We have a ‘trio’ alert at Georgetown

1025 5264aIt isn’t very shocking to pick up the newspaper and learn that there has been (a) another clash between Rome and a progressive Catholic theologian and that (b) this scholar teaches at Georgetown University.

However, it is rather strange to read the coverage of the controversy and not really know what is going on, in terms of the Vatican’s criticism of the priest involved. Here is the top of the Washington Post story about the case:

The Vatican and U.S. Catholic bishops are reviewing the work of a Georgetown University theology professor who writes about religious pluralism and are talking with him about whether his writings conform with Catholic teachings.

The inquiries into the Rev. Peter Phan, former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, reportedly focus on his views of Jesus as savior of the world and the value of non-Christian religions, among other things.

“Pluralism,” of course, can mean many things, and the Post connects this with the recent Vatican document about the Roman church’s claim to be, well, the Catholic Church for all of planet earth. This resulted in saying that other religious bodies do not have as full a revelation of the truth as does Catholicism. This is pretty standard stuff.

However, this clash seems — it’s hard to tell — to be centering on a larger conflict. Could it be that Rome is trying to clarify its own teachings on the status of world religions other than Christianity? If so, we might be dealing with an issue linked to ancient doctrines about salvation and the actual nature of Jesus Christ.

If that is the case, then we are faced with a conflict rooted in one of those pushy questions in the infamous “tmatt trio.” For newcovers, this is a set of questions that I have found almost always yields interesting information when used during interviews about conflicts inside Christian bodies:

1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

However, I must admit that it is hard to tell, at this point, precisely what is going on.

For Georgetown officials, this is automatically a case of academic freedom as defined on a secular university campus. For the Vatican, this is an issue of who is a Roman Catholic theologian and who is not, and Rome thinks it should play a role in that decision. Phan is declining comment, which is the normal Georgetown response.

At the end of the story, we learn:

Phan wrote about the challenges and goals of religious pluralism in a January essay for Commonweal, a journal run by lay Catholics. He wrote: “It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians.

“For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God’s self-revelation, the church’s understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful.”

st peters basilica in the vatican rome iNow, I do not believe the Catholic Church argues that it is exempt from sin and The Fall. The Church can make mistakes, as it attempts to teach and live out doctrines that it believes are absolutely true. Am I wrong about that?

But note the references to “differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions.” That’s a completely different set of issues.

Over at the Associated Press, Eric Gorski notes:

The issues underpinning Phan’s case are causing great debate among Catholic theologians grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context, said Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

“To come to judgment as the Vatican seems to be doing so quickly, before theologians have had time to work out and critique the positions … it’s just premature,” Tilley said. “It’s in a sense cutting off debate before the debate’s started.”

I have no idea what this phrase means — “grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context.” European context? The irony there is that Catholics in other parts of the world are often more clear on the basic issues of Christology and salvation than the folks in Europe.

So, at this point, let’s just say that I am confused and I want to know more. What are the key issues here anyway?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    John Allen has a report on it here:

    http://ncrcafe.org/node/1334

    NCR has obtained copies of much of the back-and-forth correspondence among the Vatican, the U.S. bishops and Phan over the last three years. It begins with a July 20, 2005, letter from Archbishop Angelo Amato, the number two official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas, informing him that the congregation has found “serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems” in Phan’s Being Religious Interreligiously. Phan, a former Salesian, is now a priest of the Dallas diocese; Grahmann has since retired, and has been replaced by Bishop Kevin Farrell.

    Amato, also a Salesian and rumored to have been critical of Phan’s decision to leave the order, asked Grahmann to request that Phan write an article correcting the “problematic points,” and that Phan instruct Orbis not to reprint his book. Enclosed was a seven-page set of observations on the book, written in English.

    The observations make 19 points, grouped under these six broad headings:

    - On the salvific value of non-Christian religions
    - On the uniqueness and the universality of Jesus Christ
    - On the relationship between Jesus, the Logos and the Holy Spirit
    - On the uniqueness and the salvific universality of the Church
    - On the relationship between Christianity and Judaism
    - Other erroneous or confused statements
    In general, the observations assert that Phan’s book “is in open contrast with almost all the teachings of the declaration Dominus Iesus,” a 2000 Vatican document which states that non-Christians are “in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

    Among the most serious charges in the CDF observations are that Phan’s book can be read to suggest that:

    - Non-Christian religions have a positive role in salvation history in their own right, and are not merely a preparation for the Christian Gospel;
    - It makes little sense to try to convert non-Christians to Christianity;
    - It would be better to avoid terms such as “unique,” “absolute” and “universal” for the saving role of Christ;
    - The Holy Spirit operates in a saving way in non-Christian religions independently of the Logos (meaning Christ as the Word of God);
    - The Catholic Church cannot be identified with the church of Christ;
    - God’s covenant with the Jewish people does not find its completion in Jesus Christ.
    The observations also assert that Phan’s book “presents a mistaken conception of the nature and authority of the church’s magisterium and in fact does not give it the proper consideration.”

