Fr. Peter Fehlner and the Franciscan Thesis

On May 8th, 2018, Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner passed on to his eternal reward. I am personally grateful to God for the gift that Fr. Peter was to me as professor, spiritual father, superior, confessor and friend over the past 26 years, and in a particular way for his love and insights into the absolute predestination of Jesus and Mary according to the teaching of Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan Thesis. Fr. Peter penetrated into the revealed mystery of the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ and its implications more than any person I have known or read and, genius that he was, I can still remember in the seminary how he would often find difficulty expressing in human words these profound truths to the point where his tongue would literally get tied up in enthusiastically trying to communicate these realities to us.

Today, as his funeral takes place in the Basilica of St. Stanislaus in Chicopee, MA, [Fr. James McCurry’s Requiem homily can be viewed HERE] I thought it appropriate to post a conference of Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins on Fr. Peter’s teachings regarding the Franciscan thesis (textual highlights of the conference are underneath the video as well).

Requiescat in pace.

Below is the portion of Msgr. Calkins’ talk covering Fr. Peter Fehlner and the Franciscan Thesis:

  1. The Franciscan Thesis as Articulated by Father Peter Damian

In the course of almost thirty years I have learned a great deal about Mariology from Father Peter Damian Fehlner. He is a disciple and master of that uniquely Franciscan approach to the doctrine of the joint predestination of Jesus and Mary known as the Franciscan thesis. His exposition of this doctrine on the Mariology and scholarly achievement of Father Juniper B. Carol (1911-1990) at the convention of the Mariological Society of America in 1992[1] made a deep impression on me. In introducing the contribution of Juniper Carol, he found it appropriate to treat of the accomplishment of Father Juniper’s master and guide in the field of Franciscan Mariology, Father Karlo Balić (1899-1977):

Fr. Balić’s contribution to Mariology is, therefore, unabashedly Franciscan in inspiration. It takes its cue from the so-called Franciscan thesis: the absolute primacy of the Word Incarnate (Kingship of Christ) and his Blessed Mother’s association uno eodemque decreto in that primacy (qua Immaculate Queen of Heaven and Earth), an association particularly evident at three points in the life of the Virgin: her conception, her cooperation in the work of salvation, her triumph in Heaven or put doctrinally: the Immaculate Conception; the universal maternal mediation of Mary; and her glorious Assumption and Coronation in heaven as Queen of the Universe.[2]

The allusion, of course, to uno eodemque decreto is a shorthand reference to the famous text wherein the Franciscan thesis passed into the papal magisterium in Blessed Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus in which he solemnly declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In that authoritative document Pius stated that God

by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom [ad illius Virginis primordia transferre, quæ uno eodemque decreto cum divinæ Sapientiæ incarnatione fuerant præstituta.][3]

This is to say that from all eternity in willing the Incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Most Blessed Trinity, God also willed Mary. This may seem to be a simple and obvious statement in itself until one begins to realize that God could have brought the Incarnation about in any way that he wished since he needed no one to accomplish it, but he willed to “need” Mary. This position in based on the union of the woman of Genesis 3:15 with her offspring. Together, though not on an equal par, they will overcome the serpent. But first of all, they are willed for themselves as the crown of the material creation. Thus, as Father Peter Damian tells us, the joint predestination of Jesus and Mary is “at the very center of the divine counsels of salvation”[4] and for this reason “the mode of the Incarnation is Marian, not only in its first moment, but in every moment, above all the last.”[5] This statement, then, by Blessed Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus marks the first time that this position, long sustained and taught by Franciscan theologians, entered into the papal magisterium. This theological conviction in fact is not original to Franciscan theologians because, as Father Peter Damian explains, its roots

antedate both Scotus and Francis himself. It is Franciscan, not by reason of origin (in this it is rather Catholic), but by reason of its promotion, of its being rendered more explicit and then more effectively incorporated into the life of the Church, as St. Maximilian Kolbe would say.[6]

The statement that Father Peter makes in parenthesis is very important. This position is ultimately Catholic and we owe our gratitude to the Franciscan family for having consistently sustained it and taught it. Ultimately, as he explains:

