U.S. bishops fault Phan for 'considerable confusion' on Christ, non-Christian religions

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

Faulting Asian-American theologian Fr. Peter Phan for creating “considerable confusion” about Catholic teaching regarding Christ, the church and other religions, the Doctrine Committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference released a 15-page statement today on Phan’s 2004 book Being Religious Interreligously.

Phan, the first Asian-American to serve as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University. He is widely considered a leading bridge between Catholic theological currents in Asia and in the West.

The statement caps a two-year review by the Doctrine Committee, which is led by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Significantly, Phan is accused of “significant ambiguity," not actual doctrinal error, and he is not subjected to any disciplinary action such as a ban on teaching or publishing.

Nonetheless, the statement charges that Phan’s book, published by Orbis, “does not express adequately and accurately the church’s teaching,” and asserts “a distortion in its methodology as a work of Christian theology.”

In perhaps its most negative verdict, the statement at one point accuses Phan of having left behind a “specifically Christian” framework in favor of “a more universal ‘religious’ perspective.”

The Doctrine Committee statement focuses on three key points of church teaching it believes are blurred in Phan’s 2004 book:

•tJesus Christ as the unique and universal Savior of all humankind
•tThe saving significance of non-Christian religions
•tThe Catholic church as the unique and universal instrument of salvation

All three issues have been towering doctrinal concerns of church authorities in recent years, providing the background to such controversial Vatican documents as Dominus Iesus in 2000 and the recent declaration on the Catholic church as the lone “true church” founded by Christ. These issues have also been at the heart of virtually every recent Vatican censure of a leading Catholic theologian, from Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis in 2000 to Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino earlier this year.

With regard to Phan, the Doctrinal Committee points to passages in Being Religious Interreligiously that question the usefulness of terms such as ‘unique,’ ‘absolute’ and ‘universal’ in describing Jesus Christ. In fact, the committee holds, those terms are essential to express the point that Christ has “no parallel in any other figure in history,” in the sense that Christ alone is the incarnate Son of God and lone savior of the world.

“This does not mean that members of other religions cannot possible be saved,” the document states, “but it does mean that their salvation is always accomplished in some way through Christ.”

Other religions, the document says, are understood by Catholicism as “a preparation for the Gospel.”

Further, the committee asserts that Phan’s argument for seeing non-Christian religions as “complementary” to Christianity and “autonomous” could lead to the view that “there is some kind of moral obligation for the church to refrain from calling people to conversion to Christ and to membership in his church.”

Instead, the committee asserts, the church's missionary obligation to seek new members is implied in Christ’s command to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”

This Friday, a new Vatican document, "Doctrinal Notes on Some Aspects of Evangelization," will be presented in a Rome news conference. It is expected to confirm the committment to explicit conversion as the core of the church's missionary efforts.

Finally, the U.S. bishops' Doctrine Committee asserts that Phan would abandon any claim for the uniqueness or universality of the Catholic church on the grounds of the church’s sinfulness. That too, the committee holds, is inconsistent with belief in the church as the “universal sacrament of salvation.”

The 15-page statement is styled not only as a critique of Phan’s book, but as a “positive restatement of Catholic teaching.” Phan has declined requests to comment.

The question of the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions has been the primary doctrinal concern of the Vatican at least since the early 1990s. It has focused especially on currents in Catholic theology in Asia, and its encounter with the great Asian religious traditions.

In a 1996 address in Mexico, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger a confluence of what he described as “the a-religious and practical relativism of Europe and America” with “Asia’s negative theology,” producing a profound mutation in core Christian teachings – with Christ seen as simply another spiritual sage comparable to Buddha or Muhammad, and Christianity as one valid religious path among many others. As Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger has repeatedly underscored the church's traditional teaching on Christ and salvation.

Phan, who draws extensively upon Asian Catholic writers and the documents of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, has focused upon what he sees as a transition from a largely Western, Euro-centric mode of Christianity to a faith more thoroughly shaped by different global cultures, languages, and values. He’s developed an Asian Christology, for example, based upon understanding Christ as both an ancestor and an elder son.

