Fr. Peter C. Phan’s Essay Redefining
the Meaning of Evangelization

Fr. Peter C. Phan is a theology professor at Georgetown University. He formerly taught in the Religious Studies Department at Catholic University of America (CUA) and is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (years 2001-2002), a society of theologians often at odds with the Magisterium of the Church. The author of scholarly papers on Christology, Ecclesiology, Liberation theologies, Religious Pluralism and Inculturation, Fr. Phan, a Vietnam-born priest, has been heralded as "one of the foremost Catholic theologians of the English-speaking world".

Unfortunately, he has shown himself a severe critic of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (CCC), opposing its release and its setting forth Catholic doctrines with which he does not agree. In an article "What is Old and What is New in the Catechism" published in a book "Introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Traditional Themes and Contemporary Issues" (edited by his fellow professor at CUA, Fr. Berard L. Marthaler – Paulist Press 1994), he wrote that for the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to "affirm 'tout court' that 'the old law' is a preparation for the Gospel, runs the risk of anti-Semitism"(!) In various other statements Phan made clear that readers of the CCC should object to the Catechism’s presentation of Catholic doctrine because it might give aid and comfort to the Church’s conservatives! As Msgr. Michael Wrenn and Kenneth Whitehead noted in examining Fr. Phan’s article:

"This is nothing but modern political correctness. A professor at the CUA is more concerned NOT to appear a 'conservative' or an 'anti-Semite' than he is to appear a professing Christian. At least he has not lost the concept of sin (being 'conservative' or 'anti-Semite'). But this is scarcely Catholicism. Ideology now apparently counts more than faith in Catholic University of America's School of Religious Studies" (see Wrenn and Whitehead's "Flawed Expectations: the Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church" – Ignatius Press, 1996).

In his various writings, Fr. Phan reveals himself as preferring the company of a new dissenting "magisterium of theologians" rather than the real Magisterium of Pope and Bishops.

In an Essay delivered at the 2001 Conference and Annual Meeting of the United States Catholic Mission Association in Memphis, Tennessee, October 26-28, 2001, Fr. Phan expounded his new "theology of mission". In his paper he gave what he believes to be a welcome radical change in the understanding of Evangelization (a radical change which he attributes -falsely- to Vatican II and recent Popes). He notes the "collapse of Christian mission" or missionary work affecting both Catholics and Protestants since the 1960’s. There has resulted, he observes, a sense of discouragement and malaise resulting from the resurgence of Islam and Hinduism and other non-Christian religions, and notions of religious pluralism which question the universal validity and exclusive claims of Catholic Christianity. Thus "the pessimism in today's missionary circles, Catholic and Protestant alike, is visible and palpable."

Therefore, Fr. Phan feels his need to set forth a "new theology of mission" in which the "salvation of souls" and the planting, the spread and growth of the Catholic Church are no longer the main goal of missionary work. That was the idea, he pontificates, of a now obsolete "old theology" in which "salvation is both individualized and ecclesiasticized", that is to say, missionaries had emphasized the prime need to save the souls of pagans and others and to make them Catholics. Fr. Phan thus disparages what he calls an "ecclesiocentric (Church-centered) theology of mission" as being no longer viable in our "emerging world order" world, and which he obviously feels must be rejected as causing unnecessary offense to those of other religions. Stating that "A quiet Copernican revolution took place," he does insist that:

"the principal goal [of the foreign missions] is no longer 'saving souls' and 'church planting' but bearing witness to the Kingdom of God... What is mission? Exclusively for the Reign of God, or simply God. Anything else that is made into the goal of mission, even as noble as church growth or salvation of souls, smacks of idolatry." (!)

Fr. Phan’s "new theology of mission... views the relations among the 4 key terms – proclamation, reign of God, church, and mission [emphasized by the old theology] – in a radically different way":

"The new way prioritizes them in just the opposite order: reign of God, mission, proclamation, and church. This will affect even pedestrian matters, the way budgets are planned, which projects get funded, whether churches or social centers are built, and of course, how power is controlled and by whom."

This last reflection doubtless indicates Fr. Phan’s favor for a "liberation theology of Mission" that would also "democratize" what he views as the political-power structures of the Church.

