Indian theologian deserves support, not CDF censure

I have never imagined that I would one day write a letter to the pope.

May 23, 2014

Pope Francis
Bishop of Rome
Vatican City

May 13, 2014

Dear Pope Francis:

I have never imagined that I would one day write a letter to the pope. But because you yourself, after your election as bishop of Rome and therefore as the universal pastor of the Catholic church, have written to and phoned individuals, Catholics as well as those who belong to other faiths and no faith, I am emboldened to address to you personally, albeit publicly.

I thought of sending you a private letter but was afraid that it would never reach you. I also did not want to start a letter-writing campaign canvassing for signatures since I do not want to organize a political movement. I hope that this open letter to you will be read at least by those who are your close collaborators who may then offer you appropriate advice regarding the matter I am bringing to your attention.

I am sure that by now you are aware that your election to the papacy has brought new hope and a breath of fresh air to a lot of people, though of course not all, in the Catholic church and even outside the church. I am also cognizant of the fact that you are dealing with huge problems such as the clergy sex abuse, financial scandals and the reform of the Roman Curia.

The matter I am bringing to your attention seems small in comparison. I refer to the fact that recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has required the Indian theologian Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss to write "an article publicly endorsing the Vatican's views or face silencing." It was also reported that he had been told to cancel lectures and to halt the publication of his work. I am quoting a news source since generally all the dealings with the CDF are shrouded in secrecy.

I am writing partly because I want to show support for Fr. Amaladoss, who is a friend of mine and who, I suppose, is not at liberty to defend himself publicly. But there is a much more important reason for my writing, and that is the future of the Catholic church in Asia and its theology. As you know well, the Catholic church is a tiny minority in Asia. Its mission is to proclaim the Good News of God's love -- or as you put it, "the joy of the Gospel" -- to all the people of Asia in a way that they find it understandable and believable. The Catholic church in and of Asia, through the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, has proposed to fulfill the Christian mission of evangelization through a triple dialogue with the poor people of Asia, its cultures, and its religions.

Through his long years of teaching, numerous writings, and international lectures, Fr. Amaladoss has made an enormous and lasting contribution to the elaboration of a genuinely Asian theology. But as you know, theologians in Asia do not enjoy the kind of institutional support, academic freedom of research and publication, and legal protection as theologians do in Europe and in the United States, especially if they teach at non-pontifical, non-Catholic, or state universities. Asian theologians are almost all priests and religious teaching in seminaries and church-controlled institutions. They are not protected by due process and academic freedom and can be fired at will by their religious and ecclesiastical superiors. I think that the CDF knows this well.

I am not a knee-jerk defender of "academic freedom" understood as the license to teach anything according to one's conscience and intellectual lights. I am convinced that Christian theologians must be responsible to the truth of God's revelation, the episcopal magisterium of the church, the magisterium of the faithful, and in Asia, the magisterium of the poor, as well. As a theologian, Fr. Amaladoss has fulfilled his responsibilities in teaching and writing in an exemplary fashion, in humility, kindness, and holiness.

There are only a very small number of Asian theologians working in the West and enjoying academic freedom and immunity from fear of ecclesiastical censure of any kind and from any source. We thus have both the opportunity and the duty to raise our voices in defense of our colleagues in Asia. But more than defense of and solidarity with our friends, it is the future of the Catholic church in Asia that is at stake. Without a robust theology that can arise only in an atmosphere of academic freedom, intellectual creativity, moral integrity, and personal courage, the Catholic church in Asia will be deprived of an effective tool to fulfill its mission.

Dear Pope Francis, you will soon visit Asia. Please take this opportunity to say a word of deep appreciation to Fr. Amaladoss for his theological work and a word of strong encouragement to the younger Asian theologians. Please tell them that they should not be discouraged by what they see happening to their predecessors and that they should continue their theological work with creativity, courage, and the "joy of the Gospel."

May God continue to bless you in your ministry,

Peter C. Phan

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