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Theologian, under heavy fire, appeals to pope

NCR Staff

Harsh ecclesiastical penalties against one of Asia's best-known theologians -- possibly the harshest applied to any theologian in recent times -- are on hold, pending a reply from Pope John Paul II.

Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya appealed to the pope against the sanctions, which include excommunication, and then on Dec. 15 gained the unanimous support of more than 80 Christian theologians meeting in the Philippines. The theologians, meeting outside Manila as the fourth international assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, agreed to write the pope and ask that Balasuriya be granted a public hearing. They also declared they would continue to regard him as a priest and theologian even if he were excommunicated from the church.

The 72-year-old Balasuriya made an unscheduled presentation to the assembly. Previously he had been warned that unless he recanted his nontraditional theological positions by signing a Vatican-produced profession of faith, he would be subject to latae sententiae, or automatic excommunication, under canon 1364 in the church's official Code of Canon Law. The penalty was to take effect Dec. 8 until he bought more time with his recent appeal to the pope.

Oblate Fr. Alexander Taché of Rome, mediator with the Holy See, said the pope is expected to respond soon.

The canon applies to apostates, heretics and schismatics and carries specific penalties for clerics. According to a commentary on canon 1364 in The Code of Canon Law: a Text and Commentary, edited by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green and Donald E. Heintschel (Paulist Press, 1985), clerics may be penalized more harshly for doctrinal offenses because "clerics are apparently viewed as having special institutional responsibilities." Those penalties may include loss of clerical faculties or dismissal from the clerical state.

The canon warns, "If long lasting contumacy or the seriousness of scandal warrants it, other penalties can be added, including dismissal from the clerical state."

Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan, is a liberation theologian who has aimed to recast Western theology for Eastern minds and interfaith settings. Sri Lankan bishops have accused him of "irresponsible and immature theologizing" in his 1990 book Mary and Human Liberation. But Balasuriya has argued in written communication with NCR that his country's bishops have taken his views out of context and distorted them. He was traveling in the Philippines and unavailable for further comment before NCR went to press.

Balasuriya's book on Mary was published by his Center for Society and Religion, which he founded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1971, and had limited distribution. It is virtually unavailable in the United States. In 1994, Sri Lankan bishops published a statement saying that Balasuriya, in his book on Mary, had misrepresented the doctrine of original sin and cast serious doubts on the divinity of Christ, on his role as a redeemer and on the privileged position of Mary.

Balasuriya holds degrees in theology from Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Paris. He was formerly president of Aquinas University College in Sri Lanka. He has founded a variety of organizations devoted to peace, justice and interfaith concerns, including, in 1976, the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, the organization that gave him its unqualified support on Dec. 15. His other books include The Eucharist and Human Liberation, published by Orbis in 1978.

Balasuriya has repeatedly refused to sign the profession of faith -- essentially a loyalty oath to Pope John Paul II -- given to him in mid-May by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The congregation is headed by doctrinal watchdog Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who has declared war on theological "relativism."

The profession, which Balasuriya believes to have been drafted particularly for him, "is ominously incomplete and potentially misleading" in the way it quotes the documents of Vatican II, he wrote in an information statement released Dec. 8. "It strangely omits the references to the paths of salvation open to persons of other religions and to all persons of good conscience as affirmed in Vatican II."

Balasuriya's most recent refusal to sign came on Dec. 7. Instead, he signed earlier this year a profession of faith written by Pope Paul VI (1963-78). Balasuriya added his own statement with his signature: that he was signing "in the context of theological development and church practice since Vatican II and the freedom and responsibility of Christians and theological searchers under canon law."

Taché, who oversees relations between the Holy See and his international religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, acknowledged that the penalties cited in canon 1364 would be the harshest in memory to be applied against a theologian.

The reason, Taché said, is that Balasuriya "is going against very fundamental dogmas -- the universal redemption of Christ, original sin" -- and "has shown a repeated refusal to subscribe to these elements of the Catholic faith."

