Monday, December 10, 2007

Where angels fear to tread

With an election year nearly upon us, most commentators on things Catholic are focusing on politics and Catholic interactions with it, from abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage to health care and the war in Iraq. But there is an equally interesting debate going on right now, this one theological, about Catholicism and the significance of other world religions--and it can be just as bruising.

The latest casualty is Peter Phan, a Vietnamese American professor of theology at Georgetown, whose book Being Religious Interreligiously (Orbis) just got the doctrinal ding from the U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine. Outlined in a 15-page statement, the committee judged Phan's work deficient on three grounds: the uniqueness of Christ in the history of salvation, the place and purpose of other religions, and the uniqueness of the church as the "universal sacrament of salvation" for all people. Phan, a priest of Dallas, joins Jesuits Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight on the list of Catholic theologians censured for being overly generous toward other religions.

What makes Phan's case interesting is that the US bishops are the ones dealing with it, rather than the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (We are still waiting to see if the CDF will weigh in.) Also of interest is the role that the August 2000 (and recently reaffirmed) CDF document Dominus Iesus is playing. Though issued "only" by the CDF, it is being relied upon to fill in the blanks left by Vatican II, which was silent on many of these interreligious questions--whether God wills other religions, for example. (Vatican II at least answered in the affirmative for Judaism.) But Dominus Iesus is still a document of the Curia--it's not even technically a "papal" document, though it does have Pope John Paul II's signature on it. It's a "declaration" of the CDF and doesn't quite carry the gravitas of a Vatican II document.

Still, it looks like trying to tackle the reality of religious pluralism is a recipe for rebuke. Too bad, too, since it's more necessary than ever.


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