Dilatato Corde 7:2
July – December, 2017
Peter C. Phan
A Personal Journey
On September 19, 2005, Peter Phan, the Ignacio Ellacuría Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, received a letter from his bishop, the Most Rev. Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas. With his letter, Bishop Grahmann forwarded the letter he had received from the Office of the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington DC. That letter was from Archbishop Angelo Amato, Secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), informing Bishop Grahmann that an “initial examination” of Phan’s book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, published by Orbis in 2004, had “indicated serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems.”
Bishop Grahmann was instructed to
ask the author to correct the problematic points [given in the enclosed Observations] by means of an article, which, after first being submitted to this Dicastery within the next six months, would then be published in an appropriate theological journal.
This Dicastery also asks your Excellency to direct Father Phan to inform his publisher that the book is not to be reprinted (p. 174).
Phan responded to Bishop Grahmann, indicating that although the bishop had written on August 30, he had only received his letter on September 19. He noted that the enclosed letter from the CDF was dated July 20, which meant that he would now have only four months in which to reply. He therefore requested that the six-month period given him to formulate his response be computed from September 20 rather than from July 20. It would appear that there was no response to this request.[1]
On April 4, 2006, Phan wrote to Cardinal William Levada, who had been appointed Prefect of the CDF on May 13, 2005, but apparently did not assume the office until after his resignation as archbishop of San Francisco on August 17, 2015, that is to say, after the letter from the CDF was sent to Bishop Grahmann. Commenting on the CDF letter, Phan said,
I am astounded by the injustice of the procedure of the Congregation. Before I even have the chance to explain and defend my positions, I am already forbidden to have my book reprinted. . . . 
In spite of this injustice, I have informed my publisher (Orbis Books) of the Congregation’s prohibition to reprint my book. . . .
In view of the procedural injustice and of my rights as a Georgetown University faculty member I hereby request that the Congregation withdraw the prohibition to reprint the book (p. 186f).
In that letter he also explained that he was self-supporting and contributed to the support of his family, especially his mother. He therefore requested “that the Congregation pay half of my annual salary (six months, the amount of time that the Congregation originally allotted me to write the article). This is a matter of justice” (p. 189).
Phan did not received a reply from Cardinal Levada. Instead, he heard from Bishop William E. Lori who, in a letter dated May 15, 2007, said that the CDF had attempted “to find a suitable solution” to the problems raised by Phan’s book by proposing that he write an article to “make it unmistakable that the positions that you in fact hold are in conformity with Church teaching.” He went on to say that since “this proposal has proved unacceptable to you,” the CDF requested that the Committee on Doctrine examine Being Religious Interreligiously and that the Committee “feels obliged to publish its own statement indicating the points on which the positions expressed in Being Religious Interreligiously diverge from that of Catholic teaching.”[2] Before it would do that, however, it would give Phan an opportunity to respond to its criticisms of the book. Bishop Lori asked that he respond by June 15, 2007 to indicate that he would be willing to provide written arguments to show how positions expressed in his book were in conformity with Church teaching.
Phan responded to Bishop Lori on May 23, 2007, to say that he was willing to provide the requested written arguments. He contested Bishop Lori’s statement that he had not accepted the proposal of the CDF that he write and publish an article “that would clarify and so make unmistakable that the positions that I in fact hold are in conformity with Church teaching” (p. 195). He explained that he had agreed to write such an article, but had asked for clarifications. Some had been provided, he said, but he also noted that two requests of his remained unanswered: the lifting of the prohibition of reprinting his book before he had an opportunity to defend himself and fair remuneration for the work imposed upon him.
There was further correspondence between Bishop Lori and Phan concerning the deadline for submitting a written response to the Committee on Doctrine and the Committee’s intention to issue a public statement on Phan’s book. In his final letter to Phan, dated December 3, 2007, Bishop Lori states,
The Committee on Doctrine, out of pastoral solicitude, will issue its statement. Nonetheless, the Committee very much desires to include the acknowledgement that you have agreed that the book in its present form contains significant ambiguities on certain points and that you will rectify these ambiguities in your future publications and public presentations. I ask you to let me know by noon on Friday, December 7, 2007, whether or not you consent to such an acknowledgement being placed within the text of the statement (p. 209).
The undated statement from the committee entitled “Clarifications Required by the Book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue by Reverend Peter C. Phan” follows the bishop’s letter. It gives as its purpose to “identify problematic aspects of the book and provide a positive restatement of Catholic teaching on the relevant points” (p. 211), namely 1) Jesus Christ as the unique and universal Savior of all humankind; 2) the salvific significance of non-Christian religions; 3) the Church as the unique and universal instrument of salvation.
The final document in the appendix is Phan’s letter to Bishop Lori, dated December 7, 2007, which he concludes by saying
Since I have not been able to respond in detail to all the observations of the Committee, it would not be ethically proper for me to affirm, as you suggested, that I have agreed that my book in its present form contains significant ambiguities on certain points and that I will rectify these ambiguities in your [sic] future publications and public presentation. I do however take seriously the concerns of the CDF and the USCCB Committee on Doctrine about my book and plan to respond to them in detail as soon as time permits (p. 225).
