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Balasuriya’s ideas on Asia’s future jolt the single-path Vatican view

NCR Staff

Why is the Vatican afraid of Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya?

What does he represent that is so intimidating to Rome that it needs to excommunicate this priest and theologian? Why go after this thinker and writer who lives on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean and who, in the grand scheme of a billion-member church, is relatively unknown and academically obscure?

The answer is that he represents the future -- if there is to be one -- for Catholicism in Asia. And the Vatican does not like Balasuriya's future. Religions, he writes, are equal. Women are equal. He believes that Asia requires a poetic, not a syllogistic and dogmatic, approach to belief.

Balasuriya has told me more than once that Catholicism has so much to give to Asia. He truly believes that.

But for that gift to be accepted the Vatican has to understand that "the long-term Asian search for meaning in life is not confined to some particular formula. Asia understands there are different paths leading up to the top of the one mountain, different rivers leading down to the one great ocean."

There is such a mountain in Sri Lanka, Adam's Peak. And it serves as a metaphor for what needs to be accomplished as much as Balasuriya serves as a metaphor for the Vatican's Asian anxieties.

For centuries, Adam's Peak has been a center for pilgrims. There is a depression in the rock that crowns the 7,353- foot summit, a hollow said by the Brahmans to be have been made by the footstep of Siva, Hindu god of destruction and reproduction. The Buddhists say it is Buddha's footprint. Muslims claim it is Adam's. Christians say it is the mark of the apostle Thomas, the St. Thomas whom Catholics in Southern India, across the Gulf of Manaar and the Palk Strait, believe evangelized them nearly 2,000 years ago. (There is also, of course, a secular claim that this is the footprint of a eunuch to Candace, 23rd century BCE queen of Ethiopia.)

There has never been a war over these claims.

Each pilgrim marks the spot for what he or she believes. The wars over Sri Lanka have been political and commercial.

The Portuguese landed in 1505 and Francis Xavier landed not long after. Then came the Dutch. The British took over from them at the end of the 18th century, strengthened their grip, kicked out the last king of Kandy a few decades later and Ceylon, as it then was known, became a personal plantation toiling under British control.

Indians (Tamils) were brought in as cheap labor for the tea, rubber and cocoa plantations. British families grew wealthy from the proceeds. Balasuriya wrote in Agents for Whom, in 1975: "There were indirect advantages to us, such as the spread of scientific method, the improvements in communication, etc. But these were partly to help the British and they were closely allied to the cultural myths regarding the benevolence of the British."

Stratified system

At the bottom of the tea estates pyramid were "the imported cheap labor who would accept the semi-slave conditions, unlike the feudalistic and more self-reliant Sinhalese." Tea plantations were "labor camps that paid dividends to the local elite and the foreign owners."

The structure was a highly stratified social system built on racist lines: Tamils at the bottom, British at the top and Sinhalese in between. In Agents for Whom, he wrote of "Dives and Lazarus in the Tea Industry."

Balasuriya's was the final generation of Ceylonese to grow up under British rule. After independence in 1948 (Ceylon changed its name in 1972), his generation moved into positions of great national prominence in government and public life.

The radicals wanted to nationalize the tea estates, with no compensation paid to the owners who had looted land and workers for 150 years. The radicals also wanted democratic socialism to replace colonialism.

Balasuriya went through the University of Ceylon before he felt called to the priesthood -- a calling he describes as "the secret of vocation" -- encouraged by priests he knew, by the movements of the time in the church and society for radical reform, and by "the spirituality of the day." It was a spirituality of particular hope.

Exactly when Balasuriya's family had become Christian is lost in the mists, as with most families worldwide. It was generations ago. He was born Aug. 29, 1924 in a small village near the old sacred city of Anuradhapura. His father was a medical officer, a cross between a physician and a pharmacist.

The Sinhalese are both an island people and a people with deep cultural roots and an incredibly strong sense of place. The beautiful island -- Sri Lanka is about the size of Ireland with one big county removed -- was known centuries ago as Serendip, from which comes the word "serendipity." For years -- until the onset of the 1980s civil war between the Tamils and the government -- it was the top place in the world to live, as rated by the United Nations Quality of Life index.

After ordination, Balasuriya moved into teaching. After the Vatican Council (1962-65), he was part of a group, including at least two Sri Lankan bishops, that saw the need "to be more free as to what to think and write -- supporting and belonging to movements that wanted basic radical change in society as well as in religion."

In the late 1960s, Balasuriya gave notice of his intention to resign as rector of Aquinas University College where he had founded the Aquinas School of Agriculture, the Aquinas Institute of Technology and the Institute of Sister Formation.

Voluntary silence

He was already a headache to ecclesiastical superiors, including the cardinal, who wanted him out of the country, exiled to Madras in India. (Decades later the Sri Lankan episcopacy's findings against Balasuriya led to the confrontation with Rome. When, in the later 1980s and early 1990s the 25th anniversaries of the institutions he founded were celebrated, his contribution was either ignored or only grudgingly mentioned.)

Balasuriya would not leave Sri Lanka. Instead, in 1971 he became silent, founded the Centre for Society and Religion at 281 Deans Road, Colombo, and lived by night and weekend in a Buddhist village, Talahen, from where he would commute into the city.

That same year his friend and ally Bishop Leo Nanayakkara resigned as head of the prestigious Kandy diocese to be able to participate more freely in the discussions Balasuriya and others were having. The nuncio persuaded Nanayakkara to instead take a smaller diocese, which he did.

