Seventh 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

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

I began this series with an Augustinian insight that It sometimes happens that something present is not seen by persons who see other things that are in plain sight; aorâsia (Greek) or caecitas (Latin) City of God: 22, 19). I think that “hiddenness” may architectonically hold together Fr. Fehlner’s life works as a metaphysician-theologian because the development of his life’s thought has a signature engagement with premodernity and modernity. He did not use the term post-Christian culture as I do, but he warned in many ways about a post-Christian culture as I have defined it. I intend to ignite a desire to read more of his essays[2] where his Franciscan theology and philosophy demonstrate the harmony of faith and reason with the conviction of personal experience lived to prepare for life forever with the Trinity. Fr. Fehlner’s Franciscan inspired vision of God has massive intrinsic and extrinsic value for a new world order, its many religions, ways of competing thinking, and cultural and political forces that are hard at work to attack and destroy practices and norms that have traditionally stood unchallenged and presupposed in this land of liberty. Just before he died, Fr. Fehlner confirmed what I had written as true.

“I’m running out of steam,“ Fr. Fehlner replied to plans for further publishing. I realized that we would have to be content with what he left us as engagement with the deep thinking of his entire life. After he died, one modern philosopher and work with whom I thought he had significant commonality on secularism was Charles Taylor. A Secular Age[3] is Taylor’s two band theory of the constitution and nature of modernity. “Scotus and Newman in Dialogue”[4] is Fr. Fehlner’s study of history and extensive commonality with St. John Henry Newman. Fr. Fehlner differs from Taylor, a Catholic. Taylor is a historicist, by which I mean one who focuses on the interpretation of historical events by natural laws without incorporating the supernatural. Yet, Taylor is not hostile to traditional forms of Christianity even as he does not think that the claims of Christianity which might be true can be proved. Even if the claims are proved, Taylor adds that it might not make a difference because in its premodern form, Christianity is no longer viable. There is a gap between Taylor and Fr. Fehlner but fruitful comparisons in their thought on the secular, secularity and secular age have promise.

Can a bridge between Taylor and Fr. Fehlner be built? Taylor’s double band of assumptions are a complex weave of scientific and ethical thought that is allergic to the non-rational while attempting to correct by relinking reason and feeling, thought and desire to compensate for the perceived lack of integration in practices and forms of life that are no longer felt.[5] Taylor’s frame serves as a default which shapes our involuntary responses to our social reality, and influences why we may choose one way to think about the world and to reject another. Our thinking may reflect the laws of physics, or the weight of the information surge on our ethical behavior that is fighting to be relatively independent of natural laws, or recognition of our social world as made up of greed and a kind of runaway narcissism, all of which point to purely rational entities seeking how to construct a thoroughly rational society. Taylor’s is thinking after the pattern of the Enlightenment.[6]

Fr. Fehlner reads history with a spousal vision which is to read with a biblical vision. Christ’s self-giving love is spousal and his love dismantles every lie. Recognition of the sacrificial love of Christ the Bridegroom explodes confidence in myths that hide pride and deception. Fr. Fehlner adds that the Spirit of truth guides us to all truth. Ours is an increasingly complex universe and we cannot be intellectually lazy but have the duty to think about what is true, what is false, and to make judgments. Fr. Fehlner is like Taylor the realist up to a point, but Taylor’s shift of perception, concept and action explains his view of a new order of things. For Taylor, the ubiquity of modernity challenges any effort to control it and invites a rational response to accept it. While Taylor does not attack modernity but recognizes the goods modernity has delivered, he is the philosopher accountant who makes credit and debit columns, and concludes what is worth it and what is not. He leaves up to everyone to decide what has come and what is gone and how to weigh losses and gains. That is how Taylor sees the rotation of the axis of the world as constructing a new world, amounting to nothing less than a visible revolution.[7] Readers and researchers have to decide about constructing the bridge between Taylor and Fr. Fehlner.

What has happened of late in this land of liberty? Tearing down monuments that remind of military champions of the unspeakable institution of slavery is one thing. Decapitating a statue of Christ as in Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami is quite another. The pastor extended the olive branch of reconciliation and invitation to the community to pray for peace. Ken Starr is candid: there simply is no peace for American culture is at war with itself.[8] Starr identifies the sentiment behind the increasingly venomous attacks on faith as the “harm principle.” He means that in the view of millions of secularist Americans, religion is now a bad thing because they reason that religious beliefs and practices inflict harm on individuals.[9] True believers are harming no one, Starr answers.

