How Rome dealt with a turbulent priest

Does the excommunication of a radical theologian signal a return to Inquisition? By Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
They did not bother with the bell, book and candle at the Vatican at the weekend when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition - pronounced a sentence of excommunication on a priest from Sri Lanka in what was the harshest penalty in living memory applied against a Catholic theologian.

Such were the appurtenances of excommunication in former times. To mark the ostracism of a contumacious and obdurate offender, a ceremony was performed. The officiating cleric closed the book that symbolises the book of life. Then the candle which represents the soul was quenched by hurling it to the ground. Finally the bell was tolled, as for one who has died.

Last weekend a Vatican officialmerely pronounced that Father Tissa Balasuriya, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, had automatically excommunicated himself, latae sententiae, by "a series of grave errors", including denying the Catholic dogma of original sin, by which the Church holds that each individual is born marked with the stain of the sin of Adam and Eve. He had, it was said, also denied that Mary was immaculately conceived, was a virgin, that her body was assumed into heaven after death, and - significantly - questioned that the Pope was infallible.

If true, it was heavy-duty stuff. Even so, it was an extreme penalty to be inflicted on a 72-year-old priest whose devoutness is not in question. It was harsh even for the present Pope. In the past, he has thought it sufficient to declare the German theologian Hans Kung, the Brazilian Leonardo Boff, the American Charles Curran and others to be no longer "Catholic" theologians.

Fr Balasuriya's difficulties arose from his position as a theologian in Sri Lanka, where only 8 per cent of the population are Christians. As part of an inter-faith dialogue, he undertook to "rethink the key dogmas of the Christian tradition" to make them understandable to the majority. The Hindus and Buddhists have particular difficulty with original sin and Christianity's idea of humanity born alienated from its creator.

There was, of course, more to it than that. Fr Balasuriya is one of Asia's leading liberation theologians. He argues that insights from secularism and Marxism can help to purify religion. He wants a fixed retirement age for the Pope. When his local bishops distorted his views in condemning them, he issued the local equivalent of a writ for libel.

Perhaps most controversially, he has tried to reclaim Mary, the mother of Jesus, from the centuries of pious claptrap and Catholic superstition. The traditional Mary "is a Mary of the capitalist, patriarchal, colonialist First World of Christendom," he says. Yet the Mary of the Gospels is a strong, working-class woman whose Magnificat looked to the overthrow of the powerful. The real Mary should be not a "comforter of the disturbed" but a "disturber of the comfortable".

Clearly, all this was extremely irritating to the church hierarchy, both locally and in Rome (the Pope is particularly keen on Mary). But it was not heresy. There are two types of excommunication. The usual kind, pronounced ferendae sententiae, comes after a formal trial. But in very rare instances, latae sententiae, it is triggered automatically.

Offences that provoke the latter include heresy, schism, apostasy, laying violent hands on the Pope and procuring abortion. For priests, it also comes for "scattering the sacred species" (profanation of the Eucharistic host), breaking the seal of the confessional and "giving absolution to an accomplice in the sin against the sixth commandment" - code for the priest's own mistress. Bishops can incur it by ordaining other bishops without the permission of Rome - which is what finished off the last cleric to be excommunicated, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, in 1988, after causing a schism in the church in France in revolt against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Excommunication, which forbids individuals to attend church services or to receive the sacraments, was first recorded in AD325 at the Council of Nicaea. But it was a common punishment in medieval times. After the Reformation, the Protestants took it up: in the Book of Common Prayer, the 33rd Article of Religion is headed: "Of Excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided". But it has faded from use this century.

The last excommunication in the UK is thought to have been in 1907, of a Jesuit priest, George Tyrell, who was denied a Catholic funeral after publicly criticising an encyclical by the ultra-conservative Pope Pius X. Elsewhere, ironically enough, it has been used, albeit rarely, chiefly against extreme traditionalists, such as the American Jesuit Leonard Feeny, who in 1953 persisted in preaching extra eccelsiam nulla salus - that only Catholics could be saved.

The trend in the Church has been in the opposite direction. Vatican II declared that the "Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions" which "often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men". Fr Balasuriya, it seems, has taken this too far.

Or has he? When he was summoned before the Church's magisterium, he asked for a letter to be passed to the Pope answering in detail the 58 instances where he claimed his views had been distorted by the official inquirers. The reply came in a single word. His response was "unsatisfactory" because he had declined to sign a specially-devised Profession of Faith drawn up by Rome.

The priest offered to sign the earlier Credo drawn up by Pope Paul VI. Rome's was too Eurocentric in its Christology and unbalanced in its emphasis on papal infallibility and the impossibility of women ever being ordained. It was riddled with "serious historical, theological and scriptural problems", according to one Indian Jesuit, Samuel Rayan, who has seen it. No self- respecting theologian would sign. In it, he said, one heard "not the voice of the Good Shepherd" but "the voice of the Inquisition of shameful memory".

Tissa Balasuriya may simply be the victim of an ambitious bishop and an ecclesiastical power struggle within his native land. Or his fate may be a sign of the waxing authoritarianism of an ageing ailing Pope. The bell, book and candle may yet re-emerge before John Paul II dies.