It isn't very shocking to pick up the newspaper and learn that there has been (a) another clash between Rome and a progressive Catholic theologian and that (b) this scholar teaches at Georgetown University. However, it is rather strange to read the coverage of the controversy and not really know what is going on, in terms of the Vatican's criticism of the priest involved. Here is the top of the Washington Post story about the case:
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.
"Pluralism," of course, can mean many things, and the Post connects this with the recent Vatican document about the Roman church's claim to be, well, the Catholic Church for all of planet earth. This resulted in saying that other religious bodies do not have as full a revelation of the truth as does Catholicism. This is pretty standard stuff.
However, this clash seems -- it's hard to tell -- to be centering on a larger conflict. Could it be that Rome is trying to clarify its own teachings on the status of world religions other than Christianity? If so, we might be dealing with an issue linked to ancient doctrines about salvation and the actual nature of Jesus Christ.
If that is the case, then we are faced with a conflict rooted in one of those pushy questions in the infamous "tmatt trio." For newcovers, this is a set of questions that I have found almost always yields interesting information when used during interviews about conflicts inside Christian bodies:
1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
However, I must admit that it is hard to tell, at this point, precisely what is going on.
For Georgetown officials, this is automatically a case of academic freedom as defined on a secular university campus. For the Vatican, this is an issue of who is a Roman Catholic theologian and who is not, and Rome thinks it should play a role in that decision. Phan is declining comment, which is the normal Georgetown response.
At the end of the story, we learn:
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."
Now, I do not believe the Catholic Church argues that it is exempt from sin and The Fall. The Church can make mistakes, as it attempts to teach and live out doctrines that it believes are absolutely true. Am I wrong about that?
But note the references to "differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions." That's a completely different set of issues.
Over at the Associated Press, Eric Gorski notes:
The issues underpinning Phan's case are causing great debate among Catholic theologians grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context, said Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
"To come to judgment as the Vatican seems to be doing so quickly, before theologians have had time to work out and critique the positions ... it's just premature," Tilley said. "It's in a sense cutting off debate before the debate's started."
I have no idea what this phrase means -- "grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context." European context? The irony there is that Catholics in other parts of the world are often more clear on the basic issues of Christology and salvation than the folks in Europe.
So, at this point, let's just say that I am confused and I want to know more. What are the key issues here anyway?