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Friday, December 14, 2007

USCCB Doctrinal Commitee Educates Peter C. Phan on the Gospel

A welcome update to the investigation of Fr. Peter C. Phan, which we reported on in September (Against The Grain ). This week, the 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.

The Doctrinal Committee points out that Father Phan actually did not respond to their invitation to provide needed clarifications to his book, thus necessitating the committee to act on their own, "since, at the very least, the use in the book of certain terms in an equivocal manner opens the text up to significant ambiguity and since a fair reading of the book could leave readers in considerable confusion as to the proper understanding of the uniqueness of Christ, it is necessary to recall some essential elements of Church teaching. The crux of the issue is that Being Religious Interreligiously does not express adequately and accurately the Church's teaching."

In addition to a deficient presentation of the salvific role of Jesus Christ, the committee expresses their concern over Phan's view of the salvific role of non-Christian religions:

The book defends the view that "the non-Christian religions possess an autonomous function in the history of salvation, different from that of Christianity," and that "they cannot be reduced to Christianity in terms of preparation and fulfillment." The book asserts:
Religious pluralism . . . is not just a matter of fact but also a matter of principle. That is, non-Christian religions may be seen as part of the plan of divine providence and endowed with a particular role in the history of salvation. They are not merely a "preparation" for, "stepping stones" toward, or "seeds" of Christianity and destined to be "fulfilled" by it Rather, they have their own autonomy and their proper roles as ways of salvation, at least for their adherents.
The book contrasts what it sees as the Second Vatican Council's deliberate decision to refrain "from affirming that these religions as such function as ways of salvation in a manner analogous, let alone parallel, to Christianity," with the position of certain contemporary theologians, among whom the author includes himself. These theologians believe that it is necessary to go beyond the Council's position and to assert “that these religions may be said to be ways of salvation and that religious pluralism is part of God’s providential plan.”
The committee's response to this tripe bears quoting at length:
Since the book as a whole is based on the idea that religious pluralism is indeed a positively-willed part of the divine plan, the reader is led to conclude 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. According to the book, religious pluralism "may not and must not be abolished" by conversion to Christianity. The implication is that to continue the Christian mission to members of non-Christian religions would be contrary to God's purpose in history. Such a conclusion, instead of being a "theologically more adequate equivalent" of Church teaching, is in fact an alteration that blurs Church teaching. At this point the autonomy of non- Christian religions has eclipsed their relatedness to Jesus Christ.

21. This call for an end to Christian mission is in conflict with the Church’s commission, given to her by Christ himself:"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Moreover, if one accepts that Jesus Christ is in fact the one affirmed by Christian faith as the eternal Son of God made man, through whom the universe was created and by whose death and resurrection the human race has the possibility of attaining eternal life, then it is incoherent to argue that it would somehow be better if certain people were not told this truth.

22. The Church's evangelizing mission is not an imposition of power but an expression of love for the whole world. The very fact that other religions do not possess the fullness of the Father’s truth revealed in Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Father’s love that is poured out in the Holy Spirit ought to compel Christians, in their love for all men and women, to share their faith with others. To offer others the gift of Jesus Christ is to offer them the greatest and most valuable of all gifts, for he is the Father’s merciful gift to all. Thus there is no necessary conflict between showing respect for other religions and fulfilling Christ's command to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations.

The USCCB's Doctrine Committee consists of
  • Most Rev. William E. Lori (Chairman), Bishop of Bridgeport;
  • Most Rev. Leonard P. Blair, Bishop of Toledo
  • Most Rev. José H. Gomez, Archbishop of San Antonio
  • Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, Bishop of Worcester
  • Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli, Bishop of Paterson
  • Most Rev. Allen H. Vigneron, Bishop of Oakland
  • Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington

John Allen Jr. provides the background to the Bishop's investigation of Fr. Phan, which came as as pecific consequence of Phan's neglect to honor requests from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to provide clarification of his positions:

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. [...]

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.

Peter C. 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.

* * *

On a related note, on December 14th, 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization", "devoted principally to an exposition of the Catholic Church's understanding of the Christian mission of evangelization, which is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ" and reasserting the Church's 'Missionary Mandate'. Zenit News provides a summary; the complete text is available here [.pdf format, thanks to Rorate Caeli].


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