The heart of Fr. Phan’s concept of the Church lies in his rejection of the centrality of the Church in the revealed economy of salvation. For him, it is not the Church which defines the parameters of Evangelization or the nature of Mission but rather:

it is Mission "oriented to the Kingdom of God and not to the growth of one's own church" [whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant] which defines the Church; "The Church cannot be simply identified with the reign of God as such, despite the many links that unite the two"; "The church [which, interestingly, is not identified by Fr. Phan with the Catholic Church] comes last not only in the chronological but also theological order... The church no longer occupies the center nor the top position in the new theology of mission"; "Christian mission can no longer be what it was, a one-way proclamation of a message of salvation to a world of pagans totally bereft of God’s self-revelation and grace."

Moreover, he adds, "missionary collaboration must not be limited to fellow Catholics", it must be carried out in collaboration with followers of other Christian denominations and non-Christians as well!

What is to be said concerning this radical (and somewhat fantastic) configuration of the missionary goals of the Catholic Church?

  • Does the Catholic Church no longer have to pursue the goal of bringing salvation to every member of the human race as the sole Ark of Salvation?
  • Is the Catholic Church now so subordinated to the establishing of the Kingdom of God that Catholic missionaries need no longer pray and work to urge membership in the only Church Christ founded?
  • Is the primary goal of the Catholic Church just to be content with "a search for and recognition of the presence and activities of the Holy Spirit among the peoples to be evangelized, and in this humble and attentive process of listening, the evangelizers become the evangelized, and the evangelized become the evangelizers?"

It would certainly appear that Fr. Phan's "new theology of mission" is, in fact, hostile to "the model of the institutional Church", and that pagans are now to be entrusted with the task of evangelizing Catholic missionaries – and converting them away from a militant Catholicism that would seek their full incorporation into the visible and mystical Body of Christ. In Fr. Phan's "new theology of mission" one sees no solution at all for the "collapse of Christian mission" in the post-conciliar world but rather all the ingredients leading to a loss of faith wherein "the mystery of Jesus Christ and His one and only Church lose their character of absolute truth and salvific universality, or at least shadows of doubt and uncertainty are cast upon them" (See "Dominus Iesus : Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000 – a document issued by the Holy See which was directed against similar acute misunderstandings of the Church’s mission of Evangelization).

Fr. Phan finds Pope John Paul II’s term "New Evangelization" "confusing." However, he does note that Pope John Paul II’s "New Evangelization" for the Third Millennium has a broad meaning involving many aspects. Actually, Pope Paul VI had made clear that Evangelization "has the aim of bringing the Good News [of Christ as Savior] to the whole of humanity" and is "a rich, complex and dynamic reality, made up of elements, or one could say moments, that are essential and different from each other, and that all must be kept in view simultaneously" (cf. his Evangelii Nuntiandi 17-24). It involves the re-evangelization of lapsed Catholics and those who once heard the Gospel message and have forgotten it. It also involves the conversion of those who have never heard it at all.

Fr. Phan admits that the "New Evangelization" involves all the above, though he does not clarify in this Essay his view of "salvation". With the Pope, he regards "dialogue" with pagan and non-Christian religions as desirable and as evincing respect for whatever rays of truth the Holy Spirit may have granted such peoples. He quotes Pope John Paul II as writing: "The Holy Spirit directs the mission of the Church... The Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history". However, contrary to Fr. Phan, the Church's "old theology" never held (as he intimates – whatever the erroneous attitudes of individual missionaries) that those outside the Church were absolutely devoid of graces granted by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is the same Holy Spirit who has called all men to enter into the Catholic Unity of the Church (See Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, 13).

