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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

-- CNS

Fr. Peter Phan
U.S. bishops fault Phan for 'considerable confusion'


Faulting Asian-American theologian Fr. Peter Phan for creating “considerable confusion” about Catholic teaching regarding Christ, the church and other religions, the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. bishops’ conference released a 15-page statement Dec. 10 on Phan’s 2004 book Being Religious Interreligously.

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.

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

The statement caps a two-year review by the doctrinal committee, which is led by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. 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 accuses Phan of having left behind a “specifically Christian” framework in favor of “a more universal ‘religious’ perspective.”

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

  • Jesus Christ as the unique and universal savior of all humankind
  • The saving significance of non-Christian religions
  • The 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 recent Vatican censures of theologians Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis in 2000 and Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino earlier this year.

With regard to Phan, the U.S. bishops’ 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 possibly be saved,” the document states, “but it does mean that their salvation is always accomplished in some way through Christ.”

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.”

Phan has focused on what he sees as a transition from a largely Western, Eurocentric mode of Christianity to a faith more thoroughly shaped by different global cultures, languages and values. He has 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.”

“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 300 essays and 20 books. He was a Salesian and is now a priest of the Dallas diocese.

Phan’s admirers say he’s trying to develop a language that can resonate in a postmodern milieu, in which sweeping claims to absolute truth are greeted with deep suspicion.

“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.

Some theologians are willing to give Phan credit for good intentions but argue that somebody has to draw a line when core doctrines are put in jeopardy.

A Vatican investigation of Phan’s work was opened in 2004. On July 20, 2005, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote that it had found “serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems” in Being Religious Interreligiously. Phan replied to the congregation April 4. He did not enter into the merits of the observations, though he said several were “preposterous.” To date, the congregation has not responded.

At this stage, it is not yet clear whether the statement of the U.S. bishops will be considered sufficient to resolve Phan’s case, or whether the Vatican may proceed on its own.

John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is Allen has written a number of stories about Phan’s problems with church authorities in NCR and in his daily and weekly Web columns on

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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