In a nutshell, Phan’s thesis is that God doesn’t necessarily want everybody to be Christian. He quotes Dupuis to the effect that different religions are “gifts of God to the peoples of the world.”

On that basis, Phan defends the idea of multiple religious belonging, meaning that it’s possible for someone to be a “Hindu Catholic” or a “Buddhist Catholic,” drawing upon doctrines and practices of both traditions – though only to the extent, he adds, that the elements drawn from the other religion don’t contradict the truth revealed in Christ.

That point alone would probably be enough to bring Phan into the censor’s scope, but most experts believe it’s two other assertions that have truly set off doctrinal alarms.

First, Phan believes that while Christ may be absolute and universal, the same thing cannot be said of the institutional Christian church. Exclusive claims about the church, he argues, are stained with the memory of “colonialism and religious imperialism,” and “smack of spiritual arrogance and historical blindness.” As a result, he advocates a decidedly low ecclesiology, with assertions of a special status for the church “abandoned, or at least severely curtailed.”

Second, Phan doesn’t shy away from asserting that converting people to Christianity isn’t a top-shelf priority. What’s more important is building God’s Kingdom, he says, especially through solidarity with the poor.

“If people come to church, that’s great,” he said at a June gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Los Angeles. “But if they continue as Hindus or Buddhists, that’s great as well. Our concern is not to increase the number of Christians, but to promote the Kingdom.”

Phan has written more than three hundred essays and twenty books, including a trilogy published by Orbis Books: In Our Own Tongues (2003), Christianity with an Asian Face (2003), and Being Religious Interreligiously (2004). Along the way, he left the Salesians and became a priest of the Dallas diocese.

“He’s the most respected Asian-American theologian in the country,” said Christina Astorga, a Filipina moral theologian at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Phan’s admirers say he’s trying to develop a language that can resonate in a post-modern milieu, in which “meta-narratives,” meaning sweeping claims to absolute truth, are greeted with deep suspicion.

Others sympathetic to Phan argue that Western church authorities may lack the background to appreciate his Asian outlook.

“He’s raising a whole different set of practical and methodological issues not addressed in the European context of even a few decades ago,” said Terrence Tilley of Fordham University, the current president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

On the other hand, even some theologians willing to give Phan credit for good intentions argue that somebody has to draw a line when core doctrines about Christ and the church are put in jeopardy.

“Both the magisterium and theologians are governed by ‘the rule of faith,’ the constitutive truth claims of the Catholic tradition,” said Fr. Robert Imbelli of Boston College. “It is the responsibility of the magisterium to safeguard the rule of faith and, when necessary, to call theologians to accountability.”

A Vatican investigation of Phan’s work was opened in 2004, under protocol number 537/2004-21114. On July 20, 2005, Archbishop Angelo Amato, the number two official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas, informing him that the congregation has found “serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems” in Being Religious Interreligiously. Phan, a former Salesian, is now a priest of the Dallas diocese; Grahmann has since retired, and has been replaced by Bishop Kevin Farrell.

Phan replied on April 4 to Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He did not enter into the merits of the observations, though he said several were “preposterous.” To date, the CDF has not responded.

In the meantime, however, the U.S. bishops began their own inquiry. On May 15, 2007, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut wrote to Phan as chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lori wrote that because the requests of the CDF had “proven unacceptable to you,” his committee had been asked by the CDF to examine the book. Lori asked Phan to respond to a four-page set of observations enclosed with his letter.

Phan protested that in view of his academic commitments he did not have enough time to respond prior to the spring of 2008. Given that, the Doctrine Committee decided to proceed with publication of its statement.

In comparison with the set of observations sent to Phan by Lori in May, the final statement is almost four times longer, but still organized in terms of the three critical points listed above.

A USCCB spokesperson said on Monday that the Doctrine Committee does not know if the Vatican now considers the Phan case closed, or if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might take it up again on its own.


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