One can not separate too sharply the Kingdom (or Reign) of God from the Catholic Church, as Fr. Phan does. The Church is indeed "a sign and instrument for the reign (Kingdom) of God", as he notes, but it is also true that The Kingdom of God and Christ is "already present in mystery" in the Catholic Church and "grows visibly through the power of God in the world" (Ibid., 3). The Catholic Church is "on earth, the seed and beginning of that Kingdom" (Ibid., 5), and the "old theology" remains vindicated in having held correctly that Christ’s Church founded on the Rock of Peter is the Kingdom of God on earth. Though the visible Church headed by the Successor of Peter is assuredly not the "completed Kingdom", nevertheless, the Church is not to be devalued as Fr. Phan does in registering his discomfort with the "institutional Church" by failing to mark the teaching of an Ecumenical Council of the Church on the necessity of the Church for salvation :

"Christ is present to us in his Body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it."
(Vatican II’s "Lumen Gentium" 14)

No "new theology of mission" is authorized to deny or ignore this truth of the Catholic faith in obscuring the visibility of Christ’s Church with strange assertions made about 'pagans' who are not really pagan, and to 'Christians', who are not really Christian. Nor does it provide a service to the authentic ecumenism fostered by the Church by failure "to teach that the fullness of the revealed truths and of the means of salvation is found in the Catholic Church" (cf. Pope John Paul II’s "Catechesi Tradendae" 32). Missionaries formed in the "old theology" had no difficulty in professing such teaching in fidelity to Christ. Similarly, the "New Evangelization" has not departed from the continuation of the "good works" of the "old theology" which involved works of social justice and the transformation of social structures resulting from the establishment of schools, hospitals, orphanages, etc. – all of which helped prepare for the reception of the inestimable grace and gift of the Catholic faith.

As noted, the priorities set by Fr. Phan’s "new theology of mission": reign of God, mission, proclamation, and church – in that order – has resulted in throwing the "four central realities of the Christian faith" into confusion resulting from a radical devaluation of Christ's institution of the Church which He founded to proclaim Him as the Eternal Son of God made man to expiate the sins of all. After all, it is the actual Catholic Church, not some amorphous "Reign of God" separated from its institutional form which was commissioned by Christ with the mission and power to proclaim to all humanity the salvation wrought by Christ on Calvary and to explain with authority what He had taught them by His words and actions, His signs and commandments. Missionaries of the "old theology" knew well that their converts become members of the Catholic Church were precisely those who explicitly accepted the Kingdom (or Reign) of Christ in mind and heart.

Finally, Fr. Phan’s views concerning his "new theology of mission" cannot be reconciled with key truths stressed in "Dominus Iesus". He does register basic agreement with the teaching in "Dominus Iesus" that: "the Church is not an end unto herself, since she is ordered toward the Kingdom of God, of which she is the seed, sign, and instrument. Yet while remaining distinct from Christ and the Kingdom, the Church is indissolubly united to both" (n. 18).

But he ignores its teaching, which warns erring scholars against:

"keeping silent about the mystery of Redemption. Further, the Kingdom... ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed 'ecclesiocentrism' [Church-centeredness rather than being centered on Christ as Lord and Head of the Church] of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity. These theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the Kingdom of God."
(Ibid. n. 19)

The theological ambiguities and doctrinal shortcomings in Fr. Phan’s Essay may be said to find their correction in n.22 of "Dominus Iesus":

"With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by Him to be the instrument for the salvation of ALL humanity (cf. Acts 17: 30-31). This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that 'one religion is as good as another'. If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have all the fullness of salvation. However, 'all the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be more severely judged'. One understands that, following the Lord's command (cf. Matt. 28: 19-20) and as a requirement of her love for all people, the Church 'proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn. 14:6). In Him, whom God reconciled all things to Himself (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life'.

In interreligious dialogue as well, the mission 'ad gentes' [to the peoples] 'today as always retains its full force and necessity'. Indeed, God 'desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim. 2:4); that is, God wills the salvation of every one through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God's universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary. Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission 'ad gentes'. Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ – Who is God Himself made man – in relation to the founders of other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate in communion with God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, the certainty of the salvific will of God does not diminish, but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ".


A reading of the entire text of "Dominus Iesus" is the best antidote for the confusing and unbalanced treatment of the priorities of "reign of God, mission, proclamation, and church" promoted in Fr. Phan’s Essay. It can well be said that "Dominus Iesus" represents a splendid reaffirmation of the "old theology’s" priorities of "Church, Proclamation, Mission, Reign of God".

Indeed, there is no need for a "new theology of mission" that would seriously mislead future missionaries (and all Catholics should be missionaries, as Pope John Paul II teaches) and which would fatally compromise the "Universal Evangelizing Mission" born from the command of Jesus Christ to His one and only Church.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage