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The Uniqueness and Universality of Fr. Peter Phan

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 11, 2007

The Doctrine Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a statement criticizing a book by Fr. Peter Phan, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. The book, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, casts doubt on the unique and essential position of Christ as savior and says the Catholic Church should abandon its claim of uniqueness and universality.

The National Catholic Reporter first reported back in September that Fr. Phan, who is also a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, was under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, especially in view of the CDF’s clarification last July of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the Church. The CDF asked the American Bishops to look into the matter. The Doctrine Committee asked Fr. Phan for clarifications of his position, which he neglected to provide. The Committee finally issued its critique on December 7th.

Perhaps it goes without saying—though I am still sad to report—that no disciplinary action has been taken against Fr. Phan. Recent history suggests that it is unlikely that Fr. Phan will lose his mandatum to teach theology for such “trivial” errors as denying that the Son of God is uniquely and universally necessary for salvation, or denying the universal mission of the Church as the sole possessor of all the goods God has provided for salvation. (I have commented on this issue in previous blog entries, especially Effective Discipline.)

Were I Fr. Richard John Neuhaus writing in First Things, it is at this point in my commentary that I would note by way of ironic explanation that Georgetown University is a school “in the Jesuit tradition”. This is how Jesuit schools at all levels have tended to describe themselves since ceasing to be recognizably Catholic. I would like to call attention to the same reality here, and I will add that, sooner or later, the Church must become far more serious about reclaiming both her religious orders and her universities.

Doctrinal clarification is extremely important. Indeed, twenty-five years ago we would not have gotten even that. But in the face of egregious scandal, much more is required. All the clarifications in the world will still leave a significant heretic in possession of the department of Catholic theology at Georgetown University. Ultimately ecclesiastical authority must find the courage and strength to roll heads—that is, to challenge the uniqueness and universality not of Christ’s teaching position but of Fr. Phan’s.

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