Rebuild My Church
Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of
the Ecclesiology and Mariology of Vatican II
Fifth in a Series
Edward J. Ondrako OFM Conventual
University of Notre Dame
Christianity represses free inquiry, a perennial complaint, is a sentiment that seems to be gaining in unsettling proportions in the twenty-first century. Resentment of any repression of free inquiry is growing toward anyone, in any institution, anywhere in the world. Fr. Fehlner joined modern philosophers and theologians in recognition that an “anthropological shift” is a double gift. It is a gift insofar as recognition of the person, the dignity of the person, human rights and the primacy of conscience. He repeated often: if properly understood, this anthropological shift is to be celebrated because it is a healthy development of what St. Augustine said: theology to be new, must be old, like the Beauty of the Lord, ever ancient and ever new. It is only a “worry” insofar as taking the human person, not God, as the starting point of theology, which is a form of christocentrism exactly the opposite of Bl. John Duns Scotus. Pope Benedict XVI analyzed this contemporary phenomenon as an example of why theology, to be absolutely new and authentically Catholic, has to include the patristic-scholastic approach to theology. That is how genuine reform can be produced and not a novel reform in discontinuity with the tradition, which can only bring a tragic rupture.
Fr. Fehlner recognized that the primary object of theology is the divine being, the Godhead in itself vis-a- vis any consideration of the non-divine, the immanent Trinity, which is God in se, rather than pro nobis. This great revelation is more than being that is common to all that exists. God in se, in himself, is the subject of theology, rather than God pro nobis, for us. This includes what God has done for us, or all else, such as our spiritual experience. Even a beginner’s understanding of Fr. Fehlner’s mind senses his fidelity to St. Bonaventure’s position: theology begins where philosophy leaves off (Breviloquium, part. 1, ch 1, 3). In philosophy, God is known as the conclusion of a study known as metaphysics or ontology whose object is being that is common to all that exists. (As undergraduates we were not a little intimidated by looking ahead to our senior year when we would study metaphysics. Little did we know that everyone who thinks can think metaphysically.) In theology, God, one and triune, is the subject or starting point, which we know because of the gift of this great revelation.
The courses of study in the Franciscan School centered on the Trinity and Fr. Fehlner’s critical analysis which was always oriented towards the theology of Vatican II. The latter Karl Rahner’s Transcendental Thomism was a rewriting of Catholic theology intended as dialogue with Kantian, Hegelian and Heideggerian thought. Rahlner arrived at a new synthesis and Fr. Fehlner engaged it critically with guidance from the Second Vatican Council. He substantiated his worries with references from Protestant theologians as Horst Georg Pðhlmann who considered Rahner’s theology a “Summa” on a par with that of Thomas Aquinas, and Jurgen Moltmann, who named Rahner the architect of a new Catholic theology. Fr. Fehlner agreed that their assessment was amazingly accurate but with a problem. Can a theology be absolutely new and also authentic Catholic renewal? A hermeneutic that broke with the patristic-scholastic approach could never be countenanced. Renewal has to be in continuity with tradition.
Fr. Fehlner analyzed why what may seem to be dead and deadening in the scholastic method, such as the vocabulary of St. Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus, is actually vivifying in its exactness and clarity when theologizing about the great mysteries of faith. His respect for the range of questions and valid insights of Rahner, as an exemplar who was recognized by contemporary Protestant theologians, was generous. He and Rahner incorporated the same anthropological shift postulated by theology that claims to seek for theology to be vital rather than dead and deadening. Rahner differs significantly from Fr. Fehlner’s understanding of and amplification of the Franciscan and Thomistic Schools.
The starting point for Fr. Fehlner, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is the Trinity. For Rahner as a transcendental thomist, the starting point is something initially transcending understanding, a noumenon, or as Fr. Fehlner says candidly, intellectually speaking, nothing. Here is where we have to think deeper for Fr. Fehlner is leading us to understand the kind of nothing that is totally in agreement with the transcendentalism of Immanuel Kant (d. 1804). Kant’s authentic insights differed hugely from Bl. Duns Scotus where Kant insisted on the absolute autonomy of the transcendental “ego” and radically arbitrary, irrational indifference of the categorical imperative of the human will in its transcendental lunge toward the infinite noumenon. (Be certain to understand this key concept!) Fr. Fehlner was blunt that the Kantian view was incredibly oppressive, while the Scotistic answer was truly liberative. The primacy of the will with its object, love, was the key to personal freedom for Bl. Duns Scotus.
To Rahner all theological understanding is consequent on and conditioned by the spiritual experience of absolute transcendence, which Rahner identified as divine revelation. Knowledge of this revelation is consequent upon this primitive experience. Personal experience transcends the empirical consciousness and consists in being grounded in what Kant calls the autonomous will and transcendental or extra-mental noumenon called God or Father beyond all perception or conceptualization.
Fr. Fehlner engaged critically the multiple layers of questions and answers with spiritual depth. Many try to navigate what the Transcendental Thomists call: union with God, the meaning of Christ on the Cross, human freedom, Kantian duty, and the denial of duty as mortal sin. Fr. Fehlner challenged Transcendental Thomism as the refusal to give oneself unconditionally to the Father as Jesus did on the Cross, a denial of duty as his disciples, and, as such, the only mortal sin strictly speaking. Fr. Fehlner took a competing view with the Transcendental Thomism in the theology of the Trinity of Karl Rahner. The critical problem of modern theology is the relation between faith and self-conscious experience in an evolving world. The lines of the metaphysic inherent in Revelation Is the basis of patristic-scholastic metaphysics. Rahner’s lines are along those of modern German idealism. This is the problem.
As Fr. Fehlner got older, those who were privileged to be with him more often, discovered more consciousness of life’s end and its summing up by standing in judgment before Christ. That moment is as an unsubstitutable subject standing before God. One could feel his longing for home, the ecstasies of St. Francis as he was awaiting Sister Death, and eternal life with all of the hints of what this meant in the thought of the Franciscan saints: St. Bonaventure, Bl. Duns Scotus, and St. Maximilian Kolbe. Transcendental Thomism provided more hints of existential pathos underlying efforts to represent death, judgment, heaven and hell throughout Christian history. (I turn to Dante’s Commedia in the next essay.)
- Does the “anthropological shift” for theology to be vital, not dead and deadening, move you? Does a more personalist shift inspire your part in the future work of the Church?
- Has Fr. Fehlner engaged fairly with Rahner on the contributions and limitations of Rahner’s writing on the Trinity and Transcendental Thomism?
- Is desire to know, trust and love more of the theology of Vatican II long gone? Do the developments in the writings of Popes Paul, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis guide your personal quest for truth, deeper faith and skills in critical reasoning?
 E. J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-19-0].
 Pope Benedict XVI, “Christmas Address to the Roman Curia,” 2005.
 “Neo-Patripassionism from a Scotistic Viewpoint,“ p. 40. See Rebuild My Church, chapters five and six.
 P.D. Fehlner, Karl Rahner: Un Analysi Critica (Siena: Cantagali, s.r.l., 2009, rpt. J.I. Goff, ed. P.D. Fehlner, Collected Essays, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021-22), forthcoming. This critical essay is in English.
 See John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1993. 184 endnotes present his gifts of critical engagement with modernity.
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 15, 2021