e- mail us
De Mello censure reflects Vatican misgivings about Eastern thinking

NCR Staff

“Nobody can be said to have attained the pinnacle of Truth,” Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello once wrote, “until a thousand sincere people have denounced him for blasphemy.”

By that standard, Aug. 23 brought de Mello a bit closer to the mark, as the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned the works of the Indian Jesuit -- known for his attempts to bridge Eastern and Western spirituality -- for “relativizing” faith and thus leading to “religious indifferentism.”

In the United States, reaction has consisted largely of puzzlement among de Mello supporters, both as to the content and the timing of the statement, and alarm among publishers.

In India, meanwhile, Jesuit officials have suggested that the Vatican action may have been prompted by writings published after de Mello’s death, which do not fairly represent his thinking.

In a July 23 letter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger alerted the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to the impending declaration. He also asked the bishops to try to withdraw de Mello’s books from circulation, or to ensure that they’re printed with a notice indicating they may cause “grave harm” to the faith (NCR, Aug. 28).

A spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference said that Ratzinger’s concerns have been relayed to the American bishops, but the conference “will not be taking any further action.” Any decision to approach publishers about de Mello’s books would have to be made by the bishop of the diocese in which the publisher is located.

De Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, died in 1987. His many books, tapes and retreats combined traditional Christian concepts with insights from Eastern religions. This line of thinking, the Roman congregation contends, led de Mello into “a progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith.”

Taken together with the since-lifted excommunication of Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, as well as the clash between curial officials and the bishops of Asia at the recent Synod for Asia, the censure of de Mello seems to reflect deep misgivings in Rome about the impact of Eastern religious thinking on Christianity.

Ratzinger himself has argued that Eastern spirituality, especially that of India, reinforces some of what he sees as the worst tendencies in Western thought stemming from the Enlightenment. “The two philosophies are fundamentally different,” he said in a 1996 address to the doctrinal commissions of Latin American bishops conferences. “Nonetheless, they seem to mutually confirm one another in their metaphysical and religious relativism.

“The areligious and pragmatic relativism of Europe and America can get a kind of religious consecration from India which seems to give its renunication of dogma the dignity of a greater respect before the mystery of God and man.”

The Vatican action had been rumored for some time in India. More than a year ago, the then Jesuit provincial for South Asia, Fr. Varkey Perekkatt, told the UCA News service that he had requested assistance from colleagues around the world to defend de Mello from attacks coming from “Western right-wing Catholic papers.” Those complaints, another Jesuit said, had “attracted the Vatican’s attention.”

At the time, Perekkatt said that much of the criticism focused on works that were published after de Mello’s death. Perekkatt also said that tapes of de Mello’s lectures and retreats were being published contrary to the late Jesuit’s explicit instructions.

That concern was echoed Aug. 25 by the current South Asia Jesuit provincial, Fr. Lisbert D’Souza, who said some of these post-humously published works have led to de Mello being “grossly misunderstood.” The Indian Jesuits, he said, regard only nine books as authentic.

Some Americans who knew and worked with de Mello rejected the claim that he undercut church teaching. “It’s extremely hard for me to believe that anyone would find anything de Mello says to be anything other than orthodox,” said Jesuit Fr. Francis Stroud. “He was a very devout churchman.”

Stroud, who collaborated with de Mello, now runs a “De Mello Spirituality Center” from his residence at Fordham University in New York.

“De Mello did emphasize that God is a mystery,” Stroud said. “But he would quote Thomas Aquinas saying the very same thing. ... He never denied anything like a personal concept of God.

“When anybody would joke with him, say he was going to get into trouble, he would respond, ‘Not this wily Jesuit,’ ” Stroud said.

“Somebody’s feeding him [Ratzinger] this stuff, stringing him along,” Stroud said. “It’s hard for me to believe that he would be taken in by that.”

The timing of the announcement, coming more than 10 years after de Mello’s death, confused many. “It seems rather strange to condemn someone who has no right of reply,” said Eric Major, director of the religious books program at Doubleday -- through its Image imprint, the largest publisher of de Mello’s works in the United States. “Why do it now?”

Doubleday has eight de Mello titles in print, with sales running into “the millions” collectively, according to Major.

Jesuit Fr. Norris Clarke, a philosopher at Fordham who has written about de Mello, said the Indian Jesuit’s continuing popularity may explain why Rome felt it necessary to act. “His books and tapes are circulating all around the world,” Clarke said. “Many think he’s a great spiritual new leader, and his influence is quite a living thing. That may be what concerned them.”

Clarke said some of de Mello’s statements were elliptical enough to support many interpretations. “He would talk about theology as pointing a finger at the moon, and we come to mistake the finger for the moon,” Clarke said. “That doesn’t have to mean anything unorthodox, although you could read it that way.”

Major said that withdrawing the works from print “can hardly be asked of a secular publishing house.”

While Doubleday “would like to hear the objections, title by title,” Major said the company would “reserve the right as publisher, having published his work for 20 years without a hint of complaint, to continue to serve the Catholic church in its widest spheres.”

Three other publishers in the United States carry de Mello titles: Loyola Press, Ligouri and Crossroad. Both Loyola and Ligouri said they would comply with a direct request from the U.S. bishops to withdraw the books, should such a request be made. Crossroad said they would look into the matter “if and when we’re contacted.”

“If the bishops asked us to withdraw something, we would do it,” said Thomas Santa of Ligouri. “The bottom line is that we are a part of the church.” At the same time, Santa said, “If we got an option,” such as publishing the books with some kind of warning, “we would probably go with it.”

Ligouri is located in the St. Louis archdiocese, under Archbishop Justin Rigali. Both Doubleday and Crossroad are in New York under Cardinal John O’Connor. Loyola is in Chicago under Cardinal Francis George.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998