The Doctrine Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has examined a work of theologian Father Peter C. Phan, “Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.”
Father Phan, a priest of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, is a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Theology. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the American bishops’ Doctrine Committee to evaluate the book. The committee asked Father Phan to clarify points of concern over a period of two years.
The committee’s evaluation was presented in a document titled “Clarifications Required by the Book ‘Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue’.” The committee said that Father Phan’s book uses “certain terms in an equivocal manner” that “opens the text up to significant ambiguity.” 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 focused on three areas of theological concern: Jesus Christ as the unique and universal Savior of all humankind; the salvific significance of non-Christian religions; and the Church as the unique and universal instrument of salvation.
In his book, Father Phan had qualified the uniqueness of Christ, saying that terms referring to Christ as “unique” “absolute” and “universal” “should be removed and replaced by other, theologically more adequate equivalents.”
The committee clarified Catholic teaching saying, “It has always been the faith of the Church that Jesus is the eternal Son of God incarnate as man. The union of humanity and divinity that takes place in Jesus Christ is by its very nature unique and unrepeatable… Because humanity and divinity are united in the person of the Son of God, He brings together humanity and divinity in a way that can have no parallel in any other figure in history.”
According to the committee’s statement, Father Phan’s book questions the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel to all. He states that “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 Doctrine Committee said the book’s argument leads to the conclusion that there is some kind of moral obligation for the Church to refrain from evangelizing and people of other religions. Father Phan’s book says that religious pluralism “may not and must not be abolished” by conversion to Christianity.
The Committee noted that “[t]his 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…’” It was “incoherent” to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God made man, but still argue that it would be better if people did not know this important truth.
Father Phan’s book also asserts that the Church’s claim to uniqueness and universality “should be abandoned altogether” because of the Church’s human failings and her historical entanglement with sin and injustice. While acknowledging the sinfulness of Church members, the Doctrine Committee affirmed “the holiness of the Church is not simply defined by the holiness (or sinfulness) of her members but by the holiness of her head, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The committee declared that because all grace flows through Jesus, that grace must be seen in relationship to the Church, the “universal sacrament of salvation.”
The full text of the Doctrine Committee’s statement is available at www.usccb.org/dpp/statementonbeingreligiousinterreligiously.pdf