Rebuild My Church
Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of
the Ecclesiology and Mariology of Vatican II
Fourth in a Series
Edward J. Ondrako OFM Conventual
University of Notre Dame
“Because we are all gifted by God with minds, we are all capable of thinking metaphysically or we do not have a mind,” Fr. Fehlmer would say to dissuade any doubts. That means, simply, that he promoted thinking on the deeper level or secondary level. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things and includes abstract concepts such as being, or what is, vs. non-being. Metaphysics deals with knowing, identity, time and space. In a word, Franciscan metaphysics says the unsayable and manifests the hidden about infinite Being and finite, created being. Because of his exceptional skills as a metaphysician-theologian, it is no surprise that Fr. Fehner differed with recent presentations of the saints. Take the example of his knowledge and love of St. Maximilian M. Kolbe. Fr. Fehlner extrapolated from the high Mariology of the martyr of charity to prove that Kolbe was a Scotist. That insight is not found anywhere else and worthy of the hard work to understand the validity of Fr. Fehlner’s claim. Fr. Fehlner critically engaged modern thinking and took issue with the “interpreter’s theory of how a writer of the past, even recent past, is conditioned by cultural circumstances no longer existent, and to be understood even by himself, needs to be ‘reread’ in terms of a current and diverse cultural ambient.” When the investigator and inquirer engages Fr. Fehlner’s Bonaventurian-Scotistic method with St. John Henry Newman’s personalist method, the convergence is indisputable.
The point is that Fr. Fehlner joined Pope St.John Paul II to defend the dismissal of metaphysics by critics who react to truth as once upon a time and is now anachronistic. The Holy Father respectfully encountered skeptics who view Christianity as repressive, authoritarian and obscurantist, the opposite of true humanism. The Holy Father answered those who have nostalgia for what is perceived as the loss of Christianity and engaged those who would criticize Christianity but not dismiss it totally.
Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Fides et Ratio (1998) by the philosopher Pope St. John Paul II is a unit. Veritatis Splendor is to counter the free fall of truth by drawing attention to certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine that risk being distorted or denied in our age. He saw the secular invasion in the West as increasing with ever more virulent force from its roots in pre-Kantian, Kantian, Hegelian, Marxist thought that was carried forward by Nietzsche and his epigone, Heidegger. Catholic Christian scholars have to study the valid points of all critics who are guests that can become unruly because they know the teachings of Christianity but repackage them. Cultural expression that amounts to thinking that no longer looks to truth, or to “cancel” truth, demands patient inquiry and investigation into regulatory principles of the truth. The Holy Father’s narrative employs philosophy, forms of thought and amplifies culture which recovers philosophy’s original vocation. Fides et Ratio builds upon Veritatis Splendor and concentrates on defining truth itself in relation to faith.
Contours in Fr. Fehlner’s Franciscan theology with Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio imbues his essays. Besides the primacy of Christ and Mary, Fr. Fehlner joined Pope St. John Paul II in writing about Mary as the memory of the Church (Redemptoris Mater). Fr. Fehlner said to me that he was developing a Franciscan theology of Mary as “memory of the Church.” It is not an overstatement to claim that Mary may be likened to the thread that weaves all of the essay together.
Fr. Fehlner’s Marian metaphysics is one example of how he says the unsayable and manifests the hidden in words. E.g. his metaphysics articulates the contrast between what is possible to be known about the blessed life in heaven and a person’s capacity for knowledge and freedom about retribution that follows upon misuse of freedom or seeking pleasure, a good in itself, with a form without God which is dangerous. The fragility, vulnerability, and a certain order of decay accompanies living without God and the secular invasion which accompanies modernity. Knowledge and freedom is often confused by an influx of competing impetuses that need to be clarified. Who is clarifying? Who becomes the referee? Secular modernity reinvents itself with a hostile edge that wants to be the sole referee.
What is the connection between God as love, light, and beauty? In a postmodern world, we do not assume the standard perception of knowing what is not in this life such as Dante’s Commedia. Yet, Dante is more real than we are in conveying an ugly world that we want to be less ugly and a heaven that is tota pulchra. Heaven, hell and Catholic purgatory motivate a person. Difficulty believing in hell as eternal perdition or holding that hell is empty, intimates that there is something like a hellish existence. People are capable of perceiving that because there is a sort of primal fear about being buried alive for eternity. They believe in crime and punishment and the avoidance of evil. Hell, therefore, has a representability more than heaven. Purgatory has a kind of experiential quotient. Purification is taking place for one’s entire life. There are all kinds of relationships where persons have been addicted, robbed, abused, used and destroyed and punishment comes. When a person dies, the thought is that the person is not bad enough to go to hell, but not good enough to go to heaven. Compare St. Bonaventure’s The Triple Way which outlines the means or acts whereby a person cooperates with grace to put order into one’s soul. In life there is a dynamic movement from the purgative way to the middle illuminative way and to the higher unitive way, a dynamic going up and down the ladder of life.
Christians care about actions which have eternal consequences. Catholic Christian regulatory guidance for building up this world now has an eye on the next life. To build up this world matters. God is the supreme object of satisfaction of our desires and that is joy. To Dante, hell was believable and only he could have written about hell with his gift of representability. No one has crafted such a great Christian text that presupposes the drama of perdition or salvation. The Inferno retains its literary reception while the Paradiso remains the most difficult to represent because it is about the afterlife. Dante dares to represent with shocking ambition and almost adds to the biblical text.
Throughout his essays, Fr. Fehlner refers to Kantianism which to his metaphysical theological mind functions as a “virus”in modern thought. He praised the contributions of Kant, but fled from Kantian philosophy that countered Catholic doctrine. “Sanctification of the intellect” was his defense to post-Kantian theological and philosophical thought and radically arbitrary human autonomy. Fr. Fehlner monitored Rahner’s engagement with Kantianism, especially the immanent and transcendent Trinity. His Bonaventurian-Scotistic philosophical and theological critical engagement clashed with Rahner’s Transcendental Thomism. He is unequaled among modern and contemporary theologians in how he incorporates the Trinitarian theology in St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus.
- Does the principle of the “sanctification of the intellect” / and intellectual humility help or hinder your understanding of the metaphysical-theological thinking of Fr. Fehlner?
- Fehlner’s idea is that metaphysics is for everyone with a mind. Does he convince you that you are capable of thinking on a deeper level?
- Fehlner aims to guide how theology ought to be conducted in the future, i.e. with the model of the radically humble will of the Virgin Mother? Do you understand the significance of her will to be perfectly one with the will of God?
 E. J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-19-0].
 P.D. Fehlner, St. Maximilian M. Kolbe: Pneumatologist (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2024), 12.
 When I was teaching Catholic thought to graduate students in a secular university shortly after Pope John Paul II died in 2005, I was welcomed and treated most cordially but told never to make any truth claims.
 The sixth entry in this series continues with reflections on Dante.
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 14, 2021