The Joy of Religious Pluralism: A Personal Journey is Phan’s response. It can be read as the fruit of a two-year tug-of-war followed by a ten-year timeout during which the author was able to reflect on his theological positions and evaluate them in the light of the magisterium of the bishops and in the light of four other magisteria as well: the theologians, the laity, the poor, and the believers of other religions, all of which, Phan adds, function in reciprocal teaching and learning, albeit in different manners and degrees of authority.
In fact, the main argument that Phan employs in his defense is that his critics ignore the multiple ways in which the church teaches and is taught, that it uses the term magisterium “to refer exclusively to the hierarchical or episcopal magisterium, and, worse, conflate[s] all the different ways in which it is exercised and assign[s] them equal authority” (p. 46). Furthermore, even when dealing with the magisterium of the bishops, his critics tend to overlook episcopal conferences outside Europe and the Americas. In defense of his positive evaluation of the salvific value other religions, Phan insists on the importance of attending to the teaching (i.e., the magisterium) of bishops from those parts of the world where the great religions of the East originated and are practiced by the overwhelming majority of the population. In this regard, Phan points especially to the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) and particularly to a document issued by its Office of Theological Concern, The Spirit at Work in Asia Today, a document that is “remarkable for its unusual length (about a hundred pages), comprehensiveness, and insightfulness” (pp. 57f). That document was issued in 1997, ten years before the CDF made known its concerns about Phan’s book. With regard to the work of the FABC in general, Phan says he has “often noted how the FABC has anticipated by nearly twenty years, sometimes almost verbatim, what Pope Francis says in JG [The Joy of the Gospel] about church and mission” (p. 160).
Phan insists that it is also important, indeed absolutely necessary, that Christians take into consideration the positive impact these religions have on the lives of those who follow them. It is not enough to say that these religions are, at best, a preparation for the Gospel. Moreover, it would be the height of arrogance to claim that if there are, in fact, “holy” Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, they are so in spite of the religion they practice. He describes, for instance, how moved he has been by the piety of a young woman who sat for nearly three-quarters of an hour wrapped in prayer and meditation before Kwan Yin in a pagoda in Thailand; by hundreds of Muslims on their knees at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, bowing to the ground in unison, as they expressed their total submission to Allah; by the pious and fervent chanting of Sikh sacred Scripture in a gurdwara; by a worship ritual of Krishna that taught him how to worship the Deity with utter joy and devotion. Reflecting on these and other experiences, he says that they have
taught me new ways of relating to the divine as well as stimulated me to examine anew traditional Catholic teaching on non-Christian religions. As a result, I have often wondered whether the magisterial authorities who make self-assured pronouncements on the “objective deficiencies” of “non-Christian” religions had ever had these life-changing “blessings,” and whether, had they had them, they would not have come up with a different  theology of religion (p. 103).
Phan also rejects the notion that the revelation given in Christ cannot be “complemented” by the teachings of other religions. He insists that it is perfectly orthodox to says that Jesus’ revelation of God is limited—for example, by the limitations of the language he used, the formal education he received, the culture he was part of, his Jewish religious background, and his short life—and then goes on to propose that
This being the case, there can be no objection to saying that if there is a holy and wise religious teacher in India (for example, the Buddha), in China (for example, Laozi or Confucius), or in Arabia (for example, Mohammad) whose teaching and practice can help us know and love God better, they “complement” the revelation of Jesus, at least in the sense that they can teach us new insights about God using Indian, Chinese, or Arab culture and religious ideas, which of course Jesus could not do (88).
Almost twelve years have passed since Peter Phan received that letter informing him that the CDF found serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems in Being Religious Interreligiously. Even though The Joy of Religious Pluralism may not convince the CDF or the USCCB Committee on Doctrine that—to paraphrase Bishop Lori—there can be no doubt that the positions he holds are in conformity with Church teaching, Peter Phan’s book is a valuable contribution to ongoing theological reflection on the Catholic Church’s stance vis-à-vis other religions. His insistence on the necessity of experiencing the spiritual practices of other religious traditions is, I believe, especially significant. More experience of interreligious dialogue and more theological reflection will, I also believe, eventually make it possible for us who are Christians to come to a clear and generally accepted way of understanding that non-Christian religions do, in fact, play  a salvific role in the divine plan even as we continue to profess faith in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the universality of his salvific mission, and the uniqueness of the church as the universal instrument of salvation.
Christian theology has a long history of determining how it is possible to bring together what appear to be opposites. Confessing that God is one and three, that Jesus is human and divine, that Mary is virgin and mother are the most obvious examples of how theological reflection on Christian faith and practice has made it possible to affirm two statements that, at face value, are contradictory. Finding a way to confess that “There is salvation in no one else [than Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12), while regarding the phenomenon of religious pluralism positively and indeed joyfully strikes me as part of the never-ending and invigorating effort of fides quaerens intellectum and of the search for God that is at the heart not only of the monastic life, but the life of the entire Christian community.
[1] That is to say, there is no letter responding to Phan’s request in the appendix of the book, which contains the correspondence of Peter Phan with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, as well as the documents listing the concerns of the CDF and the USCCB Committee on Doctrine. The appendix is more than 50 pages long, almost one quarter of the book.
[2] What this most likely means is that Cardinal Levada had determined that it would be better if the investigation were handled by the American bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, rather than by the CDF. However, this is not clear.
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