Third in a Series by Friar Ed

Short Essays on the work of +Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, OFM Conv.

Rebuild My Church[1]
Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of
the Ecclesiology and Mariology of Vatican II

 Third in a Series
Edward J. Ondrako OFM Conventual
University of Notre Dame

Fr. Fehlner taught his students to think deeply in order to understand transcendence and truth. For example: does God suffer with our sufferings; what is liberalism in religion? One of his best answers was how St. John Henry Newman fought liberalism in religion all his life. Carrying this forward, iIt is one thing to chart the free fall of transcendence and truth which begins in the mid seventeenth century. It is quite another thing to climb out of the precipice or to chart a way beyond its growth into the twenty-first century. Fr. Fehlner does not leave us in the precipice. Thought patterns from his multiple essays assist us in a very readable and persuasive manner on how to climb out.

Fr. Fehlner’s works say the unsayable and the hidden. The Bonaventurian-Scotistic primacy of the will has its object of love, and the intellect, its object, truth. To love in truth is the driving force in removing violence, overcoming rivalry through peace, showing the harmony of faith, and the understanding of doctrines as the Trinity, Christ, Mary, Creation, sin, forgiveness and merit. To say the unsayable with a Franciscan voice never grows old. St. John Henry Newman aligns with the Franciscans: “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.“[2]

Fr. Fehlner is a faithful interpreter of the goals of life set forth in St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum and his method accompanying the Itinerarium, i.e. to love and to live by truth in the De Triplici Via. Pope St. John Paul aligns when he quoted the Prologue of the Itinerarium in Fides et Ratio n.105. Let theologians remember “to be on guard against supposing that reading is enough without fervor, speculation without devotion, research without wonder, carefulness without any delight, labor without piety, knowledge without charity, understanding without humility, study without divine grace, clarity without divinely inspired wisdom.”[3]

Does God suffer? In the 1960’s there was almost no interest, but today, the question has much interest. Ancient and contemporary patripassion, the term for suffering and God, drew me to Fr. Fehlner’s clarifications of an idea with little traction during his first years of teaching but has taken off. Fr. Fehlner saw deeply into the question: does God suffer if we suffer? Human beings may suffer beyond what is describable, such as POW’s. To Fr. Fehlner, St.Maximilian Kolbe was not only a “martyr of charity,” as Pope St. John Paul II described him, but The Theologian of Auschwitz.[4] Does God suffer with POW’s?

The answer is part of Fr. Fehlner’s theological clarity and amplification of St.Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus who became my preferred resource in Rebuild My Church.[5] Consider the gift of modernity which is viewed positively by some and negatively by others, and a mixed reaction by still others. The twilight of modernity, or post-Christian culture is part of God’s loving providence that is captured accurately by St. Bonaventure’s aphorism: the work of Christ does not go backward, but forward.

Patripassionism is aligned with contemporary relativism, i.e. the false assumption that the truth reveals itself equally in different truths, even when they contradict each other. The erroneous conclusion is that there is no objective truth and everything is reduced to opinion, the freefall of truth. At the time of his election in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI immortalized the post-truth problem with his term the “dictatorship of relativism.” In 2010, he beatified John Henry Newman. Pope Francis canonized Newman on October 13, 2019. St. Newman’s hands-on approach proves him a saint for our times.

The doctrinal truths at the heart of the matter center on why Christ can only suffer in his humanity, but not in his divinity. This cannot be passed over for it has everything to do with the contemporary post-truth leaning world. The Son of God became incarnate willingly in order to suffer. This truth is absolutely central to our reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, the foundation for everything Catholic Christians believe. It is why Fr. Fehlner bristled with the interpretation of the Trinity that became associated with Transcendental Thomism, Karl Rahner, S.J., and his students. Meditation on the mystery of the Trinity leads to only one conclusion that it is impossible for the Divine Persons to suffer, except metaphorically.

