Father Peter Phan, 61, is a Vietnamese born Catholic theologian currently teaching at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is an internationally acclaimed intellectual, a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a key advisor to the Asian Bishops.

Father Phan’s many books and field of expertise is the relationship of Christianity with non-Christian religions. He is considered by many a prophet who is pointing the way to a Catholicism more universal than Roman. Phan’s core theological concern is the transition from what he sees as a largley Western, Euro-centric mode of Christianity to a faith more throughly shaped by different global cultures, languages and values.

In a nutshell, Phan’s thesis is that God does not necessarily want everybody to be Christian. What follows from this is that converting people to Catholicism and Christianity should not be a top priority: « If people come to church, that’s great. 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. » Nor does he think God’s kingdom on earth is co-terminous with the Christian church. He believes that while Christ may be absolute and universal, the same cannot be said of the institutional Church.

It should come as no surprise that Father Phan is being investigated by Rome and the American bishops. He does not seem too worried. He says he is perfectly ready to sit down and respond to critical questions from the Vatican and the bishops but he inists on being paid for his time. Good on him, I say.

Four centuries ago missionaries streamed here from Europe to convert the native peoples. Should the Catholic church still be in the conversion business?



  1. 1
    Barbara Says:

    You may be inadvertantly projecting an old-fashioned view of missionary work/conversion. In Japan, where I knew many RC missionaries, the emphasis was being a Christian presence in a nonChristian culture, doing things that Christians do, i.e. opening hospitals, schools, shelters for those needing protection. They seek to establish a niche within the broader culture and earn its respect. There was no pressure brought on any student at the college where I taught to convert, although they were exposed to Catholic worship and thought. Very, very few, in fact, did convert. Because western style weddings are popular, the Church provides a venue for them to take place and, in that context, shared Christian values on marriage. Catholics and Protestants worked side-by-side and cooperate in a friendly fashion.
    The most active proselytizers I met were Mormons who went door-to-door.
    It does no good in Asian countries to be aggressive. Christianity is a very foreign concept and their local religion is woven thoroughly into their culture. There is a sense that you abandon your entire culture and family, if you became a Christian. Hence, it is necessary to become part and parcel of the broader culture before conversion could become acceptable. It is called pre-evangelization and it takes generations.

  2. 2
    bernie12 Says:

    Your blog on Fr P Phan is very thoughtful as is the comment by Barbara .

    I think we have much to learn from Buddists and other religions . The story of King Cyrus in the OT is a good example of the mysterious ways of God . We need to be open to these unexpected manifeststions of God’s love for everyone .


  3. 3

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment on the religious situation in Japan and the attitude to conversions informed by your own experience. Indeed I may be projecting an old-fashioned view of Catholic missionary work but I expect it is still extant in the more conservative elements of the Church.


    Welcome back. You strike me as one of those whose outlook (more rare now) is informed by the expansive vision of the Church articulated in Vatican 11. We had a discussion with Gregory Baum the other evening. As you know he is one of the few theologians still alive who played a key role in the Council.

  4. 4
    SUZANNE Says:

    Yes, we should still be in the business in seeking souls for Christ. It doesn’t mean we have to go door to door. But we shouldn’t abandon the idea, either. The model of preaching is a good one in a culture where Christianity is dormant. It’s not a good model when Christianity is non-existent.

    The thing about Christ is that his message is so powerful in itself that it attracts people.

    I wish the Church would start re-converting her own. That’d be a good start.

  5. 5
    Chimera Says:

    « Four centuries ago missionaries streamed here from Europe to convert the native peoples. Should the Catholic church still be in the conversion business? »

    Considering that, at the time, the Church considered anyone not Catholic to be diseased, demonic, and not fit to live, I’ll say they better back up and re-think their strategy before they try it. The « natives » these days have better weapons with which to fight back.

    Those of us with tribal memories are not about to forget that children were kidnapped away from their families, warehoused in filthy residential schools, beaten for speaking in their own language, and forced to convert to a system of slavery they did not understand. Not a few of them were sexually abused, as well. All in the name of « saving » what the priests called « souls » — a concept that has never been clearly defined to this very day.

    The parents of those children were lured to a different kind of slavery, fed on « charity » and denied citizenship and a voice in the governing of their own country! They were first seduced into drinking alcohol — a substance for which their bodies had no defense; then it was forbidden to them after they had become addicted; then they were criminalized for following the urges of their conversion-induced addiction. They were also forced into warehouses of a sort — the reservations — where they were then forbidden their former lives and liveliehoods. And all the time, the Church stood proudly by, watching the decimation of a peoples’ spirit, and counting the bloody « saved souls » for which they were taking credit.

    Neil…even I didn’t know I had this much bitterness still left in me. Please understand that I don’t have any hatred for people who choose to follow the Catholic church. My mother-in-law is a staunch Catholic, and I love her dearly, and she me. But I have no love for her Church and its hide-bound, obstinate refusal to leave anyone alone if their beliefs happen to differ.

    In this time of universal communication capabilities, there is no excuse for any religious organization to force itself into the lives of people with the goal of converting them. Least of all a religious organization with such a bloody track record.

    « Should the Catholic church still be in the conversion business? »

    Not only no, but hell, no! In truth, it should never have begun.

  6. 6

    « The thing about Christ is that his message is so powerful in itself that it attracts people. »
    I think Father Phan may be saying something like that. Christ’s message is universal and is more important than the ecclesial institution.

    Your authentic cry of pain comes through loud and clear. It is indeed sad that so many church messengers instilled so much fear when the central message of the Gospel is love.

  7. 7
    Paul Costopoulos Says:

    When I got married, 42 years ago, my wife had a cousin, now deceased, who was a White Sister of Africa. She never preached or wore her habit during all the years she spent in Algeria. She was a teacher…in a Muslim school. She bore witness to her Faith, first, to her Church, next. When she died, in Québec, messages of sympathy poured in from her former African friends and pupils.
    Many errors were made, in good faith, by people who knew no better. We may still have some Christian extremists of all denominations. Lets hope they are breed on the way to extinction and that never again, as was the case with the Americas’ aboriginals, will whole cultures be eradicated in the name of God.

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