I have favored Hegelian inspired thinking because Fr. Fehlner and Cyril O’Regan were of one mind. E.g., to the “Protestant Aquinas” the afterlife is a fiction. Rebuild My Church enlarges on Fr. Fehlner’s Scotistic touch in reply. Many Hegelian caveats from O’Regan fill the notes. Fr. Fehlner was always open to new ideas. He took time to evaluate critically, to employ the art of spiritual discernment, thought deeply,[10] and made good judgments. For more than fifty years, Fr. Fehlner exemplified the intersection of cultures and epitomized human life that was dialogical after the Second Vatican Council. I was ordained a priest during the initial euphoria after the Council. When the euphoria began to wane, he demonstrated how to revive ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. The art of understanding ideas was around the promise of truth which worked because of his driving Bonaventurian conviction: the work of Christ in history goes forward never backward. Another image is of the Franciscan ship riding heavy on rough and smooth seas along with the ships of every other religion and culture. Fr. Fehlner studied history as the great teacher that exposes every claim to use dialogue to hide historicism and positivism which misrepresents the shared zones of meaning that overlap among religions and cultures. Fr. Fehlner and O’Regan heard expressions of belief being shouted down and kept “charity for all.”

Mary Immaculate, for St. Francis of Assisi, was the woman among all women in the world who had no equal.[11] Mary, memory of the Church, was Fr. Fehlner’s intuition along with Popes St. John Paul II[12] and Benedict XVI. Fr. Fehlner’s golden years were spent in prayer, reading, writing, and learning to pray, as a response to a word spoken first by God who wants us to be in communion with him. Slowed by arthritic knees, energy and time, these limits turned his thoughts to the resurrection.

Fr. Fehlner loved the works of St. J. H. Newman and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” (1875) captures the terror of a stormy sea that is heading for a certain shipwreck. The faith of the Franciscan nun held terror at bay knowing of God’s mercy before meeting her Judge. “Duns Scotus Oxford” (1879) tells of the one ”who of all men most sways my spirits to peace. Of reality, the rarest veined unraveller; a not Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece; Who fired France for Mary without spot.” “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe” (1883) was Franciscan inspired Mariology for: Mary Immaculate “mothers each new grace that does now reach our race.”[13]

Be thou then, O thou dear Mother, my atmosphere,
my happier world, wherein to wend and meet no sin;
Above me round me lie fronting my forward eye
with sweet and scarless sky; stir in my ears,
speak there of God’s love. O live air of patience,
penance, prayer; World-mothering air, air wild,
wound with thee, in three is lead, fold home,
fast fold thy child.


Study Questions

  • Charles Taylor’s two band theory of modernity: displacement and forgetting; and misremembering (repackaging of doctrine) was spawned in modernity. Thoughts?
  • Hegel and Heidegger are misremembers who we invite to dinner but may be dangerous because they look so much like Christianity.[14] Compare with the Marian principle in Duns Scotus and his gift as the “rarest veined unraveler” to GMH. Neither St. Thomas nor Aristotle rivalled him.
  • With a Scotistic touch, Fr. Fehlner is a rememberer who used memory to be productive, to reformat the tradition, to fortify and to persuade. He forgot in a manner sanctioned by the Holy Spirit. The Scotistic touch is in the poetry of GMH: “Mary mothers each new grace,” i.e. the mercy of God passes through the hands of the Mediatrix of all graces. Thoughts?


[1] E. J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-19-0].
[2] J. Isaac Goff, is the general editor for Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner’s Collected Essays that are in progress and forthcoming in nine volumes by 2022. See J. I. Goff., Collected Essays (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021-2022).
[3] Ibid., Taylor, A Secular Age.
[4] P.D. Fehlner, “Scotus and Newman in Dialogue,” in The Newman-Scotus Reader, E.J. Ondrako, ed., (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2015, canonization issue, 2019), 239-389. This is a jewel of originality.
[5] Ibid. Renewing Nouvelle Theologie.
[6] A Catholic Christian is ever alert to a rationalist component in history. The temptation is to apply it in interpreting the Gospels. St. Augustine’s battles with the rationalists in the City of God are many. An example of rationalism is also present in ancient Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an such as 18:29, from the Matazila rationalists, in distinction from the Ashariyya predestinationists. Compare Whately’s influence on the young Newman at Oxford in the 1820’s to Benedict XVI’s caveat about the dictatorship of relativism. Newman and Benedict target rationalism.
[7] Ibid., O’Regan, “Renewing Nouvelle Théologie.”
[8] K. Starr, Religious Liberty In Crisis, 165.
[9] Ibid., 165-166. Starr is clear that his “harm principle” does not mean the horror of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the result of the terrible erosion of the moral authority of important institutions and inflicted profound psychological damage on countless victims.
[10] Protagoras, for example, is a masterpiece among Plato’s Socratic dialogues which touches on the debate about the meaning of virtue from antiquity. It offers a rich depth of insight into the will which is crucial to Scotistic thinking about the primacy of the will.
[11] St. Francis of Assisi, Antiphon for the Office of the Passion (Off Pass).
[12] Pope St. John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Mater.
[13] The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fourth edition (Oxford; Oxford University Press, rpt. 1990).
[14] Cyril O’Regan, “Renewing Nouvelle Theologie,” in Church Life Journal; McGrath 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 17, 2021

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