The Vatican Investigates Prominent Theologian Fr. Peter Phan

The Vatican Investigates Prominent Theologian Fr. Peter Phan

Fr. Peter Phan is a prominent Vietnamese-American theologian. He is currently a professor at Georgetown University. In 2001 he was the president of the Catholic Theological Society of American. He has written over 300 essays and twenty Phan books. He is the most respected Asian American theologian in the U.S. but his 2004 book, Being Religious Interreligiously, has caused a Vatican investigation of his writings.

As explained in the September 28th issue of the National Catholic Reporter, Phan believes that while Christ may be absolute and universal, the same thing cannot be said of the institutional Christian church. The claims that the Church is exclusive, he says, "smack of spiritual arrogance and historical blindness." Phan also believes that converting people to Christianity shouldn’t be a top shelf priority. What he thinks is important is building God’s kingdom especially through solidarity with the poor. According to the NCR Phan said in a recent speech:

"If people come to church, that’s great. 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."

Western Church authorities argue that there has to be a line when core doctrines about Christ and the Church are put in jeopardy and to call theologians to accountability in safeguarding the faith.

Given Pope Benedict’s recent claim of no salvation outside the Catholic Church (7/11/07) it should be a surprise that he is under investigation. In addition, over a decade ago, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), said he thought the greatest doctrinal danger was Western philosophical relativism with Asian religious pluralism. In other words the result of a coming together of the tolerance of Asian religions for other religions and Western relativism which Ratzinger thought would result in the watering down of doctrines of faith taught by the Catholic church.

Recent history of silencing and sanctioning theologians for discussing announced Vatican positions dates back to the late Pope John Paul who strictly limited (through Cardinal Ratzinger’s office at the Vatican) the ability of theologians to publish or even discuss doctrines or ideas in conflict with the official Vatican positions. I’ve written before (5/30/07 & 12/10/06) about the intolerance of the Vatican for freedom of conscience. A classic illustration of the Vatican preventing discussion of an article of faith was when John Paul announced, on the eve of a Bishop’s conclave, where the matter was scheduled for discussion, that birth control was morally evil. As a result of the last minute pre-emption, the bishops and other theologians were prevented from examining the subject. Yet, the correctness of that Pope’s position has long been a matter of moral controversy and is far from being accepted as a valid moral position by theologians and other moral experts. The list of theologians who have been investigated, sanctioned or silenced from discussing matters the Vatican has taken a position on over the last twenty eight years is a long one. It includes theologians as distinguished as Fr. Hans Kung, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, Fr. Charles Curran, Fr. Karl Rahner and even Fr. Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit, whose works were condemned after his death. Locally, the list includes Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, the former Archbishop of Seattle for his ecumenical approach to a variety of religious issues.

Frankly, Fr. Phan’s position appeals to me. I cannot accept, as coming from Jesus, that acceptance of teachings of the Catholic church or even the Christian church is the exclusive means of salvation. I believe that Jesus came to redeem all people of all faiths and is the means by which salvation is now possible for all people of all faiths including non Christian faiths. I just don’t accept the idea that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are denied salvation because they failed to convert to Christianity or that non Catholics are denied salvation because they failed to accept Catholicism.

Whether Fr. Phan is correct, seems to me not to be the real issue. I support his right, as a theologian, to explore the subject and offer it for discussion. To silence such discussion, in my view, is harmful to the Church and what it should stand for regarding freedom of belief. To do otherwise is to ignore the the humiliating lesson from Catholic history when the Church condemned Galileo for publishing his findings that the earth revolved around the sun, which was in conflict the Vatican’s position that it was the other way around. His books were condemned and ordered destroyed, he was sentenced to life long house arrest and all theologians and scientists were prohibited from even discussing the matter. As a result of the sanctions and enforced silence, the Vatican clung to it’s totally erroneous position for centuries afterwords. Secrecy, suppression of intellectual exploration and discussion and heavy handed demands are with American values. At least that’s the way I feel.

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