e-mail us


Slam dunk brings Balasuriya in from the cold

Theologically this old century may yet go out with more bang than whimper. The echoes you hear are the ramifications of the Tissa Balasuriya imbroglio. Neither Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, nor Gustavo Gutierrez, nor Charlie Curran, nor even Bishop Jacques Gaillot could boast a full-blown excommunication. But that’s not all: None of the others have been able to climb all the way back into “good standing” with Rome, whatever that means.

But Balasuriya is back. And the process that brought him back may be the most nifty ecclesiology since Pope John XXIII threw open the Vatican’s cobwebby windows for the 1960s council.

Ten Oblate priests, including Tissa, came together to solve the Tissa problem. No one, not even Tissa, was denying Tissa had a problem. This was a year after Balasuriya’s joust with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which had been a dour affair, where the only truth had been trickle-down truth. There was, presumably, no one slapping anyone on the back, as Christians who remember Jesus might do, and saying in effect, I disagree with you about this and that, but dammit we’ve all given a lifetime to the same cause, we must have more in common than the niggling misunderstandings that divide us, here, have a beer, and then we can patch up our differences. That, in short, is not Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s style.

Enter Fr. Thomas Singer. Instead of the traditional curial techniques he brought, among other things, basketball to bear.

Since no one we know has seen God, whose essence is notoriously hard to tie down, theological problems are usually about ill-fitting words, cultural biases, ego, turf and such. Since our words are imperfect, no single set of them is absolute. This leaves room for improvisation, compromise, trying out formulas. When these don’t produce immediate magic -- because, after all, there are many ancient issues between us -- it’s time for timeout, called by former coach Singer, who knows a thing or two about strategy, momentum, when to shoot and when to pass. Theology as hoop dreams.

Theology is as dead as Latin if it is not fluid and creative like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant (never mind that there are a few Dennis Rodmans practicing theology too). With timeouts for tea when frustrations run high. And a run for the restroom when the tea follows the natural law. Theology should be an earthy endeavor, sweaty, God brought down to earth, warts and all by sisters and brothers, backslapping or bickering, taking time out to give the rest of the human race the benefit of the doubt.

After six days and nine drafts, this method led to amazing healing and found a formula even the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could live with. An excommunication was lifted, a great rarity in modern times.

When CDF head Ratzinger eventually retires, the best the church could do is put Singer in charge. His wise and compassionate approach would signal a new day dawning and make theology, once again, a popular sport.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998