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Balasuriya, supporters appeal to tribunal

NCR Staff

Contrary to reports that a Vatican court has rejected an appeal by Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka, the recently excommunicated theologian said that the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature is considering his case.

Citing canon law, Balasuriya said in a telephone interview that he considers his excommunication to be suspended pending the outcome of his appeal.

Balasuriya, accused by the Vatican of deviating from central truths of the Roman Catholic church, said he had recently received a letter from the tribunal inviting him to engage a canon lawyer to serve as his advocate in presenting his case.

The Vatican tribunal is the highest judicial body with authority over procedural propriety in church matters. Balasuriya claims that he has been denied due process by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which declared him excommunicated in early January.

Meanwhile, 150 religious leaders from England and Wales have written the Vatican expressing "shock and dismay" at Balasuriya's excommunication and asking that it be revoked. According to a news release, the signers, members of the Conference of Religious in England and Wales, represent 10,000 religious men and women.

Also, Balasuriya, 72, has made public a lengthy and detailed reply to recent remarks about his case by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger spoke about Balasuriya's excommunication during a news conference on Jan. 24 in Rome. Balasuriya's reply is dated Feb. 1.

As reported in the London-based Tablet, Ratzinger said at the news conference that the congregation had found "many things which are unacceptable" in Balasuriya's 1990 book Mary and Human Liberation. The problem, Ratzinger said, was far broader than Balasuriya's views on allowing women to be Catholic priests.

Right to appeal

Following Balasuriya's unsuccessful appeal to Pope John Paul II on Dec. 7, Ratzinger's congregation declared in early January that Balasuriya could no longer be considered a Catholic theologian and, moreover, that his theological views set him outside the church.

Balasuriya, a priest for 44 years and one of Asia's best-known theologians, was declared excommunicated latae sententiae -- that is, automatically -- under Canon 1364 of the church's Code of Canon Law. The ruling applies to apostates and heretics.

Reports that his appeal to the Apostolic Signature had been rejected apparently stemmed from a letter to Balasuriya, dated Jan. 24, from Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla. Padilla is apostolic nuncio to Sri Lanka.

Padilla said in his letter that Balasuriya had no right to an appeal because the pope himself had declined to intervene in the case, indicating that he approved of the way it had been handled.

At the news conference, Ratzinger said one of the problems with Balasuriya's writings is that they exhibit Marxist influences.

Further, Ratzinger said he had decided against entering into a full discussion of theological perspectives in Balasuriya's book -- a statement that Balasuriya said essentially confirmed his view that the Vatican had short-circuited due process.

In order "to avoid an interminable discussion which would not be useful to anyone," the congregation had opted to ask Balasuriya to sign a profession of faith, Ratzinger said. The congregation regarded that option as "a more positive way forward," he said.

Ratzinger said the profession, drawn up specifically for Balasuriya, focused on points considered key to the theologian's case and derived from official church teachings. "We have not invented anything," he said.

The profession asked Balasuriya to acknowledge that the church "has no authority whatsoever to ordain women." But Ratzinger denied that Balasuriya's case turned on that issue. A greater problem, he said, was Balasuriya's approach to the doctrine of original sin.

Balasuriya argues in his book that the doctrine of original sin has no basis in the gospels, but evolved as the church began to define itself as the sole mediator of salvation, thereby giving the clergy considerable power over the faithful.

He strongly denies that he has deviated from central church teachings and argues that the Vatican has distorted his views.

According to Balasuriya, his perspective on the doctrine is important because the church's teaching on original sin requires reinterpretation for the large non-Christian majority of Sri Lanka. Many Asians, he says, find it unthinkable that human beings are alienated from their Creator at birth.

Against accusations by Balasuriya and other Asian theologians that the Vatican is insensitive to the Asian context in which Balasuriya works, Ratzinger said at the news conference, "We are very sensitive to the situation of this great Asian continent, so decisive for the future of humanity. We are very attentive not to quench the flame of the appropriation and creation of an Asian identity for the Catholic faith."

To bring faith to Asians

He added, "Perhaps this is one of the greatest challenges for the church of the third millennium, to bring faith in Christ, the Son of God made man, finally to the Asian soul."

