Although published in 1990, Mary and Human Liberation had not created too many ripples until the Vatican decided it was heresy and excommunicated its 72-year-old Sri Lankan author, Father Tissa Balasuriya, earlier this year. Says the defiant padre: “I am fighting against the excommunication. I am not asking for a pardon, I am asking for justice. I want those who did this to be tried.”
It was the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Roman Catholic Church´s doctrinal watchdog, that issued the notification excommunicating Fr Balasuriya, a priest for 51 years and widely respected in Sri Lanka for his grassroots links. On 5 January, the Congregation issued a statement saying Fr Balasuriya had incurred the severest form of excommunication, or Latae sententiae, because he distorted Catholic dogma. The last person excommunicated in Sri Lanka was the reverend Leonard Feeney—an American—in the 1950s for an alleged statement he made against salvation outside the church.
Fr Balasunya´s most recent book (he is author of nine) ruffled the papal cape because it challenges fundamental Catholic beliefs related to baptism, original sin and immaculate conception. The Vatican has accused Fr Balasuriya of questioning the validity of sacred tradition and of minimizing the validity of faith. It says the priest´s presentation of original sin questions the basic teachings of the church regarding Jesus Christ and his mother Mary and casts serious doubts on the divinity of Christ, the role of Christ as redeemer, and the privileged position of Mary in the history of salvation.
Fr Balasuriya refutes it all, saying, “I firmly state that I have never denied, rejected or deviated from any doctrine of the Catholic faith. It follows that I have not committed any form of heresy. Therefore, there is no basis in fact or in law to make a declaration that I have incurred excommunication.”
The priest, associated with the Colombo-based Centre for Society and Religion, which promotes Christian values, says he was not given a fair hearing and argues that his excommunication is nothing more than the Church´s way of sending a message to those who differ on dogma and may similarly want to go public. Fr Balasuriya is also angry he has been singled out. He says: “Many other writers, specially in the West, have expressed identical or similar views. None of them, as far as we know, has been treated so severely and with the threat of excommunication. Why am I subjected to such unique and selective discrimination?”
Not surprisingly, many Lankans have rallied around Fr .Balasuriya, saying the Vatican was labelling him a “rebel priest” as a warning to its many detractors. “This is disturbing for many Catholics,” says Bernadine de Silva, Assistant Director of the Centre where Fr Balasuriya works. “They are wondering why this is happening to Father, whom they have known for many years and who has presided over mass so many times and spoken of the Gospel in relation to society.”
The priest says he stands to be corrected if proved wrong and adds, “Dogma does not come from heaven direct. Theological formulations are the result of spiritual inspiration, revelation and intuition, plus expression of human language.” He also claims to be arguing for a theology more in tune with today´s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world which has diverse levels of needs and priorities.
“Nearly 50 years after independence, our people are trying to get over old hostilities and to get to the essence of beliefs, values and relationships. My Christianity is also in this tradition, the tradition of Asian thinking and struggles.”