- The Joy of Religious Pluralism: A Personal Journey by Peter C. Phan
In 2005, Peter C. Phan, the Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, was informed that his book, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue (Orbis, 2004) was being investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s highest doctrinal body, on the grounds that his book “is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities” (175). The Joy of Religious Pluralism amply documents Phan’s response to these charges. A first chapter narrates the process all the way to its inconclusive ending, which was seemingly a standoff rather than a resolution. Four substantive chapters deal with the debated points regarding the Spirit (ch. 3), Jesus as unique and universal savior (ch. 4), the status of people in other faith traditions (the “holy pagans”) (c. 5), and the mission of the church in a world of enduring pluralism (ch. 6). These chapters revisit matters of great import that have been debated for decades, and clarifies the issues helpfully, without resolving them.
Phan adds a weighty appendix of about 50 pages comprised of his extensive correspondence, between 2005 and 2007, with officials of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome and the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Included are the CDF’s 2005 10-page critique, “Some Observations on the Book by Rev. Peter C. Phan . . . ,” and the USCCB Committee’s 2007 13-page critique, “Clarifications Required by the Book, Being Religious Interreligiously.” In his letters to various ecclesial correspondents, Phan argues deadlines with bishops; he points out the unfairness of the [End Page 83] Vatican conclusion that that book is not to be reprinted, even before hearing from its author; he recognizes the difficulty of finding a respectable journal that would publish a forced self-critique. The book’s title itself is surprising; perhaps Phan is contrasting the “joy of interreligious learning” with the grimness of the officials criticizing the book?
Freshest and most sharply defined is Chapter 2, “Different Ways of Doing Theology,” Phan’s reflection on how authority works in the Catholic Church. “The truth, in a nutshell, is that we [he and the bishops] have employed different theological methods.” This is because “theological views on particular doctrines . . . are often rooted in different ways of doing theology or theological methodologies.” In the end, disputes about particular doctrines “ultimately turn into disputes about how these doctrines are and should be derived from sources of the faith of the community” (21–22). Phan thinks that the current ecclesial leadership—at the CDF and in Washington—is unprofessional, working in a needlessly impersonal and autocratic manner, and burdened with unnuanced views of the history of theology, and the extent and nature of Roman authority in deciding doctrine. In Phan’s view, it is a basic mistake to speak of “the Magisterium” as a monolithic teaching authority based in Rome and able to decide on its own what counts as Catholic theology globally. He therefore broadens the magisterium by noticing four other magisteria, those of theologians, lay people, the poor, and the faithful of other religions. All five will then be further enriched, localized, and complicated by attention to the differences in Catholic communities around the world. Though Phan teaches and writes in the United States, he is from Vietnam, and in many of his writings, as here, he draws attention to authentic Catholic insights of the Asian Bishops Conference and the multiple magisteria of the Asian context. Rome—as a city and a mind-set—can no longer on its own determine what counts as Catholic.
All of this is terribly important and gets to the heart of the matter: who gets to decide, and in consultation with whom? The five magisteria, so historically and culturally varied and each possessed of many voices speaking different languages, add up to a very complicated web of interconnections that only...