Monday, December 10, 2007

U.S. bishops fault Phan for 'considerable confusion' on Christ, non-Christian religions

U.S. bishops fault Phan for 'considerable confusion' on Christ, non-Christian religions John Allen reports. [Full text of the USCCB statement. (pdf)] (Summary at Touchstone Magazine [h/t Mike Aquilina].)
In a nutshell, Phan's thesis is that God doesn't necessarily want everybody to be Christian. He quotes Dupuis to the effect that different religions are "gifts of God to the peoples of the world."

On that basis, Phan defends the idea of multiple religious belonging, meaning that it's possible for someone to be a "Hindu Catholic" or a "Buddhist Catholic," drawing upon doctrines and practices of both traditions – though only to the extent, he adds, that the elements drawn from the other religion don't contradict the truth revealed in Christ.

That point alone would probably be enough to bring Phan into the censor's scope, but most experts believe it's two other assertions that have truly set off doctrinal alarms.

First, Phan believes that while Christ may be absolute and universal, the same thing cannot be said of the institutional Christian church. Exclusive claims about the church, he argues, are stained with the memory of "colonialism and religious imperialism," and "smack of spiritual arrogance and historical blindness." As a result, he advocates a decidedly low ecclesiology, with assertions of a special status for the church "abandoned, or at least severely curtailed."

Second, Phan doesn't shy away from asserting that converting people to Christianity isn't a top-shelf priority. What's more important is building God's Kingdom, he says, especially through solidarity with the poor.

"If people come to church, that's great," he said at a June gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Los Angeles. "But if they continue as Hindus or Buddhists, that's great as well. Our concern is not to increase the number of Christians, but to promote the Kingdom."

Phan has written more than three hundred essays and twenty 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.

Phan's admirers say he's trying to develop a language that can resonate in a post-modern milieu, in which "meta-narratives," meaning sweeping claims to absolute truth, are greeted with deep suspicion.

Others sympathetic to Phan argue that Western church authorities may lack the background to appreciate his Asian outlook.

"He's raising a whole different set of practical and methodological issues not addressed in the European context of even a few decades ago," said Terrence Tilley of Fordham University, the current president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

On the other hand, even some theologians willing to give Phan credit for good intentions argue that somebody has to draw a line when core doctrines about Christ and the church are put in jeopardy.

"Both the magisterium and theologians are governed by 'the rule of faith,' the constitutive truth claims of the Catholic tradition," said Fr. Robert Imbelli of Boston College. "It is the responsibility of the magisterium to safeguard the rule of faith and, when necessary, to call theologians to accountability."

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