Academic journal article Theological Studies

A Trinitarian Response to Issues Raised by Peter Phan

Academic journal article Theological Studies

A Trinitarian Response to Issues Raised by Peter Phan

Article excerpt

MOST PEOPLE INTERESTED IN CATHOLIC THEOLOGY are aware that a recent book by Peter Phan, Being Religious Interreligiously, was subjected to investigation by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Committee on Doctrine for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). (1) Now the Committee has issued a statement on behalf of the Conference identifying the most serious "problematic aspects of the book" and providing "a positive restatement of Catholic teaching on the relevant points." (2) It is to be hoped that with this statement the affair as a doctrinal and pastoral issue will now be over, but the specifically theological questions remain for continued reflection and discussion by theologians. The present article is a tentative first step in this direction.

With this work, Phan, a Vietnamese-American admirer and supporter of the theological vision of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, completes a trilogy on the Federation's avowed mission of pursuing a threefold dialogue, namely, with the Asian peoples (especially their poor), the Asian cultures, and the Asian religions. The last named of these is the subject of Phan's present book. Interreligious dialogue involving Christianity has to face squarely this religion's claim that "there is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:5), along with the related issues of the salvific effectiveness of the non-Christian religions and the uniqueness of the church as "the universal sacrament of salvation." (3) Phan has not shirked these issues, and it was precisely his efforts in their regard that troubled the doctrinal authorities to the point of pursuing their newly completed investigation.

According to religion journalist John Allen in a recent report, the Roman observations run to 19 points, which Allen reduces to the six "most serious." (4) The Committee on Doctrine, on the other hand, made just three complaints, which coincide with the three named above. They were worded as follows: "the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the universality of his salvific mission," "the salvific significance of the non-Christian religions," and "the uniqueness of the church as the universal instrument of salvation." These complaints also provide the framework of the bishops' statement. Among the Roman observations there is one that to my mind--because of the trinitarian character of my response--is at least as important as those just mentioned, namely, that "[according to Phan] the Holy Spirit operates in a saving way in non-Christian religions independently of the Logos (meaning Christ as the Word of God)." (5) Although the Roman complaints range more widely than the U.S. ones, the latter can be seen as largely a restatement of the most important elements of the former (apart from the one I have noted). The single most important of them, and key to the others, is the first, the uniqueness of Christ, and accordingly, this is the one on which I will concentrate here.

My aim is to address the three U.S. complaints, with emphasis on the first, and to do so within a trinitarian context that takes due account of the relationship between the third and second Persons of the Trinity. This the U.S. statement does not do. Rather than criticize Phan (even if some criticism will be unavoidable), my purpose will be to suggest a more viable approach to interreligious dialogue. For Phan's precise approach can hardly be considered viable in its present condition, as can be seen from the bishops' summary statement, "While Being Religious Interreligiously addresses a number of issues that are crucial in the life of the contemporary Church, it contains certain pervading ambiguities and equivocations that could easily confuse or mislead the faithful, as well as statements that, unless properly clarified, are not in accord with Catholic teaching." (6) Phan's concerns in his book are ones with which most theologians will sympathize, and official decisions made about them will be important for the future direction of the Church. …

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