Faith & Reason: 'Heresy' that is not a private quarrel

The Vatican has now given reasons for its dramatic decision to excommunicate a leading theologian. The Editor of the Tablet, John Wilkins, finds them unconvincing.
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The conflict between the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya and the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church raises issues which are fundamental not just for the Church but for the world. That may explain why he has been treated so much more harshly than other theologians whose writings have landed them in trouble with the present Pope. Others were simply silenced or forbidden to teach officially, but the 72-year-old Tissa Balasuriya, after a lifetime of devoted service, has been declared to have excommunicated himself as a heretic.

The severity of the reaction has scandalised many. Fr Balasuriya maintains that his attempt to enter into dialogue with other faiths, particularly Buddhism, and to present church doctrines on Jesus Christ, salvation and Mary in a modern context has been misunderstood. If he is shown to have erred, he says, he will publicly retract - which is not the spirit of a heretic. But he has had virtually no hearing, and no trial. Without being given a chance to prove his innocence, he is judged to have proved his own guilt through his most recent book, Mary and Human Liberation.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Church's watchdog body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a press conference in Rome that the Vatican's central concern is the issue of relativism, which he singled out in a lecture last year as "the central problem of faith at the present time". From the relativist perspective, he explained, Jesus Christ is merely "one religious leader among others". But "your truth is as good as mine" does not accord with Christian doctrine about the uniqueness of Christ. The papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor ("Truth Resplendent"), published in 1993, warns Catholic moral theologians against relativism. It is significant that all the schools the Pope condemned in this encyclical were, like Fr Balasuriya, seeking to enter into dialogue with the modern world.

It is clear that Rome fears that Asian spirituality, religious practice and thought could have a relativistic impact on its own doctrine. The "relativism of Europe and America", Cardinal Ratzinger said in his lecture, "can get a kind of religious consecration" from India's "renunciation of dogma". Anyone who opposes relativism is then thought to be "obstinately giving priority to Western culture", the cardinal observed. And indeed Balasuriya makes precisely that latter charge against Christian doctrinal formulations. Rome clearly thinks it is so important to resist this tendency that if necessary it is prepared to give offence to its Third World constituents even though - or perhaps precisely because - they will have such an important say in the Church's future. (By the year 2000 most Catholics will live in the Third World.)

The Catholic Church prides itself on being above the fashions of the age. Pope John XXIII sought to bring its approach "up to date", but Pope John Paul II is more ready to oppose the modern world than to assist it. Rome sees no need to be influenced by the pluralism which Western democratic societies are trying to develop, based on an absolute respect for the neighbour under the restraint of law which itself evolves. But isn't love of the neighbour one of the two greatest commandments? If so, should Cardinal Ratzinger not espouse it? Instead he seems to equate pluralism with relativism, as though they were the same, and both to be condemned.

Fr Balasuriya's approach is based on an absolute respect for his neighbour - in this case the other world faiths in Sri Lanka, and his suffering compatriots as they face a bloody ethnic conflict. Undoubtedly in his book he pushes his speculations too far. But he denies that he is a relativist, and has signed a profession of faith to prove it. He is now again appealing to Rome, and so are many others on his behalf. But the Vatican has drawn a line in the sand, and will not easily be persuaded that it should be drawn somewhere else.

This is not a private quarrel. The issues affect everyone in societies which are trying to construct pluralistic frameworks. Everywhere intellectual and moral relativism is a threat which has to be combated. People look for firm ground to stand on. If only Cardinal Ratzinger were still a pluralist, as arguably he used to be, he could help.

'Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely