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Fransen, Pieter Frans

FRANSEN, PIETER FRANS

Theologian, author; b. Doornik (Tournai), Belgium, Dec. 10, 1913; d. Heverlee (Louvain) Belgium, Dec. 2,1983. Fransen entered the Society of Jesus in 1930 and completed his philosophy and theology studies at the theological faculty of the Society in Louvain. Ordained to the priesthood in 1943, he earned a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1947. From 1947 to 1967, he taught dogmatic theology at the Jesuit Theological Faculty at Louvain and then Heverlee. He also taught alternate semesters at the University of Innsbruck. In 1966, Fransen was named Dean of the theology faculty at Heverlee. He was instrumental in the formation of the Center for Ecclesiastical Studies, a consortium of several religious orders and congregations which collaborated in the educational formation of their candidates for priesthood.

When the bilingual division of the Catholic University of Louvain became inevitable in 1968, the Faculty of Theology, which already included Irish Franciscans and students of the American College, instituted an English-speaking section of the Faculty in 1969. Fransen was named chairman of the newly created English program and ordinary professor at the University, responsible for the areas of sacramentology, ecclesiology, grace, mystical theology and the hermeneutics of conciliar texts. Fransen continued at the University until his death in 1983 but also lectured and taught courses on every continent. He served on the editorial boards of Louvain Studies, Bijdragen, Collationes, Tijdschrift voor Theologie and contributed about 200 articles to various periodicals. The major themes of his writings are found in Divine Grace and Man (Desclee 1962); Intelligent Theology, 3 v. (1969); New Life of Grace (1971). He edited and contributed to Authority in the Church (Louvain 1983).

Theology. Although Fransen wrote in the areas of ecclesiology, sacramentology, mystical theology and ecumenism, his best known works were studies of the Council of Trent and the renewal of the concept of grace. His doctoral work on The Indissolubility of Christian Marriage in the Case of Adultery: Canon Seven of the Twenty-Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (1947) was the beginning of his life-long interest in the critical exegesis of conciliar texts. His general principles of interpretation asserted that in matters of faith, not even the pope or bishops possess the truth. All human thoughts and formulae always fall short of God's fullness. The truth is entrusted to the whole Church and the sum total of the Church's teaching will never exhaust the mystery that is God. God is the only source of authority and thus, all reflection on faith is a ministry, a service of the Word. A council is the Church in action at a given time and a given place in history. A dogma is not an endpoint as much as a new beginning and must be reinterpreted in dialogue with the sensus fidei.

In contrast to the handbooks of theology, Fransen formulated three hermeneutical principles: in dogmatic texts, only the central assertion in a decree or canon is defined, any subsequent interpretations do not have the same authority; with regard to pontifical documents, there is a need to distinguish carefully between declarations of faith addressed to the universal Church and replies given to one bishop or conference of bishops; and, finally, every text should be read in the spirit in which it was written. This attention to the linguistic and historical contexts of a given historical period can free the Church from a fundamentalism which presumes that dogmas are free from historical evolution. Conciliar texts must be subject to the same kind of literary criticism given to Biblical texts.

Koinonia. Fransen's familiarity with the mystical theology of Jan van Ruysbroeck enabled him to develop a positive theology of grace, emphasizing neither redemption from sin nor intermittent actual auxilliary proddings to good and from evil, but communion with the triune God. In this communion, God and man are in an interpersonal encounter and dialogue, through which God divinizes man and man is divinized by God. The leit motif of Fransen's theology of grace is best expressed thus: the more grace divinizes us humans, the more it humanizes us. God and man are not hostile rivals, but friendly partners. It is for this purpose and within this horizon that God created the world in the first place. Salvation by grace is not primarily of the fallen world, from sin, but primarily of the created world, its consummation into celestial communion and glory.

This emphasis on divine-human communion also pervades his understanding of the Church, the Sacraments, and all salvation history. Against a sort of"metaphysical clericalism," whose inherent thrust divides the Church into "above" and "below," Fransen emphasized the Church as koinonia or communion. To understand the Sacraments properly, one must begin with and concentrate on their content, namely, grace. And grace is the communion of the divine with the human. In history, this communion is humanly actualized in what has come to be termed Faith and Sacrament. Hence, one properly always speaks of Faith and the Sacraments of the Faith. Faith and Sacrament are equally incarnations or embodiments of God's saving will/grace in human nature and history. Sacraments are the symbolic, ritual celebrations of this saving grace by the faith-full. These faith-full are to be thought of primarily as the whole communion of the Church, consequently as the individual members of this communion.

Christ is the perfect communion of the human and divine. As this perfect communion was not centripetal, selfish, and for itself, but centrifugal, sharing and for others, so must all Christian, ecclesial, and sacramental reality and realities also be. Fransen's theology is intent upon showing that insistence upon the specialness of Christ and the Church is not inconsistent with insistence on the universality of salvation for all men and women, for "God wills that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:46). Clearly, then, one of his favorite theological texts was from Augustine:

I referred only to the true religion that now is called Christian . For the reality itself, whichwe now call the Christian religion, was present among the early people, and, was never absent from the beginning of the human race: so the true religion which already existed, now began to be called Christian not that in former time it was not present, but because it received this name at a later date" (Retract. 1.12.3; Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne, 217 v. 34, 128).

One best understands both the life and theology of Piet Fransen if one understands them as the illustration and illumination of another beloved statement of Augustine: Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem.

Bibliography: h. e. mertens and f. de grave, eds., Hermeneutics of the Councils and Other Studies (Leuven 1985) 5566 (a full listing of Fransen's publications and a selection of 18 articles in Flemish, French, German, and English on various topics). The New Life of Grace (New York 1969). Intelligent Theology, v. 13 (Chicago 1967, 1968, 1969).

[r. kress]

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