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Editorial: Balasuriya case shows folly of Rome’s harsh tactics

As journalists in service to the truth, we at NCR rejoice in the reinstatement of Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya to the church’s communion and in the closing of a sorry chapter.

The reference to truth is intended not as endorsement of Balasuriya’s theology, which led to his excommunication, but as a tribute to the larger truth, to all that the church of Christ should stand for: human dignity, justice, respect, generosity, compassion, love.

None of these basic principles was honored in the Balasuriya affair -- at least not until the end, when the pope must have realized he and his doctrinal enforcers had made a serious mistake. Fellow Oblates, including the order’s top leaders, traveled to Sri Lanka in January for six intense days of discussion with the excommunicated priest who, from the inception of his exile, had repeatedly railed against lack of due process in his case and insisted on dialogue.

Excommunication stripped Balasuriya not only of his right to speak as a Catholic theologian -- the discipline levied against Frs. Hans Küng and Charles Curran during the tenure of Pope John Paul II -- but of his core identity as a member of the faithful and a priest in service to the church. If he has earned nothing else in his 45 years as a cleric and his 52 years as a member of the Oblate order, it is the right to expect that church officials, should they err in dealing with him, would err on the side of fairness. The rest of us, too, have a right to expect church officials, should they err in dealing with heterodoxy, or even presumed heresy, would err on the side of leniency given the historical nightmares that excommunications have produced.

Yet, instead of the dialogue Balasuriya repeatedly asked for before he was excommunicated with the approval of Pope John Paul II, he was ordered to sign a profession of faith apparently drafted exclusively for him. This was a new and unwelcome tactic in the Vatican’s narrow campaign to silence dissent at whatever cost to the church’s worldwide image, not to mention its mission of justice. The ironic effect is that Balasuriya’s theological views, for better or for worse, have gained far wider currency than they would otherwise have had. His book Mary and Human Liberation, once virtually impossible to find, is now widely available in English and French.

Public excommunications have produced little gain for the church and should have impressed for all time important lessons on the minds and hearts of Christian leaders. Today, Vatican officials refer to the “scandal” of Christian disunity, seemingly oblivious of its cause: the historical use of the harshest available punishment in the context of controversy and dissent.

Thousands of hours have been exerted in recent decades in efforts to heal the painful divisions within Christianity -- divisions exacerbated by the excommunications that finalized the schism between East and West in 1054 and within Western Europe in the 16th century. In the context of contemporary ecumenical dialogue, theological differences that loomed very large in the heat of controversy are judged far less troublesome over time.

Clearly the pope and bishops have an important role to play in safeguarding core Christian teachings. But biblical scholars and theologians have an equally important role in developing, interpreting and applying that teaching in different places and times -- and their service will be severely compromised where they labor in an atmosphere of narrow constraint and fear. Where disputes occur, whether at the highest levels of the church or the lowest, careful discernment aimed at true understanding and rooted in a spirit of generosity should be the norm rather than an embarrassing rush to punish like the one we have recently seen.