East Meets West, and a Storm Erupts over the Vatican: Phans Pioneering Theology Sets off Doctrinal Alarms

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To say that Fr. Peter Phan, a prominent Vietnamese-American theologian currently facing investigation by church authorities for his work on other religions, brings an unusual and distinguished background to Catholic theology is a bit like saying Tiger Woods plays a decent game of golf--so understated as to risk missing the point entirely.

Phan, 61, is a rare bird on multiple levels. Born in Vietnam, he's studied in both London and Rome and lived for the last 32 years in the United States. He's an internationally acclaimed intellectual who once worked as a garbage collector in Texas for minimum wage, and a devotee of Asian spirituality who can drop names such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, high priests of postmodern Western chic, almost as easily as he can Lao Tzu or the Buddha.

Currently a professor at Georgetown University, Phan in 2001 became the first non-Caucasian to serve as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and he's also a key adviser to the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Almost literally, East and West intersect in his work.

As NCR reported Sept. 13, both the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are looking into Phan's 2004 book, Being Religious Interreligiously. He joins a growing number of theologians working in the area of religious diversity to face similar reviews, including the late Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, American Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight and Jesuit Ft. Jon Sobrino of El Salvador.

To critics, Phan and his colleagues offer a classic example of good intentions run amuck. In the name of prorooting interreligious tolerance, they say, Phan fudges core doctrines such as Jesus Christ as the unique savior of the world, and the Catholic church as a singular channel of grace. To his admirers, Phan is a prophet. They believe he's pointing the way to a Catholicism more universal than Roman, one that is faithful to the Gospel yet responsive to a new historical moment.

Whichever view one takes, Phan's story captures in microcosm perhaps the deepest transition reshaping Catholicism at the dawn of the 21st century--the emergence of a truly global church, one in which pressures for new ways of approaching old questions is destined to swell.

The stuff of Hollywood

Phan's life story is the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay. His entire family, 14 people in all, fled Vietnam for the United States just three days prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975. By that stage, Phan Was already a promising young Salesian who had studied in Hong Kong, London and Rome. Yet in Plano, Texas, where Phan and his family were settled after a brief stretch at Camp Pendleton in California, he was just another refugee. To help make ends meet, Phan took a job as a garbage collector for $2.10 an hour, minimum wage at the time.

"When we moved to Dallas, we didn't even know where Texas was," Phan recalled in a 2004 interview. "So we asked someone what the weather was like there, if it would be cold. He said no, so we said, 'OK.'"

After his family settled down, Phan put his theological career back on track. He won positions at the University of Dallas and then The Catholic University of America, becoming dean of the theology department at both institutions. He eventually moved to Georgetown, where he holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought, named for Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria who was murdered in E1 Salvador. Phan has written more than 300 essays and 20 books, including a trilogy published by Orbis Books: In Our Own Tongues (2003) Christianity with an Asian Face (2003) and Being Religious Interreligiously (2004). Along the way, he left the Salesians and became a priest of the Dallas diocese.

"He's the most respected Asian-American theologian in the country," said Christina Astorga, a Filipina moral theologian at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. …