    Finally, the observations say that there is a “gnostic tenor running through the book.”

    Phan replied on April 4 to Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He did not enter into the merits of the observations, though he said several were “preposterous.”

    Instead, Phan raised three procedural points. First, he objected to a requirement that his book not be reprinted even before his response to the observations had been assessed; second, he requested clarification about the scope of the article he was being asked to write; and third, he asked for financial compensation for the time it would take him to prepare a satisfactory reply.

    As of this writing, the CDF had not responded.

    On May 15, 2007, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut wrote to Phan as chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lori wrote that because the requests of the CDF had “proven unacceptable to you,” his committee had been asked by the CDF to examine the book. Lori asked Phan to respond to a four-page set of observations enclosed with his letter.

    As opposed to the CDF observations, those from the Committee on Doctrine are expressed in just three points:

    - The uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the universality of his salvific mission
    - The salvific significance of non-Christian religions
    - The uniqueness of the church as the universal instrument of salvation
    On the first point, the USCCB observations assert that statements in Phan’s book “make it appear as if the revelation and salvation that God accomplished in Jesus Christ were similar in kind to what he has accomplished through other ‘saving figures.’” Instead, the observations stress that Christ “is not simply one among the many founders of religions.”

    The observations also state that Catholic teaching sees non-Christian religions as possessing “certain elements of truth,” but that these elements are “a preparation for the Gospel, not supernatural revelation explicitly revealed by God.” Phan’s book, according to the observations, rejects this view as “an insufficient recognition of the salvific significance of non-Christian religions in themselves.”

    Further, the observations assert, Phan’s book comes to the conclusion that “the evangelization of non-Christian persons is no longer appropriate,” a position it says “is in direct conflict with the church’s commission, given to it by Christ himself, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations.”

    Finally, the observations state that the Catholic church “is a divine institution, the indispensable universal sacrament of salvation, willed by Christ himself,” so that any grace that reaches non-Christians ultimately “must be seen in relationship to the church.”

    On May 23, 2007, Phan responded to Lori, indicating that he had previously had telephone conversations with Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, head of staff for Lori’s committee.

    Phan writes that he’s willing to address the observations, and says that the reduction from 19 observations by the CDF to the three presented by the committee takes care of his request for clarification about the scope of his response. Phan reiterates, however, his request for a stay of the prohibition on reprinting his book, and for payment for his time and effort. Phan also cited numerous academic commitments that would make it difficult for him to respond quickly.”

    This is a complicated matter, made more complicated by the fact that there seem to be two investigations ongoing since 2005: one by the CDF and one by the US bishops.

    Two years is a very short time, in Church terms, for an investigation of this nature. They could be arguing back and forth over what he said/did not say/could be interpreted to have said for the best part of a decade – or more!

    Any rush to judgement along the lines of either ‘persecution by the Vatican!’ or ‘heresy rampant!’ is premature. I have to disagree with Mr. Tilley – the Vatican has not ‘come to judgement’; a complaint was made, which they have to investigate, and that investigation is still going on.

  • Martha

    In case it’s not clear from the above, the investigation seems to have been set in motion by the publication in 2004 of Fr. Phan’s book “Being Religious Interreligiously”, not a magazine article published in January 2007.

    Of course, if he’s still reiterating the problematic points in the article, that’s not helping either…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Martha:

    Thank you!

    I wrote my post in a short gap between my own lectures here in D.C. and I appreciate you adding the extra layer in factual material.

    - On the salvific value of non-Christian religions
    - On the uniqueness and the universality of Jesus Christ

    Looks like a TRIO clash to me.

  • Julia

    It’s definitely issues about #1 and #2.

    By the way, tmatt said

    “Pluralism,” of course, can mean many things, and the Post connects this with the recent Vatican document about the Roman church’s claim to be, well, the Catholic Church for all of planet earth. This resulted in saying that other religious bodies do not have as full a revelation of the truth as does Catholicism. This is pretty standard stuff.

