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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fr. Peter C. Phan

From John Allen Jr., news this week that 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.

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: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, published by Orbis.

According to anonymous sources, Phan was contacted by letter in July 2005 by Archbishop Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Amato charged that Phan’s book “is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities” which are in tension with the 2000 document Dominus Iesus.

Phan was encouraged to write an article correcting the problems identified in the letter and to instruct Orbis, his publisher, not to reprint the book. Phan respond in April 2006 -- Q: nine months later? -- "offering to comply under certain conditions, and, according to sources, to date has not had a response."

Phan is also under a local investigation by the USCCB, initiated last May 2006 by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the U.S. bishops:

[Bishop Lori] 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.

The issues at the root of Phan's investigation, according to sources privy to the correspondence, are similar to those of past investigations:

  • 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.
John Allen Jr. goes into further detail in a subsequent article, Why is Fr. Peter Phan under investigation?:
Over a decade ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger laid out with crystal clarity what he saw as the greatest doctrinal threat of the day: 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.

Since that cry of alarm, expressed in a 1996 address in Guadalajara -- [Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America] -- the question of what theological reading Catholicism should give to non-Christian faiths has been brought squarely into the Vatican's scope. Over the last decade, a string of writers and theologians treating the subject in various ways have found themselves facing a Vatican inquest -- including Tissa Balasuriya, Anthony de Mello (posthumously), Jacques Dupuis, Roger Haight and Jon Sobrino. . . .

Peter Phan - Background

  • Peter C Phan: Georgetown U. Faculty Profile
  • Fr. Peter Phan tells tale of a people ‘betwixt and between’ at seminary Alumni Reunion - Conception Abbey Seminary, Missouri - an amusing anecdote:
    “In America there are ‘mobile homes,’” he said incredulously. “That is an oxymoron. In Vietnam, home is roots, it is relationships, it is family. Home is the place where you are born, where you live and where you die. In America home goes 75 miles per hour down the interstate.”

    He drew laughter recalling his first experience with McDonalds. “I saw a guy drive into a McDonalds and order his meal through a window,” he said. “He didn’t know who was cooking his food. And then the people put it in a brown paper bag like it was something to be ashamed of. Then he sat in the parking lot and ate it. This doesn’t ring true to a Vietnamese. A meal is a time for sitting down and sharing family stories.”

Peter Phan - Writings on the Web

  • Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission in the Church delivered at the 2001 Conference and Annual Meeting of the United States Catholic Mission Association in Memphis, Tennessee, October 26-28, 2001.
  • Christianity and Other Religions: From Confrontation to Encounter [Rich Text Format].
    "In the last four decades, many if not most missiologists have rejected the long-held view that the purpose of mission is “soul-saving” and “church- planting”. “Soul-saving” tends to individualize salvation, belittling the other aspects of the Church’s mission such as inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation. “Church-planting” tends to ecclesiasticize salvation, identifying the Church with the Kingdom of God and fomenting rivalries among Christian denominations.

    Instead of this church-centred approach to mission, a kingdom-of-God-centred view has been proposed in which the Church is made subservient to, though not separate from, the reign of God.5 It is the reign of God that determines the Church and its mission, and not the other way round. In terms of priority and intrinsic importance, the reign of God stands at the top, followed by mission, proclamation, and church. This is the order in which these four realities of the Christian faith should be understood and related to each other.6 In this perspective, conversion in the sense of renouncing one religious tradition and joining the Christian Church still is a desirable outcome of mission, but it is not its main goal, let alone its sole purpose.

    Conversion then can mean, in its Latin etymology, “turning with” rather than simply toward something else. Christians and non-Christians can turn together, with one another, toward not a particular religious organization or church but toward the Kingdom of God, and they can and must help each other in doing so. Just as in ecumenism, the model of “returning” of the so-called “separated brethren” to the Catholic Church is no longer adopted as the goal of Church unity, so in mission in the future, especially in Asia where religious pluralism is the fact of life, conversion is not sought as the joining of the Christian Church by, e.g., ex-Buddhists or ex-Hindus or ex-Muslims (though that may happen from time to time, just as the other way round is also possible) but as the “turning” of all humans, together and with reciprocal assistance and encouragement, toward Christ, that is, to the way of life and the values that he embodied in his own person, and the “taking up of his mission” in the service of the Kingdom of God.
    Phan speaks of the "Kingdom of God" in such a manner that oftentimes it is completely estranged from the ideal of bringing the nonbeliever into communion with the Catholic Church. Inasmuch as Dominus Iesus cautions that "it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God," and that "With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity," I can see how the Congregation would look upon this with concern.

