U.S. Bishops' Statement on Book of Fr. Peter Phan
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The U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee issued clarifications concerning several aspects of Father Peter C. Phan’s book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.
Father Phan’s book uses “certain terms in an equivocal manner” that “opens the text up to significant ambiguity,” the Committee said. 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, which represents the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on doctrinal matters, outlined its concerns in a statement, “Clarifications Required by the Book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.” The Committee made the statement public December 10. It is available at www.usccb.org/dpp/statementonbeingreligiousinterreligiously.pdf.
The Committee stressed the importance of understanding religious pluralism, but said the way the book addresses some theological issues “raises serious concerns.” The Committee said the statement outlines some “problematic aspects of the book” and offers “a positive restatement of Catholic teaching on the relevant points.”
Several aspects of the book concern the Committee, but it limited comments to three areas:
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 Doctrine Committee took action after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked it to evaluate the book by Father Phan, a priest of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, who holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought in Georgetown’s Department of Theology. Over a period of two years, the Committee asked Father Phan to clarify points of concern.
On the first point, the Committee objected to Father Phan’s qualifying the uniqueness of Christ and saying that terms referring to Christ as “unique” “absolute” and “universal” “should be jettisoned and replaced by other, theologically more adequate equivalents.”
“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,” the Committee said.
“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,” it said.
On the second point, the salvific significance of non-Christian religions, the Committee states that 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 Committee said that “[s]ince the book as a whole is based on the idea that religious pluralism is indeed a positively-willed part of the divine plan, the reader is led to conclude that there is some kind of moral obligation for the Church to refrain from calling people to conversion to Christ and to membership in his Church. According to the book religious pluralism ‘may not and must not be abolished’ by conversion to Christianity.”
The Committee notes 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 ….”’
“Moreover,” the Committee said, “if one accepts that Jesus Christ is in fact the one affirmed by Christian faith as the eternal Son of God made man, through whom the universe was created and by whose death and resurrection the human race has the possibility of attaining eternal life, then it is incoherent to argue that it would somehow be better if certain people were not told this truth.”
“The Church’s evangelizing mission is not an imposition of power but an expression of love,” the Committee said also.
Regarding the Church as the unique and universal instrument of salvation, the Committee criticizes the book for saying that the Church’s claim for uniqueness and universality “should be abandoned altogether” given the Church’s human failings and historical entanglement with sin and injustice.
The Committee acknowledged that members of the Church have failed, but said that “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 said that “because the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, whatever grace is offered to individuals in whatever various circumstances, including non-Christians, must be seen in relationship to the Church, for she is always united to Jesus Christ, the source of all grace and holiness.”
The Committee said that because all grace flows through Jesus, one cannot consider the Church as just one way of salvation “alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her.”
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