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Excommunication is an inordinate threat

Any day, Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya could be officially notified by the Vatican that he is excommunicated, presumably as a heretic, and dismissed from the clerical state under a special provision of church law aimed at dissident priests.

That such a penalty could be imposed on a priest who has devoted his life to the church under the most difficult of circumstances defies credulity, justice and recent historical precedent.

Balasuriya is nearing the end of his career. He is 72. He has been a member of the Oblate order for more than half a century. He has been a priest for 44 years.

What could he possibly have done at this late date to warrant such a harsh penalty -- harsher than any levied against a cleric in recent times?

In the era of Pope John Paul II, several prominent theologians have been silenced or deprived of their right to teach Catholic theology. But only the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre brought excommunication on himself, not because of what he taught or wrote -- though his preaching and writing caused headaches inside the Vatican -- but because he ordained four bishops to lead his traditionalist movement. He did this in defiance of the Vatican, effectively setting up an independent, self-authorized parallel church structure.

It was that event, a true act of schism, rather than his stubborn, long-standing opposition to doctrinal evolution and modernization of liturgy approved by the Second Vatican Council, that set him finally outside the church.

Balasuriya has committed no such schismatic act. He has written a controversial book of limited availability. He has perhaps downplayed certain aspects of Christian theology in order to make Christianity accessible to Buddhists and Hindus in the interfaith context in which he works. Three years after his book on Mary was published, it attracted the attention of his country's bishops and led eventually to a standoff with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The congregation now demands that Balasuriya sign a profession of faith -- a profession that, to his knowledge, no other theologian has been required to sign. For his refusal, pending a response to his appeal to Pope John Paul II, Balasuriya is ousted from the community that has been his life.

Wouldn't it be enough to condemn his book, if warranted -- or better, those aspects of it that are deemed offensive? At the very least, this lifelong servant of the church deserves a full and fair hearing before his accusers. To date, his efforts to defend himself in writing have been categorically dismissed as "unsatisfactory."

It should be clear from a late 20th century perspective that defining heresy is a risky endeavor. In centuries past, emotion rather than reason and a quest for power rather than for charity have led to a splintering along hard theological lines. Disputing parties, each gathering supporters, are pushed farther and farther apart until painful schisms result. Centuries later, those doctrinal perspectives that once gravely offended are found to have more than a small share of truth. Certain Reformation teachings such as justification by faith come to mind.

Recent theological dialogues have brought previously unimagined rapprochement between the Catholic church and its alienated brothers and sisters. The difference, for example, in the way the Vatican treats its own theologians compared to the way it treats leaders of other churches suggests a severe and punitive father who exudes warmth and love for outsiders. (See our story in this issue about the recent meeting between the pope and Archbishop Carey.) The olive branch that reaches out can also be used to whip.

Balasuriya's writings may call for challenge. But threat of excommunication? It has no place here. And should Balasuriya be ousted, history would undoubtedly prove it to be one more sad and serious abuse of authority in a church that professes the God of love.

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