Nanayakkara and Balasuriya and others had talked and "come to the conclusion it was necessary to bear witness in another form at the time many were leaving priesthood and religious life. We wanted to bear witness to the possibility of living that life not necessarily within the formal structures of the church -- as they would say." Hence the Buddhist village and the center.

"Of course the Oblates gave their moral backing to this decision," he told me.

By 1975, however, through the center's publication, Logos, Balasuriya was deeply into Sri Lankan and Asian issues. The center has always been a shoestring operation. Logos is typed and mimeographed -- but nonetheless effective. In the 1975 Logos book Food Not Arms, Balasuriya titled one chapter, "We are Highly Civilized Barbarians." As in A Third World Theology for Religious Life a decade later, he was testing, pushing, questioning.

He can develop a fierce intensity at times. With his white hair pulled back rather than flying loose as it often is, he is a handsome man. When relaxed, he shows his wry sense of humor.

To Balasuriya, form and formality of ritual are secondary. In Europe once, Balasuriya was among five of us gathered for a short Catholic liturgy celebrated with the only vessels available -- a highly polished coconut shell for the chalice and a chipped china saucer for the paten. The bread was bread. The wine was the last inch in the previous night's bottle of red.

'Who made Third World?'

By the 1980s Balasuriya was in demand throughout Asia as speaker and theologian. "God made the World. Who made the Third World?" he asked religious in Multar, Pakistan, in 1985.

"What makes our countries the Third World?" he asked. Moreover, he wanted to know what the Catholic community ought to be doing about it -- in this case, the religious specifically.

In that address alone he honed the points the Vatican finds painful. "In the Third World," he said, "there has often been a disparaging attitude of Christians toward the other religions; Europeans thought of their theology as a universal theology; this theology was church-centered; Jesus was a prisoner in the tabernacle, no hindrance to those who perpetrated social evils."

Revelation is continuous

But while traditional Catholic theology "is deduced from the scriptures and tradition ... in Third World thinking, human experience [is] a source of theology [and], taken further, the particular experience of the oppressed. This is considered a more privileged place for experiencing the call of the divine. The subject of theology is primarily the person engaged in the process of human liberation motivated by following Jesus. Other religions too have a core liberation message."

"Revelation is a continuous process" that requires that women engage deeply in what otherwise is "a male-dominant and male-dominated view of life," Balasuriya writes, extolling "equality and mutuality of the sexes even within the church."

Two 1978 issues of Logos introduce "The Asian Face of Jesus" I and II (October and November): "Jesus is the liberator of Asian theology." It was not a great step for an Oblate of Mary Immaculate to move to writing on Mary's companion role as liberator. Planetary Theology, Jesus Christ and Human Liberation, Eucharist and Human Liberation -- all subjects and titles of Balasuriya books -- are all rivers flowing down to the same ocean.

What worries Rome, Balasuriya told NCR, "is relativism," whereas Balasuriya's basic question is "How do we dialogue among religions? Do we regard another religion as inferior to Christianity or do we regard the religious quest as one in which it is not a search for superiority or inferiority, but for service?"

The irony in the Vatican battling and excommunicating Balasuriya is that Balasuriya truly understands what the Catholic church can communicate in Asia.

"Catholicism is increasingly important in Asia, and we are present in all countries in Asia," he said, "because we can bring the ancient message of Jesus Christ as manifesting that God is love and justice and spiritual meaning in life. We as Catholics can bring an international network of persons committed to such a service to bear on the justice issues of the world," he said.

Catholicism's 900 million people, as Balasuriya understands them and their belief, "are vitally important to all the world to the extent those 900 million are motivated by the gospel as a very great witness. It is the [Catholic] understanding of person, the dignity of the individual, and the understanding of society that is so precious."

What Catholicism has to offer Asia, if it can understand the equality of Asia's other religions "and, providing Catholics really are disciples of Jesus, is that we really could change the whole world order."

Catholicism, as Balasuriya sees it, also would gain from a genuine openness to Asia and Asia's religions. "The church gained that in [the Second Vatican] Council, the necessity of openness to other religions, to each other," he said. But the initial openness has not grown to embrace "a different kind of philosophical approach where we do not begin by excluding others. Asia, which has had many modern women rulers, has a more inclusive and understanding approach. It knows how to live with different philosophies and with the role and the rights of women. We also have an understanding of religion that is more descriptive, less dogmatic."

And, if the fight against his excommunication fails, what then? Balasuriya would be excluded from receiving or presiding over the sacraments and from formal church positions, which in any case he doesn't hold.

He has the support of the 200 Oblates in Sri Lanka, and most of his 5,000-plus confreres worldwide. His Provincial Superior, Fr. John Camillus Fernando -- whose term of office expires in March -- has publicly said Balasuriya has done nothing that warrants excommunication and that he is still "an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, a priest and religious and a Catholic Christian."

And the Vatican will have succeeded in doing precisely the opposite of what it intended. It will have given enormous publicity to the work of Balasuriya and Bernadeen Silva and others at the Centre for Religion and Society. It further will have ensured that Balasuriya's writings -- previously known only in limited academic discussions and in mainly Asian or ecumenical theological gatherings -- will be circulated worldwide.

Now not just the Asians know that the footprint in the rock atop Adam's Peak is God's.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997