East Meets West

To say that Father Peter Phan, a prominent Vietnamese-American theologian currently facing investigation by church authorities for his work on other religions, brings an unusual and distinguished background to Catholic theology is a bit like saying Tiger Woods plays a decent game of golf : so understated as to risk missing the point entirely.

Father Phan, 61, is a rare bird on multiple levels. Born in Vietnam, he's studied in both London and Rome and lived for the last 32 years in the United States. He's an internationally acclaimed intellectual who once worked as a garbage collector in Texas for minimum wage, and a devotee of Asian spirituality who can drop names such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, high priests of postmodern Western chic, almost as easily as he can Lao Tzu or the Buddha.

Currently a professor at Georgetown University, Father Phan in 2001 became the first non-Caucasian to serve as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and he's also a key adviser to the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Almost literally, East and West intersect in his work.

As National Catholic Reporter reported Sept. 13, both the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are looking into Father Phan's 2004 book, Being Religious Interreligiously. He joins a growing number of theologians working in the area of religious diversity to face similar reviews, including the late Belgian Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis, American Jesuit Father Roger Haight and Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino of El Salvador.

To critics, Father Phan and his colleagues offer a classic example of good intentions run amuck. In the name of promoting interreligious tolerance, they say, Father Phan fudges core doctrines such as Jesus Christ as the unique savior of the world, and the Catholic church as a singular channel of grace. To his admirers, Father Phan is a prophet. They believe he's pointing the way to a Catholicism more universal than Roman, one that is faithful to the gospel yet responsive to a new historical moment.

Whichever view one takes, Father Phan's story captures in microcosm perhaps the deepest transition reshaping Catholicism at the dawn of the 21st century : the emergence of a truly global church, one in which pressures for new ways of approaching old questions is destined to swell.

The stuff of Hollywood

Father Phan's life story is the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay. His entire family, 14 people in all, fled Vietnam for the United States just three days prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975. By that stage, Father Phan was already a promising young Salesian who had studied in Hong Kong, London and Rome. Yet in Plano, Texas, where Father Phan and his family were settled after a brief stretch at Camp Pendleton in California, he was just another refugee. To help make ends meet, Father Phan took a job as a garbage collector for $2.10 an hour, minimum wage at the time. "When we moved to Dallas, we didn't even know where Texas was," Father Phan recalled in a 2004 interview. "So we asked someone what the weather was like there, if it would be cold. He said no, so we said, 'OK.'"

After his family settled down, Father Phan put his theological career back on track. He won positions at the University of Dallas and then The Catholic University of America, becoming dean of the theology department at both institutions. He eventually moved to Georgetown, where he holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought, named for Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuria who was murdered in El Salvador. Father Phan has written more than 300 essays and 20 books, including a trilogy published by Orbis Books: In Our Own Tongues (2003), Christianity with an Asian Face (2003) and Being Religious Interreligiously (2004). Along the way, he left the Salesians and became a priest of the Dallas Diocese.

"He's the most respected Asian-American theologian in the country," said Christina Astorga, a Filipina moral theologian at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Father Phan's core theological concern is the transition from what he sees as a largely Western, Euro-centric mode of Christianity to a faith more thoroughly shaped by different global cultures, languages and values. He has developed an Asian Christology, for example, based upon understanding Christ as both an ancestor and an elder son.

He brings the same passion for diversity to his work in non-Christian religions.

While the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) recognized "elements of truth and grace" in non-Christian religions, the church officially regards those elements as a preparation for the Christian gospel, reaching fulfillment only in Christianity. Father Phan argues that non-Christian religions can complement Christianity, rather than merely setting the stage for it.

In a nutshell, Father Phan's thesis is that God doesn't necessarily want everybody to be Christian. He quotes Father Dupuis to the effect that different religions are "gifts of God to the peoples of the world."