    In fact, we have called ourselves the Catholic Church for all of the planet earth for nigh on 2,000 years now. That’s kind of the whole idea of being “catholic”; it has to do with very early church writings about how the truth was recognized. If other churches think of themselves as “catholic” nobody is stopping them, but does it necessitate griping about our continuing to use our ancient name? We Catholics and most other Christians baptize our members, but we don’t get upset with the religous groups that officially call themselves “Baptists”.

    Why tack “Roman” on even though that is not part of the Catholic Church’s official name. And why is it that you don’t seem to tack it on to Catholics in the Greek/Eastern world who are also in communion with the pope – who, by the way, lives in a geographic area known as Vatican City that is surrounded by Rome, Italy. The “Vatican” is not even in Italy, much less Rome. I’m not Italian and 90%+ of Catholics are not Roman or Italian.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Two points– First, on the way the media handles Catholic issues: Rarely does the MSM quote from conservative or middle-of-the road Catholic publications. And if it does —inevitably the publication is put in the box known as “right-wing,” or “arch-conservative,” etc.
    However, here we have quotes from a periodical that has one of the most radical reputations in the Church and all we are informed is that it is run by “lay Catholics” (the most conservative Catholic periodicals are also run by lay Catholics–so to say some publication is “lay run” proves or adds nothing to the story–except a bias against Church leadership). And second, since Catholic theologians are frequently given such a “bully pulpit” in the media and academia if they say controversial or erroneous- or– especially– if they seem to attack Church teachings, it is important for the bishops and Rome to investigate charges–but try to be fair (which can make things move very slowly).
    And in the Catholic Church it is NOT one’s theological buddies and fellow-travellers in one’s own academic hothouse who decide if one is teaching orthodoxy, it is the successors to the apostles and St. Peter (the bishops and the pope). But we all know whose side the media will-sometimes hysterically-be on. For, to them, only “peer” academic review counts as “academic freedom.” The concept that an academic discipline should be organized in a different way or in its own unique way to protect what should be most important to that discipline (in religion it is that religion’s orthodox teaching) seems beyond comprehension to some. Yet the disintegration of the Episcopal Church is proof-positive of what can happen in a Church where there is a weak episcopal structure and theologians are free to drum up support for what “tickles people’s ears.” Ears which have been fed a steady diet of well-financed anti-Christian morality and heresy by the surrounding culture.

  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw Richardson

    Just a stickler point on the trio itself:

    1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

    There are no accounts of the Resurrection. There are accounts of what happened after it. But that’s it. It’s entirely possible to dismiss some or all of the accounts in the Bible and still believe in a literal Resurrection.

  • Charles Mathewes

    tmatt says:

    I do not believe the Catholic Church argues that it is exempt from sin and The Fall. The Church can make mistakes, as it attempts to teach and live out doctrines that it believes are absolutely true. Am I wrong about that?

    –well, on at least one understanding of the magisterium’s understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, yes you are wrong. Given that the Church is the Body of Christ on Earth and a means (and event) of grace, the Church–qua Church–cannot err. This is one reason why it is so touchy for some Roman Catholic spokesmen to suggest that “the Church” is responsible for the Holocaust. It is analytic for them: the Church cannot err, even if its members do.

  • dido

    I was hoping someone would take up that point, Charles. The Church’s indefectibility despite the sinfulness of all of her members is what the RCC understands as being expressed in the “We believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” of the Nicene creed.

    I’m not so sure it’s an analytic statement, though. The synthesis comes from the Church’s foundation by Christ who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail. That is, her indefectibility is dependent on Christ’s guarantee.

  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw Richardson

    the Church cannot err, even if its members do.

    Some but not all Orthodox hold the same position.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Why tack “Roman” on even though that is not part of the Catholic Church’s official name?

    It’s a convenient way to distinguish it from small-c catholicity. I suppose it’s like calling a Latter-Day Saint a Mormon; it may not be the preferred term, but it makes what you mean clearer than the more precise form.

    For the Vatican, this is an issue of who is a Roman Catholic theologian and who is not, and Rome thinks it should play a role in that decision.

    This brings up an interesting question that the reporter may not have known to ask. Having a doctorate in theology (Phan has two) doesn’t automatically make you a theologian. In a quickie Google search, I don’t see any indication that Phan has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology, which I thought was required to teach theology at a Catholic university. (Maybe someone more knowledgable in canon law can correct me if I’m wrong.) So this certainly could be an issue of who is and isn’t a Catholic theologian: if Phan isn’t licensed, then he’s not one.