  • Praying to the Buddha: Living Amid Religious Pluralism Commonweal January 26, 2007 / Volume CXXXIV, Number 2:
    . . . A theological exchange deeply rooted in the dialogues of life, action, and religious experience is one in which all doctrinal and religious differences must be honored and all attempts at homogenization resisted. It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians. For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God’s self-revelation, the church’s understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful. Pope John Paul’s repeated begging for forgiveness was no empty charade. Might it not be precisely through interreligious dialogue that the church comes to an awareness of its errors and sins-and, with the assistance of people of other faiths, sets out on the path of renewal?
  • This Too, Shall Pass: Commonweal December 21, 2001. Fr. Phan responds to the Mandatum in connection with John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesia, which requires Catholic theologian to "teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the church's magisterium.":
    How can the bishop, whose serious moral obligation is to grant or refuse the mandate, determine with certainty the "fullness" of the professor's communion with the church? How much communion is deemed "full" communion? If the requirement of the mandate is a matter of theological, moral, and canonical importance, should the bishop simply "presume" such a full communion on the part of any theologian, as the guidelines recommend that he should? Does "teaching" rule out critical evaluation that includes pointing out, in an informed and reasoned way, the weaknesses and even wrongness of certain "authentic Catholic doctrine"? What is covered under "anything contrary to the church's magisterium"? Has not the magisterium taught doctrinal and moral errors in the past? Is not the possibility of error implied in the technical term "authentic teaching"?

    If so, how can these errors be corrected if theologians are barred from showing that a certain teaching of the magisterium is not "Catholic teaching" as it is claimed to be? More practically, is an average American bishop intellectually competent to assess the orthodoxy of a theologian's writings?

  • If Jews are Saved by Their Eternal Covenant, How are Christians to Understand Jesus as Universal Savior? ­ A Roman Catholic Perspective, by Peter C. Phan. I can see, for instance, how the following passages might raise the collective eyebrow of the CDF and merit the demand for clarification:
    In light of what has been said above, one may question the usefulness of words such as ‘unique,’ ‘absolute,’ and even ‘universal’ to describe the role of Jesus as savior. Words are unavoidably embedded in socio-political and cultural contexts, and the contexts in which these words were used were steeped in colonialist conquest, economic exploitation, political domination, and religious marginalization. No matter how they are theologically qualified, words such as uniqueness, absoluteness, and universality are not the most effective means to convey Christ’s message of humble service and compassionate love, especially to victims of political, economic, and religious persecution. In particular, in the post-Holocaust era, they should be jettisoned and replaced by other equivalents. . . .

    . . . Furthermore, despite the fact that Christian faith proclaims that Jesus Christ is the fullness of revelation and the unique and universal savior, there is also a reciprocal relationship between him and other “savior figures” and non-Christian religions, since Jesus’ uniqueness is not absolute but relational. In this sense, Jesus’ revelation and salvation are also “complemented” by God’s self-revelation and redemption manifested in other savior figures and non-Christian religions. . . . There is nothing to prevent one from thinking that the Holy Spirit will lead the church to the complete truth through the dialogue with other religions in which he is actively present.

  • Christianity's eldest son: an interview with father Peter Cho Phan US Catholic June 1, 2004:
    In my work I have developed a Christology based on the idea of veneration of ancestors. Some Indian theologians talk about Jesus as a guru, Jesus as a manifestation of God, and so forth. And some even propose the idea that Jesus is also considered as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

    In the ritual of ancestor veneration, the role of the elder son is central. It falls upon him to initiate and perform these rituals. Because I come from a Confucian background, I ask whether Jesus can be described as the first son. In the scriptures you find references to Jesus as the eldest, the first-born, but it's not always in the context of veneration of ancestors.

    Many people imagine Jesus as the high priest, performing the liturgy for the church. In the same way, I imagine him as the eldest son performing these rites of the ancestors, those who have gone before him--his father, his mother.

    The second idea I developed is that Jesus himself is an ancestor. And again, scripture, particularly Paul's Letter to the Romans, has very explicit statements about Jesus as the new Adam, the new progenitor of the human race.

    So he is indeed the new ancestor to all of us. When we Christians today worship Jesus, we do so in his name, but we also worship him directly, we confess him as our Savior and Lord. And so I tied in that worship with the veneration of Jesus as an ancestor. It makes sense to the people who come out of that tradition.

Reactions to the investigation of Peter Phan


  • USCCB Doctrine Committee Faults Book by Father Peter Phan:
    The U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee issued clarifications concerning several aspects of Father Peter C. Phan’s book, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.

    Father Phan’s book uses “certain terms in an equivocal manner” that “opens the text up to significant ambiguity,” the Committee said. It added that “a fair reading of the book could leave readers in considerable confusion as to the proper understanding of the uniqueness of Christ.”

    The Committee, which represents the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on doctrinal matters, outlined its concerns in a statement, “Clarifications Required by the Book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.” [.pdf format] The Committee made the statement public December 10.


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