On that basis, Father Phan defends the idea of multiple religious belonging, meaning that it's possible for someone to be a "Hindu Catholic" or a "Buddhist Catholic," drawing upon doctrines and practices of both traditions : though only to the extent, he adds, that the elements drawn from the other religion don't contradict the truth revealed in Christ.

That point alone would probably be enough to bring Father Phan into the censor's scope, but most experts believe it's two other assertions that have truly set off doctrinal alarms.

First, Father Phan believes that while Christ may be absolute and universal, the same thing cannot be said of the institutional Christian church. Exclusive claims about the church, he argues, are stained with the memory of "colonialism and religious imperialism," and "smack of spiritual arrogance and historical blindness." As a result, he advocates a decidedly low ecclesiology, with assertions of a special status for the church "abandoned or at least severely curtailed."

Second, Father Phan doesn't shy away from asserting that converting people to Christianity isn't a top-shelf priority. What's more important is building God's kingdom, he says, especially through solidarity with the poor.

"If people come to church, that's great," he said at a June gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Los Angeles. "But if they continue as Hindus or Buddhists, that's great as well. Our concern is not to increase the number of Christians, but to promote the kingdom."

A postmodern milieu

In an era of deep concern over Catholic identity, as well as burgeoning missionary competition in China and across other regions of Asia, it seems almost superfluous to observe that such an approach cannot help but generate controversy. Over a decade ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI, warned that the greatest doctrinal danger of the day is an intersection of Western philosophical relativism with Asian religious pluralism. Given that diagnosis, Father Phan's current difficulties are not surprising.

Defenders of Father Phan often argue that blaming him for pushing the doctrinal envelope is to miss the point of what he's trying to do. He's not just trying to bridge the gap between East and West inside the church, they say, but also the rupture between the church and contemporary Western culture. (One clear sign of his grasp of the ways of the West: Before agreeing to sit down and respond to critical observations from the Vatican and the American bishops, Father Phan has insisted upon being paid for his trouble.)

Father Phan's admirers say he's trying to develop a language that can resonate in a postmodern milieu, in which "meta-narratives," meaning sweeping claims to absolute truth, are greeted with deep suspicion.

Others sympathetic to Father Phan argue that Western church authorities may lack the background to appreciate his Asian outlook.

"He's raising a whole different set of practical and methodological issues not addressed in the European context of even a few decades ago," said Terrence Tilley of Fordham University, the current president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

On the other hand, even some theologians willing to give Father Phan credit for good intentions argue that somebody has to draw a line when core doctrines about Christ and the church are put in jeopardy.

"Both the magisterium and theologians are governed by 'the rule of faith,' the constitutive truth claims of the Catholic tradition," said Father Robert Imbelli of Boston College. "It is the responsibility of the magisterium to safeguard the rule of faith and, when necessary, to call theologians to accountability."

Father Imbelli was making a general observation rather than commenting specifically on Father Phan's work, but his observation points to a basic fault line that will likely govern reaction to the Phan case too.

On a personal level, Father Phan has a reputation for graciousness and humility. Over the years, he's sometimes tried to downplay the doctrinal significance of the outlook he's helped to pioneer.

"It's not a theological issue, but a practical question of priorities," he said at the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting last June. "When push comes to shove, if you've only got $20,000 to spend, how do you spend it? Do you build a church, or do you do something to promote God's reign that will help non-Christians too?"

That the answer seems obvious to Father Phan probably says more about the perspective he brings than about any broad consensus in the Catholic church. In the meantime, what seems certain is that the sort of theological views Father Phan represents, attempting to integrate both Asian religious views and postmodern thought with traditional Catholic formulas, will be the object of growing scrutiny by church authorities at multiple levels.

In that regard, Australian Jesuit Father Gerald O'Collins, one of the church's foremost experts on Christology, worries that those doing the scrutiny don't always have a sufficiently broad perspective. Father O'Collins has been down this road before, as the principal adviser to Father Dupuis during the Belgian Jesuit's own Vatican investigation.

"We need authority in the church," Father O'Collins said. "But if you're going to get into theology, you have to get it right."

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