Vatican Makes Inquiries Into Professor's Writings

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

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.

The review, revealed yesterday in the National Catholic Reporter, comes two months after the Vatican released a document reasserting the primacy of the Catholic Church. The document, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called other Christian communities defective, separated and suffering from a "wound" because they do not recognize the dominance of the pope.

Similar issues were at the heart of previous censures of theologians such as the late Jacques Dupuis of Belgium, as well as Roger Haight of the United States and Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, according to the Catholic Reporter.

The article cites unnamed sources as saying the Vatican review focuses on Phan's 2004 book, "Being Religious Interreligiously," and began with a July 2005 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith. The letter noted a long list of items and charged that Phan's book "is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities."

The congregation asked Phan to write an article correcting the problems, the newspaper reported, and to instruct the publisher, Orbis, not to reprint his book. Phan wrote back in April 2006 offering to comply under certain conditions, and, according to the Catholic Reporter's sources, has not received a response.

In May, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine began a parallel "dialogue" with Phan, said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chair of the committee. Lori declined to characterize Phan's writing or what potential problems might be, saying that could "threaten the integrity of the dialogue . . . and we are very serious about having a good dialogue."

Phan declined to comment to The Washington Post.

Asked whether Phan is obliged to alter his writings, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a committee spokeswoman, said "he'd be obliged to clear up any inaccuracies."

Calls to Orbis and the Dallas diocese, Phan's home diocese, were not immediately returned.

Georgetown University officials declined to comment on any specifics of Phan's writings or his correspondence with church officials. It issued a statement saying the school "embraces academic freedom and supports the free exchange of ideas in order to foster dialogue on critical issues of the day, especially those related to faith, ethics and international affairs."

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."

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