Reflection by Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv.



 11 OCTOBER 1962 – 8 DECEMBER 1965

12 Days on Pilgrimage in August
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

Vatican II is “irreplaceable.” If one word could capture the quintessence of my experiences of study of Vatican II with Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, OFM Conv., Franciscan theologian, it is that the Council is “irreplaceable.” To him, the Council was thoroughly Franciscan. His claim of the Council as Bonaventurian-Scotistic[1] is anchored in the mystery of the absolute primacy of Christ. Fr. Fehlner’s many works[2] confirm his claim. His life of reflecting, retrieving, and renewing Catholic theology, thought, and practice as a whole was in accord with the mind of the One Teacher of all, Christ Jesus. This is communicated to us and reflected in the living, uninterrupted Tradition of the Church. So far so good. Let us look deeper with love and truth at the controversies which have raged since the Protestant Reformation.

The definition of the reality known as traditio, or in Greek parádosis, belongs to both pre-reformation and post-reformation Catholic theologians. The broad sense of traditio is “a passing on” or “handing over” or “handing down,” the transmission in the Church of the teaching of Christ from the time of the Apostles to eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Lk 1:2). It is taught by word of mouth or letter (2 Thess 2:15), or conveyed as a command to keep away from any not in accord with the tradition that was received from the Apostles (2 Thess 3:6) and to hold fast to what Paul preached (1 Cor 15:1-11). A narrower sense of traditio distinguishes between word of mouth or written word, as Paul does. This is the uniquely inspired Sacred Scripture.[3]

The Reformation occasioned the formal definition of divine Tradition and its relation to Sacred Scripture and to the teaching authority of the Church, the Apostolic Magisterium. These questions were first taken up comprehensively at the Council of Trent, which took a defensive posture in response to the Protestant Reformers. Continuity in a new tone is with the sessions of Vatican II in respect to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. One finds two for one: the Catholic answer in terms of the source or sources of Revelation and in terms of the development of doctrine. Why and how these definitions are a consequence of efforts to rationalize an attempt to reform the Church by the Protestant Reformers turned out to be a particularly disastrous series of events in the western part of the Church. The unity willed by Christ (Jn 17: 20-26) was shattered. At Vatican II, earnest effort toward Christian unity began anew and continues as a difficult yet constitutive post-conciliar issue by devoted participants.

Fr. Fehlner retrieved the all-but-disabled Scotistic tradition by retrieval of the aesthetic character of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Bonaventure’s [4] Major Life of St. Francis, Legenda Major. The reader sees the oral and written Tradition at work. He explicates Bonaventure:  “Theology is the study of Sacred Scripture.” Duns Scotus agrees. Caution! Their view might be taken as an anticipation of the Protestant Reformers, or at least, a partial justification for their point of view. There is a mega-difference. When the Reformers deny the unity of a living Tradition which includes two instruments: one oral, one written, they fail to accept that theology, as the study of Sacred Scripture, meaning Scripture read and explained primarily within Tradition in the broad sense. The study of that living oral Tradition, in the strict sense, is never carried out apart from a study of Scripture. Fr. Fehlner adds with characteristic clarity: “studied in this manner, Scripture is a sufficient basis for theology; studied abstractly, or apart from Tradition, it is not.”

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, chapter eight, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and of the Church,” was Fr. Fehlner’s constant reference. Within he found a confirmation of the Mariology of Bl. John Duns Scotus in relation to its sources in the divine Tradition of the Church. Three “thick” reasons are: first, Duns Scotus makes use of Tradition and the recorded instruments of oral Tradition, other than Scripture, as formal aids to memory rather than to teaching or speculation. Second, the Subtle Doctor[5] makes use of these in his Mariology and in relation to those general themes, especially the absolute primacy of Christ and Christian metaphysics, which are most characteristic of them in relation to their scriptural basis (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and St. John). Third, the way the Oxford theologian[6] understands and uses Tradition in his speculative Mariology has survived without interruption in Franciscan Mariology and Marian spirituality. Development is from Duns Scotus to St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, to Fr. Fehlner. Kolbe is a Scotist.[7]

How the truth of the Christian faith can be recognized, preached and taught, how believers can witness, hand on faithfully, with persuasion, and develop with originality is the dogmatic intention from Vatican II that telescopes Fr. Fehlner’s life and view of “irreplaceability.” In 2015, he was honored as the foremost Mariologist in the United States by the Mariological Society of America.[8] “No one has to think as I do about the Church,” he said. “All my life I have favored the approach to Our Lady by St. Francis of Assisi and his successors.”

The Catholic answer is in terms of the source or sources of Revelation and in terms of the development of doctrine. The Church and Duns Scotus did not have the “development of doctrine” as expounded by John Henry Newman. Vatican II, Dei Verbum did!

Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv. Univ. of Notre Dame


[1] Pope Paul VI, Alma Parens, 14 July 1966, is a retrieval of the subtle thought of Bl. John Duns Scotus, 1265 – 1308. See the sonnet, “Duns Scotus Oxford” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
[2] Happily Fehlner’s works are soon to be released in eight volumes. J. I Goff, ed., Collected Essays of Peter Damian Fehlner (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2023), forthcoming.
[3] Much more may be exposited about the notion of Tradition with many more distinctions. See P. D. Fehlner, “Sources of Scotus’ Mariology in Tradition” in the Scotus Symposium at Durham in Sept. 2008.
[4] E. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC, 2021), 308 – 309
[5] Subtle Doctor identifies John Duns Scotus with unraveling the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
[6] Linking the Oxford theologians, Bl. John Duns Scotus and St. John Henry Newman, suggests more than happenstance. Linking their thoughts might have a significant bearing on the future of Catholic theology.
[7] Insemination or incorporation of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception into the Church and every soul means Mary remembers in them and with them what Jesus said and did. (Writings of Kolbe, 486).
[8] The John Cardinal Wright Award was given to him in May 2015 and he died three years later.

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
October 12, 2022

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