Rebuild My Church
Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of
the Ecclesiology and Mariology of Vatican II
First in a Series
Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
University of Notre Dame
“It pleases me that you teach the friars sacred theology, so long as in these studies the spirit of prayer and devotion is not extinguished, as is contained in the rule.” This is a quintessential direct answer from St. Francis of Assisi to St. Anthony of Padua, theologian, teacher, preacher, and miracle worker whose feast we celebrate on June 13. Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, OFM Conventual (1931-2018), from Our Lady of Angels Province in the USA, followed the directive of St. Francis the founder of the Order to St. Anthony with an incredible fidelity to the history of the Franciscan Order especially in face of the massive challenges to faith from modernity, which has begun with the Enlightenment. In 2017 he had read closely my study, Rebuild My Church, about his life. “You have represented the development of my entire life’s thought correctly,” he said. I could not have wished for more and that serves as the prompt for this first in a series of short summaries to share the gift of getting to know and to understand this sometimes enigmatic friar thinker and teacher of countless Franciscan friars and faithful. Our Lady of Angels Province website has generously accepted my offer to make known a gifted and humble friar who is not known as well as he ought to be known.
It sometimes happens that something present is not seen by persons who see other things that are in plain sight. St. Augustine calls this aorâsia (Greek) or caecitas (Latin) City of God: 22, 19). Hiddenness may architectonically hold together The Works of Peter Damian Fehlner and his lifelong scholarly engagement with the relation between premodernity and modernity. For his entire life, Fr. Peter Damian (1931-2018) taught what he believed to be the correct teachings of the Church throughout its history. That encompasses creation, the fall, the prophecies and miracles of the Old Testament that all lead to the Incarnation and sacrifice of Christ. Receiving the Word in her Immaculate Heart, Mary was found worthy to conceive the Creator and to nurture the beginnings of the Church. Fr. Fehlner critically engaged proof from prophecy to show evidence of a continuous intention found in Sacred Scripture. This intention is manifested in the unfolding of a continuous efficacious plan: the wisdom of God and the needed perspective for everyone to see. There is one Mediator who condescends to dwell with everyone. We are the Mediator’s temple and our heart is his altar. God desires the heart that is bruised, humble, and sorrowful. The only begotten Son of God is our priest. His sacrifice is real and truly free. The wisdom of the Cross is not the experience of suffering. Rather, cruciform wisdom is love willing to suffer, which requires becoming incarnate in the form of a servant. St. Francis of Assisi and his theologian disciples could not be further apart from Luther and Calvin on the theology of the cross and its implications for the hierarchy of truths in Catholic doctrine as articulated at Vatican II (UR, 11). The Council intended to open a kind of fraternal rivalry to prompt dialogue and lead towards a deeper realization of the unfathomable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). True sacrifice is designed to unite us to God which makes possible our true happiness. Truth is gifted to the Church through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The truth of the Church is renewed in the Eucharist. The prayer and good works of the Church, despite the stains of sin and scandal, is the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit which enables the Church to be the light of the world. One member is All-Holy, Mary, the Mother of the Church. She awaited the Spirit her Son had promised with the Apostles and became the pattern of the Church at prayer. She accompanies the pilgrim Church’s homeward steps with a Mother’s love until the Lord’s Day.
“Rebuild My Church” is the first critical analysis of the development of the thought of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, for whom the work of Christ always moves forward, never backward. At Vatican II, engagement with modernity began in earnest for the first time with the Catholic Church’s irrevocable goal to build a “bridge” to modernity. As the Council intended, Fr. Fehlner critically engaged thinkers with Kantian, Hegelian-Marxist, and Heideggerian inspired thought that seeks to repackage Christianity. The Council taught that reform and renewal of the entire Catholic church meant that these daunting figures in modernity have to be engaged critically which Fr. Fehlner did both explicitly and implicitly as a gifted metaphysician-theologian. Whoever had the privilege of listening to him lecture and preach, never left with a doubt why he was repeating the Scotistic concept of the perfect will as radically ordered and unitive, and why the ordered will was not willfulness in modern philosophy or ideology, cloaked in freedom. I will identify ideas that are hostile to Christianity in a readable manner because their influence is ubiquitous and seductive. Vatican II taught us to invite many religious thinkers for dinner with whom we will wrestle but we are on the journey together through the storms of modernity. Some guests may have a cruciform pattern, but may become unruly guests.
