Sixth 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

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

“Every creature is the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection” (LS, 77). With these words in Laudato Si, Pope Francis reflects the Franciscan inspired traditions about all of creation. His universally respected encyclical echoes Dante about “the love which moves the sun and stars” (Paradiso, canto xxxiii.)

In striking contrast, Friedrich Willhelm Nietzsche (d. 1900), the advocate of the “will to power,” was as far removed as imaginable from the primacy of the will of Bl. John Duns Scotus that is oriented towards love. Fr. Fehlner repeated the thought of Bl. Duns Scotus without ceasing in an era described by Ken Starr as one of “open hostility to communities of faith.”[2] Nietzsche was a contemporary of St. John Henry Newman (d. 1890; beatified 2010; canonized 2019). As Anglican and Catholic for equal parts of his life, Newman built up the Church in the throes of hostilities from rationalists. Unlike St. Newman, Nietzsche had no conviction that Christianity can remake itself to align with modernity, and, even if it could, this would not be a good thing. He was constitutively anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. His follower, Martin Heidegger’s (d. 1977) attitude towards Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular was dismissive.[3] Yet, Heidegger seemed unable to leave entirely the Christian notion of the saint. In the mode of Nietzsche, Heidegger recalls the Christian saint when he is describing the hero. What might he have thought of the vocation of St. Francis of Assisi? Of the Virgin Mary’s be it done to me according to your word”? It is all the more puzzling that Heidegger was critical of Hölderlin for his interests in Mary.

As I reread Dante’s Commedia, I can attest to the Franciscan philosophy and theology that suffused the truth that Dante set forth in the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso with poetry that has never been surpassed. Dante is absolutely a person of the Church and theological tradition who seems to believe that poetry is the discourse of discourses. Fr. Fehlner’s spiritual imagination aligns with Dante. He builds a bridge to the documents and decrees of Vatican II. Pope St. John XXIII called for renewal of the entire Catholic Church which included amplification of the gift of the arts.

What is the standard perception of a faithful person who will go to heaven? How does one integrate a set of concepts that may be applied to everything that is? What is the mode of knowledge a person will have when not in this earthly life? What is divine beauty, heavenly peace, and love? A post-modern world does not assume that the answer is divine beauty alone. Dante’s broad and comprehensive learning included the science that was known. He held dearly to heavenly peace that will contrast with the normal operative behavior that takes place in this earthly life.[4]

In the Inferno, no one is at peace; and, in the Purgatorio, a person is purified to be worthy of heaven. A poem is a set of motivations. If a person is motivated, why would they want heaven? Why would Christians believe in heaven and hell? Even though the early Protestant reformers objected, Catholics believe in Purgatory. There is a certain silence in Sacred Scripture about the after life except for Matthew 25 and intimations in Ezekiel. By the end of the second century, Christians were believing in heaven and hell. In Judaism, it was not a given and debate remains. Christians decided on an afterlife commensurate with our behavior in this life. Dante’s genius is to represent eschtological states. Why believe? Why want heaven badly?

Dante assumes interest in heaven and this motivates as well as hell motivates. Dante talks about those in hell and suggests mortal and venial sin. Certain characters he puts in hell are worse than others because of their sins of envy, lust, anger, and more. These sins may seem arcane and cute but they ask: what is deadly? It may be a deadly sin of envy, for example. A sin may not be mortal, but certain kinds of characters are not oriented towards good and their choices are self over God. Those characters will go to hell according to Dante. And he argues why his position is not outrageous.

Dante’s ambition was to be a rival to Virgil who by consensus was the greatest Latin poet in the epic about the founding of the nation. Dante sought a parity with Virgil between what he wanted to achieve and what he achieved. The ambition of the Commedia was to outbid Virgil with a larger theme that seemed at once more important and impossible. Dante’s Commedia has a shocking ambition as a text because there are no predecessors in expressing eschatological states as poetry. Everything in the poem is elsewhere in the Western theological tradition and Dante was well versed in the thoughts of St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, Joachim of Fiore, St. Bernard and others. Dante was somewhat limited by the Eastern tradition and what the West will allow from the Eastern tradition.

Dante served as a backdrop for Fr. Fehlner’s Franciscan aesthetic sensibilities and knowledge which reflected his engagement with the theology and science that developed during the twentieth century. Fr. Fehlner’s engagement with Transcendental Thomism and how it informs Karl Rahner’s developing thought on the mystery of the Trinity reflected his charity and deepest concern of the shipwreck he saw of many souls, consecrated persons, and those who form the youth.