Given that, Taché said, it is possible to argue that a stronger penalty is justified.

On the other hand, rather than excommunication, Taché said, "It may be that the decision will be that he is not to be considered a Catholic theologian, as was the case with Hans Küng."

Küng, a priest who recently retired from the University of Tubingen in Germany, was declared to be no longer a Catholic theologian in 1979, a penalty prompted in part by his refusal to uphold the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Taché added that if the pope returns the decision to the Vatican congregation, further appeals could come. "The Holy Father could ask the congregation to proceed in a particular way, or tell the congregation to proceed as they feel proper," Taché said. "Then the person would have some time for recourse."

"We all hope it's going to be resolved," Taché said. "Balasuriya is not a young man. He has been with us for the last 50 years and he is well-known and respected as a person.

"On the other hand, we certainly don't agree with his doctrinal positions. We also respect those who are responsible for the integrity of the faith in the church.

"It's a difficult situation," he said -- "one where you respect and understand the position of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; on the other hand you have this person who is trying to survive, who may have said or written something he feels is right."

Balasuriya says that the uniqueness of his work grows out of his position as a minority Christian constantly challenged "to rethink the key dogmas of the Christian tradition" to make them understandable to Hindus and Buddhists. Sri Lanka, an island off the southeast coast of India, formerly Ceylon, is predominantly Buddhist. Christians and Muslims are estimated to be 8 percent each of the population, Hindus 15 percent and Buddhists 69 percent. Members of other faiths are often repulsed by some Christian teachings, such as the notion that human beings are born in a state of alienation from their creator, as presented in the doctrine of original sin, Balasuriya says.

In 1994, he replied to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with 58 instances of what he said were misrepresentations of his work. Last November the congregation described his reply as "unsatisfactory" and enclosed the profession of faith.

The profession requires him to agree that the church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." It also requires him to promise to adhere "with religious submission of will and intellect" to the magisterium, even in the case of teachings that are not proclaimed to be "definitive."

In his book on Mary, Balasuriya described her as the first woman priest. He also argued that traditional Marian piety -- including the doctrines of the immaculate conception and the assumption and despite such exceptions as Our Lady of Guadalupe -- generally serves "the capitalist, patriarchal, colonialist, first world of Christendom" at the expense of the poor and working classes.

He has argued that recitation of the rosary, for example, diverts attention from the need for human liberation -- that is, development as an empowered human being in touch with gospel values.

At the theologians' meeting in the Philippines, Jesuit Fr. Samuel Rayan, an Indian theologian, asked, "What right does Rome have to force a Sri Lankan to take a profession of faith that no one else has to take?"

In his information statement, Balasuriya said he felt the sanctions gravely violated "both my rights as a Catholic and a human person."

"No one has still proved to any judicial tribunal that what I have written is a defection from the Catholic faith," he wrote. "Many Catholic theologians hold views similar to mine, but they have had no comparable sanctions imposed on them. In fact, some others hold views quite contrary to official church teachings, but they are not even questioned by the authorities. Is this not a case of inequity?"

He continued: "I have repeatedly written to all authorities concerned that I am prepared to correct myself publicly if I am proven wrong in terms of contemporary theological scholarship before a fair tribunal. ... This profession of faith is imposed on me as a punitive measure, presuming that I have defected from the faith, without proving it. It is contrary to natural justice to insist that I accept this unilateral judgment without any formal hearing or trial."

He also cites canons from the official code, including Canon 221, which states: "Christ's faithful may lawfully vindicate and defend the rights they enjoy in the church before the competent ecclesiastical forum in accordance with the law."

Balasuriya added: "Since 1945, I have given all my adult life to the service of the church ... At the age of 72, after 51 years in the Congregation of the Oblates and 44 years as a priest, I wish to remain a member of the Catholic church. I will be in ecclesial and spiritual communion with the church of Jesus even if legally excommunicated by ecclesiastical authorities."

This story contains information supplied by Catholic News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997