Fr. Fehlner elegantly crafted his reply to the complex truth and phenomena thrown up by history. Vatican II taught to bring on board from modern life when the context of the believer and history have changed. Fr. Fehlner read the Catholic thinkers from St. John Henry Newman to Erich Przywara, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, O.P., Henri de Lubac, S.J. in the twentieth century and their full measure of direct or indirect reading of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger. Catholic thinkers recognized helpful insights, but overall, read them negatively. Fr. Fehlner was no exception. Famously, he feared the Kantian deformation espoused by Kant for its insistence on the absolute autonomy of the transcendental “ego.” Fr. Fehlner identified why the radically autonomous will of the creature in the thought of Kant was the exact opposite to the radically humble will of the Immaculate Virgin and the unique Marian tradition from the origins of the Franciscan Order. In sum, there is no consensus Catholic view.
Hegel had no time for philosophical modesty and made the claim that his thought summed up all of philosophy. The interpreter may think this is tragic or comic, but Hegel risks everything to insist that all philosophies are oriented towards his. If we think Hegel’s claim is “out there,” for starters, ponder why and how people reinvent themselves today. Focus on the dramatic change about religious liberty during the course of recent political campaigns! Fr. Fehlner knew that incorporation of Hegelian thought foreshadowed the roll back of religious liberty and primacy of conscience. Pope St. John Paul II did not miss the potential and real rollback In Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio, nor Benedict XVI in his panoply of writings. Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti is one of his writings that subtly exposes the historicist sleight of hand in current Hegelian interpretation. What does all of this mean? Hegel’s affirmation of Christian beliefs in the creation, incarnation, redemption, Church and afterlife are merely apparent. History is not to be interpreted as a spousal vision, but only as pedagogy. Modernity unveils the secret of the divine who was always ourselves. “I too am God.” Kierkegaard, the Danish Lutheran father of existentialism, refused to recognize Hegel’s presentation as Christian and thoughtHegel was an imbecile. What this means to a Christian believer today is that Hegel continued and developed Kant’s substitution of the invisible church of rational believers for the historical church of faith, which Nietzsche and Heidegger seemed to be only too happy to follow. Kant’s secularity replaced Hegel’s sublation. The historical Church is not dismissed but refigured as a shadow of the secular.
Our Common Journey
The greatest studies on the central mystery of our faith, the Trinity, are arguably by St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure. Learning about the mind and heart of Fr. Fehlner and “Rebuilding the Church” is to trust verses Hegel who is an extraordinarily learned philosopher who would leave us with nothing. Hegelian braggadocio and its adherents as Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, have oceanic gaps from this quintessential Franciscan’s “deep knowing.” Hegel seems to know little about philosophy and theology between the third and sixteenth centuries. Hegel’s analysis of history strikes no prophetic complaint or echoes of lament of the Psalms. The post Vatican II dialogical world remembers the claim that in Protestant thought Hegel essentially rediscovered the central importance of the doctrine of the Trinity but with no mention of the traditional authorities of the doctrine of the Trinity: Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, nor Luther, Calvin and other Protestant theologians. Hegel keeps strange company with Jacob Boehme (theosophist), Philo of Alexandria, and Valentinus. Creation is necessary and God has a lot to gain from creation of the world. Without the world, God is nothing. Fr. Fehlner reminds us that knowledge of the Blessed Trinity is the most practical of all knowledge for it reminds us of our goal and joy of life, sharing in the love of the Father and Son in the Holy Spirit.
- If we forget the essential elements in a world of lowered expectations, will we remember what Christianity was and is?
- As Christian thinkers, will we unapologetically know where we are and where we stand vs. flight to a bunker mentality that witnesses only to those in the bunker?
- If we allow ourselves to be “reinvented by a hostile secularism,” what will our worldview be? Change in the Holy Spirit is knowing how to productively forget and what to remember.
- While engaging modernity critically, will we intercept subtle efforts to “repackage” Christianity?
 E.J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-18-0]
 Placet mihi quod sacram teologiam legas fratribus, dummodo inter huius studium orationis et devotionis spiritum non extinguas, sicut in regula continetur (EpAnt).
 Bl. John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was the “subtle doctor” and “Marian doctor” who systematically supported the absolute primacy of Christ, a theme that was the driving force for Fr. Fehlner.
 “I too am God” is Ludwig Feuerbach’s skillful affirmation of Hegel’s thought that concludes that Christian beliefs are all myths and that the secret of modernity is that the divine was always ourselves. See Cyril O’Regan below.
 See Cyril O’Regan, “97 Theses on Hegel and His Catholic Thinkers” in Church Life Journal, McGrath Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame (31 Auugst 2020). This is O’Regan’s hypothetical about Kierkegaard.
 See P.D. Fehlner, in J. Isaac Goff, Caritas in Primo (New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2015), Afterword, 311-321.
Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
June 11, 2021