By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops are investigating a book by a prominent American Catholic theologian, Vietnam-born Fr. Peter Phan of Georgetown University. The book raises issues about the uniqueness of Christ and the church, issues that were also behind recent censures of other high-profile theologians, as well as a recent Vatican declaration that the fullness of the Christian church resides in Catholicism alone.
The case confirms that no subject is of greater doctrinal concern for church authorities, including Pope Benedict XVI, than what they see as “religious relativism,” meaning the impression that Christ is analogous to other religious figures such as the Buddha, or that Christianity is one valid spiritual path among others.
[Editor's note: Read more in John Allen's Friday column: Why is Fr. Peter Phan under investigation?]
Critics of writers such as Phan, who offer a positive theological evaluation of non-Christian religions, assert that their work courts confusion on these points, while others believe church authorities are drawing the borders of theological discussion too narrowly.
Phan, a priest of the Dallas diocese, is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. The book in question is Phan’s 2004 Being Religious Interreligiously, published by Orbis.
Sources who asked not to be identified said that Phan received a July 2005 letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith signed by Archbishop Angelo Amato, the congregation’s number two official. It presented 19 observations under six headings, charging that Phan’s book “is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities.”
The letter said the book is in tension with the 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which states that non-Christians are “in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”
The congregation asked Phan to write an article correcting the problems identified in Amato’s letter, and to instruct Orbis not to reprint his book. Phan wrote back in April 2006 offering to comply under certain conditions, and, according to sources, to date has not had a response.
Last May, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the U.S. bishops, also wrote Phan to indicate that the Vatican had asked his committee to examine the book, and that it wanted Phan to respond to an enclosed three-page set of observations. Lori indicated that the committee “feels obliged to publish its own statement.”
In a subsequent letter dated June 20, Lori indicated that his committee’s examination is separate from that of the Vatican.
According to sources who have seen the correspondence, the central issues flagged both by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops are:
- Christ as the unique and universal savior of the world;
- The role and function of the Catholic church in salvation;
- The saving value of non-Christian religions.
All three issues are core concerns of Benedict XVI, who led the doctrinal congregation when Dominus Iesus was published. Those concerns were also at the heart of previous censures of theologians such as the late Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis of Belgium, as well as Jesuit Frs. Roger Haight of the United States and Jon Sobrino of El Salvador.
Phan declined comment on this story. Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, confirmed Sept. 12 that the Committee on Doctrine has contacted Phan, and said “the dialogue is on-going.”