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by Gerard Sloyan

Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I., produced a book of 192 pages entitled Mary and Human Liberation in a double issue of the journal Logos (29:1 and 2, March/July 1990), published in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Portions of Chapter 1, "Mary in Catholic Devotion," are Marian hymns in Sinhala in its artistic script. The rest are in English. In June, 1994, the bishops of that country found the book faulty in its treatment of the doctrine of revelation and instructed the Catholics in their dioceses not to read it. One month later the curial Congregation for Teaching the Faith (C.D.F.) concurred in the judgment and, along with some comments on the book's contents, invited the Superior General of the priest's missionary congregation to request a public retraction.

The author responded to the observations of the C.D.F. that it had misunderstood and falsified his positions. A profession of faith was sent to his Oblate superior for signing by Father Balasuriya. Should he not do so, Canon 1364, §1 would be invoked, in which "an apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs automatic excommunication." Other penalties might be added if he persisted or the seriousness of scandal warranted them, one of which might be dismissal from the clerical state (§2). He responded in May 1996 by sending a signed copy of the "Solemn Profession of Paul VI" (1968), to which he appended a clause saying that he did so, "in the context of theological development and Church practice since Vatican II and the freedom and responsibility of Christians and theological searchers under Canon Law."

The Congregation found the appended clause sufficient to "render defective the declaration since it diminished the universal and permanent value of the definitions of the Magisterium" (Notification dated 2 January, 1997). He was read the text of the proposed Notification on 7 December, 1996, refused to sign, and asked that a letter be delivered to the Pope. The penalty was leveled on the January date above with the assurance that the Pope had been apprised of the case at all points and approved the Notification.

What are the features of this slim book that drew such initial censure? The successive responses of the Asian theologian may in part account for the heavy penalty. (N.B. Excommunication is lifted as soon as the person publicly recants his errors as the Notification understands them. This practice is of long standing.)

The book's main features are:

Mary has been presented in the devotional life of Catholics over the centuries as the spotless virgin mother whose concern is for weak and helpless sinners, not as the author of the Magnificat with its fierce cry for social justice (Luke 1:51-53) or as the strong mother who stood as she witnessed the execution of her Son (John 19:25).

  • Marian doctrines and piety have been developed on the basis of a reading of the Adam-Eve garden story as history from the time of Justin and Irenaeus onward, in which the myth has yielded insupportable teachings such as "original justice" and immorta-lity before the "fall," a virgin Eve who tempted Adam to disobey, etc. Augustine’s literal reading of early Genesis made this tale serve as doctrine in the West.
  • A male teaching office in the Church has employed the doctrinal structure to keep its female members in a subordinate position, including incapacity to serve in every role of service open to men.
  • The Church's teaching on a human race alienated from its Creator at birth is incomprehensible to a Buddhist and Hindu world; further, the way the doctrine of original sin has been taught is, in its effect, exclusionary of these vast populations.
  • A chapter on "Presuppositions in Theology" concludes with an evaluation of the power of myths in other religious cultures, which must be taken fully into account by a Church that hopes to proclaim its Gospel intelligibly.
  • "Mary in Traditional Theology" lays bare the way she has been presented in hymnody and catechesis in the author's homeland, chiefly through Portuguese influence. "Mary, A Mature Adult Woman" draws on the few New Testament places that describe her to show the place she ought to have in the lives of Christians.
  • The book hints at rather than spells out in detail a soteriology in which Jesus is Savior as much by his teaching as by his obedient death and resurrection.

The book probably received the papal censure it did because it was perceived to have taught the "relativism" of all religions, Christianity among them. It is part of a growing body of theological writing that insists on the ethical demands inherent in the doctrine of human redemption and on the ways God is self-disclosed in other religious traditions than the Christian. Reading the book and the Notification in parallel discloses two theological and pastoral mentalities not easily reconciled, as well as the far from minor irritants of the Asian author.


It is an unfortunate fact of church life that any Catholic whose rights are denied has, under the present Code of Canon Law, no legal recourse other than non-judicial recourse to the superior of the person denying the right. In the case of theologian Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, it is the pope himself who has excommunicated him. There is no due process to deal with the decision of a pope, no matter how unjust that decree. ARCC encourages Catholic theologians to study the works of Balasuriya and other third world theologians who seek to make Christianity more intelligible to non-Christians. Catholics who are concerned with the missionary thrust of the church must be concerned about the treatment dealt to a theologian in a missionary country. Rome, it seems, has not learned from the blunders it made in dealing with the early missionaries in India and China. By stopping the work of Fr. Matteo Ricci, SJ, in China and of Fr. Robert DeNobili, SJ, in India, the evangelization of those countries was largely brought to a halt.

ARCC encourages all concerned Catholics to contact the Apostolic Nuncio:

  • Agostino Cacciavillan,
  • Apostolic Nunciature,
  • 3339 Massachusetts Ave. NW,
  • Washington, DC 20008

to register their deep concern about the way the Balasuriya case has been handled.

1 April 1997

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