Mary in some intrinsic manner pertains as no other person to the order of the hypostatic union, the grace of graces and source of all order and intelligibility both in the economy of salvation and in creation. To this fact and to the special place enjoyed by Mary in the economy of salvation, both in relation to the mystery of Jesus and of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, ch. 8, title), the whole of revelation affords abundant witness (as sketched out in Lumen Gentium, nn. 55ff).[7]

In the first part of his magisterial article, “The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception” in the Mariology volume edited by Mark Miravalle Father Peter laments the fact that treatment of the predestination of Mary has all but disappeared from Mariological study.[8] We are grateful that his study in that volume once more presents it to a wide audience. From the perspective of Blessed John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), whose faithful disciple Father Peter has ever remained, he explains that

Whereas the fullness of grace in Mary is in view of the foreseen merits of her Son, the participation in grace by all others is in view of the mediation of Jesus and Mary. Because of the fact of sin on the part of Adam and Eve, that mediation of Christ, when realized historically after the tragic event of original sin and the fall of the angels, is in fact redemptive as well as saving: preservatively in Mary (and in a subordinate way in the angels who did not fall) and liberatively in all others. In Mary redemption is her Immaculate Conception; in us it is our liberation from sin. In both cases redemption is the term of divine mercy: more perfectly, however, in Mary than in us, and in us dependently on its realization in the Immaculate.[9]

Father Peter goes on to underscore a point often overlooked by the critics of Scotus.

In the joint predestination of Jesus and Mary, the distinctive personal roles of Jesus and Mary are not confused, nor does their coordination with a single work of mediation put Mary on a par with Jesus, any more than the capacity of the blessed to think and love in the mode of divine persons (a kind of coordination, anticipated in the divine indwelling by grace) put them on a par with the divine persons. Such coordination, heart of the supernatural order of grace, rests ever on a radical subordination. In this joint predestination Jesus is ordained absolutely for his own sake, and Mary for the sake of Jesus and no other, not even herself. Yet in virtue of the very grace of the Immaculate Conception whereby she totally belongs to Jesus and to the Church as Mother, she is ennobled in a most personal way, thereby revealing how grace transforms and perfects the person.[10]

While it would be possible to outline Father Peter Damian’s thought on this topic more extensively, I trust that this serves as a useful foundation. One can find more in the vast number of his Mariological works, especially in his article in Mariology

[The final paragraph from the Conclusion of Msgr. Calkins conference:]

After Fathers Karlo Balić, O.F.M., Juniper Carol, O.F.M. and their colleagues of the past, I believe that Father Peter Damian Fehlner, F.I. has done more to make the present generation aware of this Franciscan contribution to Christology and Mariology than anyone else, especially in the English-speaking world. In what is perhaps his single major contribution on this matter he tells us candidly that “treatment of the predestination of Mary has disappeared from Mariological study” , but largely thanks to him that is no longer the case.

[1] Peter Damian Fehlner, “Fr. Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M.: His Mariology and Scholarly Achievement” in Marian Studies XLIII (1992) 17-59.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Pii IX Pontificis Maximi Acta I: (Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck – n. Verlagsanstalt, 1971) 599; Our Lady: Papal Teachings trans. Daughters of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions1961) [= OL] #34].

[4] Fehlner, “Immaculata Mediatrix – Toward a Dogmatic Definition of the Coredemption” in Mark I. Miravalle, S.T.D., (ed.), Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate, Theological Foundations II: Papal, Pneumatological, Ecumenical (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 1997) 285.

[5] Ibid., 284.

[6] Fehlner, “Fr. Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M.” 27. In his last major work, Why Jesus Christ?

Thomistic, Scotistic and Conciliatory Perspectives (Manassas, VA: Trinity Communications, 1986) Fr. Carol carefully documented the sustainers of this position from earliest times.

[7] Fehlner, “The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception” in Mark Miravalle (ed.), Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons (Goleta, CA: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2008) 218.

[8] Cf. Ibid., 213.

[9] Ibid., 225.

[10] Ibid., 226.