The liberation theologian excommunicated by JPII

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Tissa Balasuriya, theologian and activist

Born August 29, 1924; died January 17, 2013

Tissa Balasuriya, who has died at the age of 89, was an outspoken Roman Catholic priest and social activist in Sri Lanka who became the only liberation theologian to be excommunicated during the papacy of John Paul II. He was punished in 1997 for challenging official views on the Virgin Mary, the concept of original sin, the need for baptism, the right of women to become priests and the role and value of other world religions.

After widespread international publicity, the ban was lifted a year later, but Balasuriya remained a strong critic of Joseph Ratzinger, who in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been in charge of the Vatican's proceedings against him.

Shortly after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, Balasuriya wrote: "He has to have a less Eurocentric view of the world. He must be ready to accept that God can speak to humanity through other media than the Christian church".

Although liberation theology and the view that priests should take an active role in fighting social injustice swept across Latin America and the Philippines to the Vatican's dismay, during John Paul II's papacy none of its proponents was treated as severely as Balasuriya.

As a Catholic on an island that was largely Buddhist and Hindu, Balasuriya's views might have been ignored by the Vatican. Even among Sri Lanka's Catholics and most of its local hierarchy his ideas, which were expressed most clearly in his book Mary and Human Liberation were considered unconventional.

But they appeared to rile the authoritarian Ratzinger (then a cardinal) as a prime example of the ‘relativism’ which the future Pope identified as the Catholic church's most dangerous enemy at the time. He felt they had to be stamped on hard for fear they might spread.

Balasuriya's depiction of the mother of Jesus Christ as a strong-willed revolutionary challenged centuries of European iconography in which Mary is portrayed as docile and voiceless. This was something which not even the Latin-American theologians had argued. A dedicated anti-imperialist, Balasuriya was acutely conscious of the leading role that the Catholic church and its missionaries had played in advancing the colonial cause.

The Vatican declared the book on Mary to be heretical. Its fierce reaction may also have been prompted by an earlier row with Sri Lankans. Shortly before visiting the country in 1995, Pope John Paul II had described Buddhism as "negative" because of its "indifference" to the world. The country's leading Buddhist monks organised protest demonstrations and refused to meet him.

By contrast, Balasuriya stated that in Asia, where Catholics are a minority, it was important for them to be respectful of other religions. "The oriental view of history is more cyclical than linear. In Hinduism and Buddhism this life is only one stage in a vast cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The cycle continues until all reach ultimate liberation in Nirvana. In the Christian view this life determines one's ultimate and eternal destiny," he wrote in the offending book.

Ratzinger sent Balasuriya a ‘profession of faith’ that was specially written for him, and that he was ordered to sign in repudiation of his views. Balasuriya refused to recant.

Instead, after six days of negotiation in Colombo with senior church officials, he signed a ‘statement of reconciliation’ in which he merely regretted that other people had perceived doctrinal errors in his writings and thereby taken offence. He also said he had expected ‘a more open dialogue for an objective scrutiny of my book’. The excommunication was lifted in January, 1998.

Balasuriya was born in Kahatagasdigiliya, in the northern part of the island to a middle-class family from Negombo, on its west coast. His father, a travelling pharmacist on the government payroll, sent him to a prestigious Catholic school. After graduating from the University of Ceylon in economics, he spent six years in Rome studying philosophy and theology before being ordained in 1953.

He briefly did postgraduate studies in agricultural economics at Oxford University before returning to Sri Lanka, where he became a teacher and later rector of Aquinas University College in Colombo.

Full obituary in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/06/father-tissa-balasuriya

‘A loving and gentle rebel’: http://ncronline.org/news/people/fr-tissa-balasuriya-loving-and-gentle-rebel

From Independent Catholic News: http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=21836

Wikipedia on Fr Tissa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tissa_Balasuriya

From the Asian Human Rights Commission: http://www.humanrights.asia/news/ahrc-news/AHRC-ART-017-2013

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