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 CNS Story:

PHAN (UPDATED) Sep-17-2007 (830 words) xxxn

Church officials examine book by theologian Father Peter Phan

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Church officials are examining a book written by a Vietnamese-American theologian, Father Peter Phan, for possible ambiguities on the unique role of the Catholic Church in the framework of religious pluralism.

"There has been correspondence and dialogue" between Father Phan and the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine, according to Father Thomas Weinandy, a Capuchin Franciscan who is executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices. Father Phan is a member of the theology department at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.

Father Weinandy told Catholic News Service Sept. 13 he could not comment on the private dialogue in order to "respect the privacy of Father Phan and the work of the committee."

A Sept. 12 story by the National Catholic Reporter said the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has voiced concerns about Father Phan's book, "Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue," published in 2004 by Orbis.

NCR said the congregation's primary concern over the book is that it is "notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities."

An official at the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the congregation had no comment on the report. Father Phan could not be reached for comment by CNS.

The central issues of concern, according to the article, included the book's unclear descriptions on Christ's role as universal savior, the function of the Catholic Church in salvation and the value of non-Christian religions.

Although Father Phan was reportedly asked to write an article clarifying these issues and to request Orbis not to reprint the book, the theologian had not yet complied with these requests, according to the NCR report.

Father Phan, a former Salesian, is a priest of the Dallas Diocese who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975. He holds the Ellacuria chair of Catholic social thought in the theology department at Georgetown.

The priest, who has three doctorates, is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Along with his teaching position at Georgetown University, he is also on the faculty of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, Philippines, and Liverpool Hope University in England.

He has published numerous theological writings particularly on Asian Christianity and global issues affecting the Catholic Church.

In a statement released Sept. 13 by Georgetown University, a spokeswoman said university officials were aware of the correspondence between Father Phan and church officials but they respected the "privacy of that exchange."

"Georgetown University embraces academic freedom and supports the free exchange of ideas in order to foster dialogue on critical issues of the day, especially those related to faith, ethics and international affairs," the statement said.

One idea in Father Phan's book that is in dispute is that of religious relativism, or that many faiths offer valid spiritual paths. That notion does not coincide with "Dominus Iesus," a Vatican document published in 2000 which stated firmly that Christ and the Catholic Church are necessary for salvation and rejected the idea that "one religion is as good as another."

A similar theme was reiterated this summer in a brief document in which the Vatican's doctrinal congregation reaffirmed that the Catholic Church is the one, true church, even if elements of truth can be found in other churches and communities.

The inquiry into Father Phan's writing is reminiscent of the Vatican investigation into the writings of Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis, an expert on religious pluralism, who died three years ago.

The Belgian-born priest's book, "Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism," was closely examined by the doctrinal congregation from 1998 to 2001. After the three-year study, the congregation concluded the book contained no doctrinal errors, but said there were "ambiguities and difficulties on important points which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions."

Terrence Tilley, president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America and chairman of the theology department at Jesuit-run Fordham University, told CNS Sept. 14 that he could not comment in depth over the inquiry into Father Phan's book without having seen the documents about it firsthand.

But he noted that the book grapples with "rather technical" theological issues and also stems from a unique Asian perspective.

Tilley said the book examines "how we can live out our tradition in the midst of other traditions" -- an issue that he said "needs to be explored more fully."

He said he is confident this concept can be further developed, noting that these types of discussions take time, such as the "400 years to come to an understanding with Lutherans about faith and works" and the past 40 years of coming to "understand how God's grace comes to non-Christians."

"It seems perhaps premature to end the exploration," he said, "or to say only one path forward is open -- without more theological disputation."

END


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