At Variance with the Vatican

Church investigation of Georgetown U. theology professor's book raises concerns about academic freedom.
September 17, 2007

The Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are reportedly investigating a book by a Georgetown University professor of theology, the Rev. Peter C. Phan, to determine whether the work is consistent with church doctrine regarding understandings of Roman Catholicism relative to other religions.

In an article last week, the National Catholic Reporter quoted a letter from Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stating that Phan's Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue (Orbis, 2004) could conflict with a 2000 Vatican document, Dominus lesus. The document, the National Catholic Reporter article notes, says 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.”

“There’s been a lot of discussion about the Vatican position on this after their famous Dominus lesus document came out, about what is the relationship of Catholic churches to other churches?” said the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a professor in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University who lost a job as a theologian at the Catholic University of America after running afoul of church leadership for offering dissenting viewpoints.

“The very traditional Catholic teaching is that God wills to save all people – the universal salvific will of God,” said Father Curran, also a friend of Father Phan’s (the two, incidentally, were planning to meet for dinner Friday). The Dominus lesus document, in contrast, “tends to take a narrower view than many theologians would take” – Father Phan among them, Father Curran said.

Father Phan, a native of Vietnam and former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, declined to comment on the matter. The Vatican press office could not be reached, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, confirmed that the conference’s Committee on Doctrine “is in dialogue with Peter Phan” in regards to the book. She declined to elaborate on the nature of the discussions.

"Clearly, this is worrisome to any theologian who's devoted his or her life to grappling with these issues and also trying to be a good Catholic," said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "I think this just emphasizes the difficulty of being a theologian wearing two hats: that of a theologian grappling with issues as a scholar and as a theologian of the church."

"A theologian is not just supposed to repeat what's in the catechism, but sometimes the theologian is on the growing end of new ideas," Father Currie said.

Many in the Catholic and Jesuit college world watched with interest and some, with concern, to see what would happen with the 2005 selection of Pope Benedict XVI – who, in his former capacity as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had been entrusted with enforcing church doctrine. In that role, he had pressured Catholic colleges to conform more closely to the church’s teachings, and had also been associated with Pope John Paul II’s efforts to enhance the Catholic identities of Catholic colleges through Ex corde Ecclesiae.

But while some wondered whether the selection of the new pope would bring increased scrutiny of Catholic theologians and professors, Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said he has seen no such uptick in investigations of scholarly work, which happen periodically but still infrequently.

“It is true that from time to time in almost any given decade, there will be some theologian in the United States or abroad who will publish work which to that person seems scholarly and reasonable, and is acceptable to an academic or a commercial press. It is occasionally a situation in which the central thesis of the book or a, I’ll say, ancillary argument within the book, is found in a substantial way to contradict the formal teaching of the Catholic faith – which would not be an issue unless the author is contending that his or her point of view does represent the true view of the Catholic faith,” Yanikoski said (adding, however, that he’s no expert on Father Phan’s case in particular).

Taking the secular analogy of the Catholic church being like a franchise, Yanikoski explained, “It is not the case that anyone who is speaking in the name of the Catholic church has the right to do it or is getting it correct. The owner of the franchise has a right to correct what is theirs,” he said – adding that while there are lots of areas where there’s room for scholarly interpretation of Catholic teachings, when a prominent theologian offers a differing interpretation of central dogma for a lay audience that lacks the knowledge base to contradict it, the church leadership understandably sees a need to step in.

However, Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis who recently published an Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Facts on File, 2007), said he expects more investigations of scholarly work under Pope Benedict XVI's leadership. "I think it's a way for the Vatican to get control. They did this so Georgetown will be pressured into firing Peter Phan....And [if that happens] Georgetown will lose its credibility as an institution of higher learning with independent thought," Flinn said.

“As a Catholic and Jesuit university, the current faculty at Georgetown, including Professor Phan, continue a long and distinguished tradition of research and writing on complex religious and ethical concerns,” a Georgetown spokeswoman, Julie Green Bataille, said in a written statement Friday.

“Georgetown University 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. We understand that there has been correspondence between Professor Phan and church officials but as Georgetown University is not a party to that correspondence, we respect the privacy of that exchange.”


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