By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
A critical notice from the U.S. bishops on a book by Vietnamese-American theologian Fr. Peter Phan, who writes on the theology of religious diversity, is close to publication, sources speaking on background told NCR today.
The text of the notice has been finalized and sent to Phan, although speaking by phone from his office at Georgetown University, Phan said that the document had not yet reached him. In theory the text could still be revised based on a response from Phan, though Phan said that because of his other academic commitments he would not be able to produce a response before next May.
Given that, it’s likely that the notice from the Committee on Doctrine of the USCCB will appear within the next few weeks. Sources said the content of the notice will largely restate points made in an earlier set of observations sent to Phan by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. bishops in May.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened a review of Phan’s book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue, published by Orbis Book, in 2004. The Committee on Doctrine later launched its own review.
A May 15, 2007, letter from Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chair of the Committee on Doctrine, asked Phan to respond to a four-page set of observations. They were expressed in three points:
•tThe uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the universality of his salvific mission
•tThe salvific significance of non-Christian religions
•tThe uniqueness of the church as the universal instrument of salvation
On the first point, the USCCB observations asserted that statements in Phan’s book “make it appear as if the revelation and salvation that God accomplished in Jesus Christ were similar in kind to what he has accomplished through other ‘saving figures.’” Instead, the observations stressed that Christ “is not simply one among the many founders of religions.”
The observations also stated that Catholic teaching sees non-Christian religions as possessing “certain elements of truth,” but that these elements are “a preparation for the Gospel, not supernatural revelation explicitly revealed by God.” Phan’s book, according to the observations, rejects this view as “an insufficient recognition of the salvific significance of non-Christian religions in themselves.”
Further, the observations asserted, Phan’s book comes to the conclusion that “the evangelization of non-Christian persons is no longer appropriate,” a position it says “is in direct conflict with the church’s commission, given to it by Christ himself, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations.”
Finally, the observations stated that the Catholic church “is a divine institution, the indispensable universal sacrament of salvation, willed by Christ himself,” so that any grace that reaches non-Christians ultimately “must be seen in relationship to the church.”
Publication of the notice is not expected to affect Phan’s status at Georgetown. When news of the review first broke, the university indicated that his employment is secure.