Productive forgetting and remembering were integral to Fr. Fehlner’s theological progression. Always in step with the theological knowledge available, his ground was Franciscan philosophy and theology and St. Newman’s development of doctrine which aligns with the entire thrust of development at Vatican II. Transcendental Thomism and Rahner’s efforts to dialogue with Kantian thought in particular, what Rahner calls transcendental Christology as the starting point of theology, turned into a disaster for Fr. Fehlner. Nonetheless, I am certain that Fr. Fehner would agree that as Dante ought not to be dismissed for placing Joachim of Fiore, who was formally condemned by Lateran IV in heaven, neither ought Rahner be condemned or dismissed. Charitable engagement is the intention of Vatican II and the Council does not condemn or leave anyone out.

Fr. Fehlner was a realist in the sense of Dante the realist. Dante was born in 1265, the same year as Bl. John Duns Scotus,[5] who died in 1308. Dante knew political violence, was condemned to death, and exiled. He was writing the Inferno by 1314. The Purgatorio was known to be circulating by 1316. The first cantos of the Paradiso were circulating soon after. What Dante does in the Commedia is a new revolution as is Charles Taylor’s conclusion in A Secular Age.[6] Taylor agrees that Christian believers will be survivors and remnants of a historical world that has had its day. He is not hostile to traditional forms of Christianity but thinks that in its premodern form Christianity will remain but no longer be viable.

Dante’s thought on the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the Trinity enables him to walk a tightrope. Jacapone da Todi and Joachim were formally declared heretics which gave Dante a poetic rationale to put both in heaven. Closely related is his visit with Virgil to heaven and focus on peace that overcomes rivalries. An inventor and discoverer, peace became the truth treasured by Dante. He joined and arrogated the rights of literature to say what cannot be said with the theological tradition. He had a free radical creativity that is enviable as Taylor in the modern era. Can we build a bridge between them?

Dante’s worldview would set up thought-provoking limits to Charles Taylor’s two band theory of modernity. If I understand Taylor correctly, the first band is about displacement and forgetting, while the second band is about misremembering. Whether Dante might agree with those who align with the view that Hegel and Heidegger are consummate misremembers or repackagers[7] of Christianity, the answer is not hard to guess. Each is writing in the context of what is happening in his world.

The rise of the cancel culture alerts freedom-loving Christians to keep a close eye on exactly what is happening. Christians who dramatically change their tunes appear as a sea change in culture. Fr. Fehlner worried about persons who reinvent themselves to such an extent that they become dangerous to religious practice, forms of life, and especially religious liberty. He was the consummate rememberer. He seemed to internalize Henri de Lubac’s worry that Joachimism anticipated Hegelian-Marxism in its many forms. I am convinced that persons who reinvent themselves may exhibit more than a little worrisome Hegelian thinking in the remake.

Study Questions

  • Joachimism was formally condemned in 1215 for its errors pertaining to the Holy Spirit. By 1260 the Minister General St. Bonaventure had disciplined friars who accepted it uncritically, especially for interpreting Joachim as predicting the coming of St. Francis. Dante put Joachim in heaven. Thoughts?
  • Henri de Lubac’s innovative and ingenious insight is that Hegelian-Marxism is a contemporary version of Joachimism. Thoughts? Inviting in new ideas needs to be Christianly regulated. What are the consequences for failing to regulate?
  • In modern Franciscan studies, Fr. Fehlner’s thought and example is in a class of its own. He recognized the thinning of religion, several external causes, the temporization by authority to respond justly, and inviting in ideas that had to be regulated Christianly and consequences when the invitees lacked competence to regulate. Thoughts?


[1] E. J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-19-0].
[2] Ken Starr, Religious Liberty in Crisis: Exercising Your Faith in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Encounter Books, 2021), 173. The publisher states: “He examines the ways that well-meaning government action sometimes undermines the religious liberty of the people, and how the Supreme Court has ultimately provided us protection from such forms of government outreach.” I couldn’t agree more and recommend study of Constitutional Interpretation and Civil Liberties to protect the rights of religious expression and to take a more active role in advancing the cause of liberty
[3] C. O’Regan, “The Anti-Catholicism of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks,” in Church Life Journal, McGrath Institute of Church Life (January 14, 2019).
[4] See St. Augustine, The City of God for the inexhaustible doublet of the heavenly and earthly cities.
[5] Bonaventurian and Scotistic inflections abound in the Paradiso. E.g., “The good, the object of the will, is fully gathered in that Light; outside that Light, what there is perfect, is defective” Canto xxxiii, 103-105. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 540.
[6] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
[7] Cyril O’Regan, “Renewing Nouvelle Theologie,” in Church Life Journal; McGrath-Cavadini Institute for Church Life; University of Notre Dame (January 22, 2019).

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 16, 2021

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