  • Julia

    Joel:

    Why do you need to distinguish “Catholic” from “catholic”? Isn’t that obvious?. Same as “Evangelical” and “evangelical”. It would make more sense to call us “Western Catholics” to distinguish us from “Maronite Catholics” or Catholics of the Malabar Rite. Lots of CAtholic groupings are in union with the Pope; using Roman only for the Latin Rite folks is a false distinction.

    A better analogy than “Mormon” would be: The “Salt Lake City Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints”. Not all Mormons are in Utah, but Salt Lake is the location of their HQ.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Why do you need to distinguish “Catholic” from “catholic”?

    I don’t, as I’m both myself. But I understand why other people use that shorthand, and I don’t make a fuss about it.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    I am inclined to think that the Rev. Phan’s book is perhaps partially important, but also a bit of a psuedo-issue. The CTSA, as John Allen points out, has been at odds with the Vatican, especially theologically, for many years now.

    The Vatican’s investigation of Phan is most likely part and parcel of a strategy to enforce its own ecclesiastical authority over a body that has even dared to challenge it on women’s ordination and give the Courtney award to controversial figures such as Sister Sandra M. Schneiders.

  • kyle

    There are Orthodox churches, and Catholics and presumably others consider themselves orthodox, as well, even though some Orthodox mean the term in an exclusive way, considering other communions to be heterodox or heretical.

    For that matter, in the United States there’s an Episcopal Church, but there are also Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches, among others, which consider themselves episcopal — that is, chock full of bishops. Same with Presbyterians — we Catholics put a lot of emphasis on our presbyters, that is, our priests. And let’s not forget the Baptists, since many non-Baptists place more emphasis on baptism, as a sacrament, than most Baptists do.

    Strangely, in none of these cases does the Associated Press Stylebook feel the need to alter a church’s preferred name to ensure we all know other churches consider themselves orthodox, episcopal, prebyterian and baptist.

  • kyle

    Julia is also absolutely right that in some cases, Roman Catholic is simply incorrect. If the term is used referring to the Catholic Church as a whole, that is, everyone in communion with the pope, it includes not only Roman (that is, Latin Rite) Catholics but several kinds of Eastern Rite Catholics who are not Roman Catholics and might even take offense at being called such.

  • Camassia

    I think that for the average person, “Roman” refers to who’s in charge, not the nature of the rite. After all, the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome is one of the big points of disagreement between Catholics and everyone else.

    Having said that, if you just say “Catholic” most people will know what you mean. From the other side of the fence, I don’t see much cause to make a fuss about it either.

  • kyle

    I think that for the average person, “Roman” refers to who’s in charge, not the nature of the rite. After all, the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome is one of the big points of disagreement between Catholics and everyone else.

    Sure, but there are lots of inaccurate and maybe even unintentionally offensive labels that the average person understands or uses and a newspaper wouldn’t. The question is, is it a news organization’s place to add a word to the name of an organization, which, as you noted, is not ambiguous as it originally stood, in order to accommodate the sensibilities of people who disagree with that organization? I would say it’s a pretty singular linguistic event.

    If that is, unbeknownst to us, a standard policy, I can think of quite a few organizations with misleading names that should be altered. Let’s start with the so-called “Catholics for a Free Choice.”

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Joel,

    No, one is not required to have an STL or STD (not a sexually transmitted disease, but a doctorate in sacred theology) to teach theology. However, the STL or STD is required for one to teach sacred theology in a pontifical institute.

    There are plenty of people who are teaching in solid, orthodox theological faculties like those at Franciscan University of Steubenville (my alma mater), Christendom College, the University of Dallas, etc., who have PhD’s and who are considered Catholic theologians.

  • shocked

    Thank you for the refence to Fr. Phan. I’ve just read some articles about him and he certainly is impressive.

    He arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam along with his parents and siblings.

    He’s written numerous books on a variety of topics, from Orthodoxy to Rahner to inter-religious dialogue.

    I’m putting him on my reading list.

    As for the confusion about “European context”, it’s not about geography- it’s about making the “European” theological/metaphysical world view the only foundation for Christianity.

  • Julia

    “European context” has to do with the Greek philosophical way of speaking and thinking about Christian concepts.
    The terminology may seem strange to evangelicals, but is totally off the wall to those in Asia brought up on Confucian and Bhudist ways of thinking. [excuse spelling]