disciples, St. Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus and others. To some interpreters, Athens had destroyed Assisi, but Lumen Gentium at Vatican II makes the case for the opposite. St. Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus are typical of the Franciscan tradition in theology and Catholic theology in particular. St. Bonaventure gives absolute primacy to the Word Incarnate which in modern times is considered typical of the Franciscan tradition in theology and basis for the theory and practice of the mystery of the Church as body of Christ and participation in the fellowship of the divine Persons. It is worth re-reading the precise text even if his style may seem to be long gone to the modern reader. In the Proemium, q.1, to his Commentary on the First Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard, St. Bonaventure gives his understanding of theology as christo-centric. “But the subject, about which all questions resolved in this book turn as on a center and so form an integral whole, is Christ, in so far as this subject (the whole Christ) comprises the divine and human natures, or the created and uncreated, as treated in the first two books….”

Many are surprised to learn that Duns Scotus is critical of this Bonaventurian formula, not because it contains nothing of truth, but because it is imprecise and misleading. The precise medieval text is the Prologue to the Ordinatio, p. III, qq. 1-3 (n.174) Duns Scotus writes: the adequate object (or center) of theology is not Christ, but something common (univocal) to the Word, about whom articles (of the Creed) primarily pertain, and to the Father and Holy Spirit, with whom the remaining theological truths deal.” Given the density of this text, it may not come as a surprise that Paul VI chose the Subtle Doctor also known as a Marian Doctor to explicate the thickness of his convictions about how to implement the ecumenical thrust of Vatican II. It is plausible that he sought to beatify Duns Scotus who had been marginalized for complex reasons. John Paul II, the philosopher Pope, beatified him in 1993.

I end this first part on Paul VI and Duns Scotus with a genial plea for understanding the axiom: potuit, decuit, fecit (it is possible, it is fitting, therefore it is) that his disciples attributed to him. In substance the axiom is Duns Scotus for its structure expresses an argument of fittingness which is often misunderstood as a kind of fallacious illation. The criticism is that the axiom is an attempt in theology to do the impossible task of deducing certainty from mere plausibility. [See R. Rossini, Mariology of Blessed John Duns Scotus (New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2008), 76 fn 16]. In brief, the potuit is for the academic theologian to resolve the intelligibility of any mystery; the decuit, its fittingness and the relevance of the saints; and finally, the fecit, its development to date, the historical path traversed, and readiness for definition.

In a sequel, I will explain Bl. Duns Scotus medieval vocabulary with the help of the contemporary English of Bl. John Henry Newman. Moreover, Peter Damian Fehlner on the thought of these two theologians from Oxford suggests more than happenstance that might have a bearing on the future of Catholic theology. Duns Scotus replies to the desire every person has to know what is most knowable, being as being and its properties. God is not the first subject of metaphysics. The so-called proof of God’s existence is based on an entrance within the heart or self, as it was for St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and Bl. Newman. For Bl. Duns Scotus, to enter the heart means to enter into the self by integrating metaphysics and human experience in the light of the mystery of the Incarnation. What is my relationship to perfect love willing to suffer and in order to suffer must become Incarnate? Paul VI knew that Duns Scotus’ vocabulary is long gone but what is worth retrieving and recalibrating is subject to complex factors that he and Archbishop Michael Ramsey began to navigate. Their joint declaration included matters of practical difficulty felt on either side, which did not deter their prophetic register.

Paul VI discovered Duns Scotus and recommended his thought to searchers. I think we would all agree that the high energy of the joint declaration and Alma Parens are massively underdetermined today. At the same time, are there any doubts about what may have been in the mind of Archbishop Ramsey and the joint declaration, and in the mind of Saint Paul VI? Vatican II is “irreplaceable.”


This photo is the property of Friar Ed and was taken at Notre Dame by a junior professor in photography.

Franciscan Friars Conventual – Our Lady of the Angels Province friar, Fr. Edward Ondrako, OFM Conv. is a Research Fellow at the Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure (Rome, Italy) and a Visiting Scholar at the McGrath Institute for Church Life (MICL), of the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN). He is a distinguished author including his latest work: “Rebuild My Church”: Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of the Ecclesiollgy and Mariology of Vatican II.
In May of 2017,  Friar Ed successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in the field of History of Christianity, at the University of Notre Dame and was awarded a PhD in Theology added to his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Humanities/Humanistic Studies from Syracuse University, Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.), Humanities/Humanistic Studies from Syracuse University, Master of Arts (M.A.), Theology/Theological Studies from St. Bonaventure University, Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) from State University of New York at Albany, and a Master of Theology from St. Anthony of the Hudson Theological Seminary.
(Please note that the photo was taken at Notre Dame by a junior professor in photography and is the personal property of Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv.)