Vietnamese-American Theologian under Investigation

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Vietnamese-American Theologian under Investigation


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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, published by Orbis.

Sources who asked not to be identified said that Phan received a July 2005 letter from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith signed by Archbishop Angelo Amato, the congregation's No. 2 official. It presented 19 observations under six headings, charging that Phan's book "is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities."

The letter said the book is in tension with the 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which states that non-Christians are "in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation. …

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