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Condemned priest is restored to church

NCR Staff

In a rare and unexpected reversal, church officials have rescinded the excommunication of Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya a little more than a year after he was formally charged with heresy.

The reconciliation ends a bitter, high-profile standoff in which Balasuriya, 73, has repeatedly denounced Vatican officials for refusing to openly discuss his theological views and for making demands he regarded as irregular and unjust.

In a telephone interview with NCR from his Center for Society and Religion in Sri Lanka, Balasuriya said the reconciliation, formally declared Jan. 15, had been grounded in a “decent and honorable” agreement.

“I wanted all persons to be respected in their dignity.” he said. “The struggle for human rights in the church is one of our objectives.”

Balasuriya’s excommunication last January -- the harshest penalty in memory to be levied against a theologian -- made him an international cause célèbre. The penalty stemmed from Balasuriya’s 1990 book Mary and Human Liberation, which contains views on original sin and other matters that church officials have denounced as heretical.

The reconciliation was the result of a compromise hammered out in six days of negotiations involving Balasuriya, Oblate theologians from Sri Lanka chosen by him, and a delegation of top Oblate officials from Rome.

Vatican approval was gained through communications by telephone and fax with Rome on the final day of negotiations, according to Oblate Fr. Thomas Singer, an American who played a key role as facilitator.

The Vatican rescinded its previous demand that Balasuriya retract his theological views and that he sign a profession of faith written exclusively for him.

Instead, at a “reconciliation ceremony” he read a profession of faith composed by Pope Paul VI -- not using a caveat that the Vatican had previously found objectionable. (See entry under May 1996 in chronology on this page.)

For his part, Balasuriya, without admitting doctrinal error, acknowledged “perceptions of error” and agreed to submit all future writings to his bishops for the imprimatur.

In a statement signed by him and scheduled to be published in the national Catholic newspaper of Sri Lanka on Jan. 22, he said that “serious ambiguities and doctrinal errors were perceived” in his writings. He said he regretted “the harm” such perceptions had caused.

Two official documents were issued: a “Decree of Reconciliation” from the archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, citing authorization of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the “statement of reconciliation” signed by Balasuriya and nine Oblate officials. The list is headed by Fr. Marcello Zago, Rome-based superior general of the Oblate religious order. Zago was among four Oblate officials who traveled to Sri Lanka for the discussions.

Balasuriya noted in his statement that the two texts are worded differently but that “both express the same faith of the church.”

The reconciliation ceremony was held in the chapel at the residence of Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando, archbishop of Colombo. Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla, papal delegate to Sri Lanka, represented the Vatican.

Unlike other theologians who have been censured during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, such as Fr. Hans Küng of Germany and Fr. Charles Curran of the United States, Balasuriya apparently remains a Catholic theologian in the Vatican’s eyes.

Balasuriya told NCR that during the negotiations he had insisted that “the duty of a theologian is to bear witness and at the same time to keep to the magisterium.” He has repeatedly said that his mission is to make Christian teachings accessible in Sri Lanka, where Christians make up only about 8 percent of a predominantly Buddhist population.

Balasuriya said he was satisfied with the provision that he submit his writings for an imprimatur because it was “according to canon law” and therefore not an irregular demand. However, in his published statement he said that he was accepting terms of the compromise even though he had hoped for more dialogue with church officials.

Balasuriya told NCR that he attributed the positive results of the negotiations “first of all to the grace of God and the Spirit operating” and secondly “to immense pressure from all over the world. I thank all those who in fidelity prayed and appealed for justice and reconciliation,” he said.

He added, “Human rights groups, the mass media, the Internet, E-mail -- these are ways in which the Holy Spirit operates today. This is a new reality in the life of the church.”

In a telephone interview, Singer, the Oblate vicar general of the central U.S. province, said he had used the Prayer of St. Francis as a theme for meditation throughout the six days. “One of the lessons many of us ought to learn is that dialogue takes time, effort, patience, perseverance,” said Singer, who is based in Minneapolis. “I think we modeled that -- and we got lucky. It paid off.”

Zago had come to the process with guidelines from the Vatican, he said. “I think all the parties were open, sincere and wanted reconciliation.”

Singer said Balasuriya appeared to deeply appreciate the opportunity to be heard by Oblate officials. Singer recalled that after the reconciliation ceremony, Zago had asked Balasuriya if there were anything he wanted to add. “I think of the Good Shepherd,” Balasuriya told Zago, who oversees some 5,000 Oblates around the world. “In this case, you left your 5,000 to come after me.”

On Jan. 15, Fr. Bernard Quintus, Oblate provincial in Sri Lanka, praised the process in a letter to Oblates of his region. “The listening ear accorded him by brother Oblates from the highest level of authority in the congregation was a clear sign of the love, respect and deep esteem they have for Balasuriya,” Quintus wrote. “It was also an expression of their recognition of the many years of dedicated and generous service rendered by him.”

>Fr. Charles Curran, himself censured by the Vatican in 1986, said he considered the Vatican turnaround to be “very significant,” both in timing and fact.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time they have backed away from anything so quickly and publicly,” he said. “Obviously they gave in to the sensus fidelium” -- the sense of the faithful. “The whole thing was so patently unjust and offensive they must have realized they made a mistake.”

The Oblates issued a news release saying members of the religious order had decided in November, at their general council meeting, to send an “ad hoc reconciliation team” to Sri Lanka to meet personally with Balasuriya.

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 1998