Fr. Fehlner answers from St. Francis of Assisi as he prays before the crucifix of San Damiano with copious tears. The triumph of the Cross, understood in a Franciscan sense, is not suffering but love that is willing to suffer and in order to suffer must become incarnate. In antiquity, the Church understood the difference and made a judgment that patripassionism was a heresy. In modernity, a new form of the ancient error is in Hegelian inspired thought on God and suffering. Hegelian evolutionary thinking devalues the truth about suffering and God. Further critical analysis by Fr. Fehlner will continue..

Liberalism in religion or the belief that there is no objective truth to any religion but only opinion was the line in the sand for John Henry Newman. Fr. Fehlner found his thought precise in diagnosing a problem plaguing modernity. If coupled with a Hegelian interpretation that God suffers, not only does liberalism in religion misrepresent, but, it misremembers or repackages objective truth. Hegel said his conceptual grid could account for everything that happened and would happen. Hegelian thinking links with thinking that everything is an opinion. Remember that upon being named a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, the central thesis of Newman’s acceptance speech in May 1879, the Biglietto, was on liberalism in religion. This exemplifies parallels between the works of St. John Henry Newman and Fr. Fehlner. His Bonaventurian-Scotistic originality is thoroughly documented in: “Scotus and Newman in Dialogue.”[6]

Contemporary neo-patripassianism betrays lack of confidence in doctrinal definitions of why it is impossible for the divine Persons to suffer. Christ only suffers in his humanity. Franciscans preach that Christ became human willingly in order to suffer out of love not out of necessity. This is the central thesis to Fr. Fehlner’s teaching. The reader will discover a progressive illumination why St. John Henry Newman’s writings have considerable similarity with the thought patterns, theological and philosophical, of Bl. John Duns Scotus.[7] Furthermore, the similarity is in Fr. Fehlner’s amplification for today’s readers.

Study Questions

  • Does God suffer? Why is contemporary patripassionism dangerous to faith in our Savior? Can I say that I too am God? Why or why not? (Think of Hegel in the first essay.)
  • Why did St. John Henry Newman devote his life to counter liberalism in religion, the view that there is no objective truth and all religions are merely matters of opinion? Does it matter in modernity?
  • What happens to faith and reason without objective truth, that everything is only opinion? Can you understand the free fall of transcendence and truth? (Think of Pope St. John Paul II)


[1] E. J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-19-0].
[2] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845, London: uniform edition, 1900).
[3] Prologus, 4: Opera Omnia, Florence, 1891, vol. V. 296. Itinerarium mentis in Deum introducens eundem monet “ne forte credat, quod sibi sufficiat lectio sine unctione, speculatio sine devotione, investigatio sine admiratione, circumspectio sine exultatione, industria sine pietate, scientia sine caritate, intelligentia sine humilitate, studium absque divina gratia, speculum absque sapientia divinitus inspirata.” In the Protagoras, Socrates had no room for akrasia or weakness of will. Rather, the young have the duty to learn to philosophize and the old to philosophize in order not to grow weary. Fr.Fehlner and John Paul II would agree and apply the principle to theology.
[4] See P. D. Fehlner, The Theologian of Auschwitz (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Press, 2020).
[5] See Rebuild My Church: Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of the Ecclesiology and Mariology of Vatican II (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC, 2021).
[6] P. D. Fehlner, “Scotus and Newman in Dialogue, “ in The Newman-Scotus Reader, ed. E. Ondrako (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2015, rpt, canonization issue 2019), chapter seven. This study was written to assist the reader to understand the key elements of Scotistic thought that support Fehlner’s claim for striking similarities in the thought patterns of Duns Scotus and Newman. The originality of Fehlner’s discovery is an invitation for further inquiry and investigation.
[7] P.D. Fehlner, “Scotus and Newman in Dialogue,” in E. Ondrako, The Newman-Scotus Reader: Contexts and Commonalities (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2015, rpt. Canonization Issue, 2019), 239-389. See 383-84.


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 13, 2021

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