Instead of signing the profession of faith provided by the Vatican, Balasuriya signed one written by Pope Paul VI. Ratzinger said Balasuriya's signature on that profession would have exonerated him had he not added a caveat. Balasuriya wrote that he was signing the Paul VI profession "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."

Ratzinger acknowledged that the congregation runs the risk of substituting itself for theologians. But it is not the congregation's goal, he said, to propose one normative theology. Rather, he said, it is obliged to show where theologies are incompatible with central church teachings -- "to recall the forgotten elements which should be kept in mind in the construction of every Catholic theology."

The congregation's goal, he said, was to provide "the greatest possible space to the creative reflection of theologians without necessarily forcing them into schemes that are obligatory for all."

In Balasuriya's response to Ratzinger's remarks, he wrote, "I do not accept the charge ... that I have 'deviated' from the truth of the Catholic faith. The CDF has not proved this."

Regarding Ratzinger's statement about Balasuriya's signature to Pope Paul VI's profession of faith, Balasuriya asked, "If there is anything defective invalidating my signature ... why did the CDF not inform me" until seven months later, and then only "in the notification of my excommunication?"

He also asked, "If women's ordination was not a critical issue, why did the CDF introduce the clause concerning it in the profession of faith drafted for me?"

He added: "Do not many other writers, especially from Europe, hold views on original sin similar to mine? What then of canonical equity?"

As for Ratzinger's assertion about Marxist influences, Balasuriya said, "This is the first time that the issue of Marxist influence has been raised concerning my work during the past 50 months and more of this affair, here in Sri Lanka or in Rome."

Gospels and Marx

"How do you come to this conclusion now?" Balasuriya asked Ratzinger in his open letter.

Were Jesus' teachings on social justice based on Marxism, he asked, adding: "Was the Asian Jesus influenced by Karl Marx when he condemned the falsified religiosity of the high priests, the hypocritical Pharisees and other religious exploiters of the day? Was it Marxist influence that made Jesus chase the money changers from the temple of Jerusalem? Was the Magnificat of Mary with its radical message of social, political and cultural transformation influenced by the 19th-century European Karl Marx?"

Regarding process, Balasuriya noted Ratzinger's statement that it was a "a very difficult task" to interpret Mary and Human Liberation "exactly down to the final word and the final phraseology," leading to the decision to require Balasuriya to sign the profession of faith.

"By this observation you clearly admit that the CDF has not established error in my book," Balasuriya wrote. He noted that Ratzinger had "curtly dismissed" Balasuriya's 55-page detailed response to its "observations" on his book with only one word: "unsatisfactory."

He added, "It is either that what I have stated in the book does not offend the truths ... or the blemishes I am alleged to have committed are of such a minimal gravity that they could be corrected with a signature to a profession of faith."

Balasuriya said he was unable to sign the Vatican's profession because "it is punitive and presumes my error ... is not a profession of faith that the church proposes regularly to all Catholics or theologians (and) ... is not in keeping with the Catholic truth as proposed by Vatican II concerning the salvation of those who are not Catholic."

In declaring his excommunication suspended in light of his appeal, Balasuriya cited canons 1353 and 1638, which deal with appeals and suspended penalties.

Challenging that interpretation, Padilla, the nuncio, cited Balasuriya's direct appeal to the pope and Canon 333, which states, "There is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree of the Roman Pontiff."

Sources familiar with Vatican dealings say Balasuriya's appeal to the pope does make the case difficult for the Apostolic Signature, because the tribunal -- even though it considers procedure rather than doctrine -- would be reluctant to rule in apparent contradiction of the pope.

The letter from religious leaders in England and Wales asks Ratzinger "in the name of justice" to revoke the excommunication "and to arrange for a due process of law to be observed and for Fr. Tissa to be given the opportunity with the help of other theologians to defend himself and clear his name.

"We ask you, also, in the name of the human treatment owing to a man who has been a faithful servant of the church throughout his religious life and out of consideration for his age, to revoke such an extraordinary and final condemnation," the religious leaders wrote.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997