The Sunday TimesPlus

26th January 1997



Need of a renewed Marian theology

This week we conclude the series of Rev Tissa Balasuriya's book "Mary and Human Liberation" and publish excerpts from "Mary and Human Liberation...... The Other Side" by Manel Abhayaratne

A. Development of Theology/Doctrine

The development of theology and spirituality in the Catholic Church presents an interesting example of change and continuity, of a claim to infallibility and the fact of the transformation of doctrine and practice. This raises the question of how changes in theology, even in doctrine, take place. Is it always an evolution In the same direction, or are there changes that are a contradiction of a previous position? What are the criteria for such changes? Who is entitled to make them? How do changes come about? How prepared are local churches for changes that take place in the universal church? How can we convince ourselves and others that we are holding the same view always and not changing our thinking due to reasons which are not of faith and theology?

Is it not a fact that sometimes changes in practice precede changes in thinking and teaching? This is a slow and painful process in which there can be much pain before the new light dawns. This can be seen in the case of the church's attitude towards religious freedom.

"For most of the church's history only rarely were Christians able even so much as to tolerate other religions, and they were almost never able to tolerate other forms of their own religion (heresies)."

"Notions of genuine human freedom as a religious right were soundly rejected by Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX and Leo XIII because in their view these notions were inextricably bound up with indifferentism and rationalism. Nevertheless, in practice, if not in theory, Catholics took a far more tolerant view of Protestants. In this century the rise of totalitarian regimes of both the right and the left, the destruction of two world wars, and growing global consciousness helped religious leaders to focus on human dignity, the inviolable rights of the human person, the nature of human community and its relation to the state, and other issues affecting human solidarity. It was in this context, too, that Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII moved towards the acceptance of the ideals of human dignity and freedom consonant with the teachings of the church."

In the 19th century the central leadership of the Catholic Church had long term objections to accepting democracy and liberty even in civil society, especially due to the French Revolution. Then authority was said to so come from God that it could not be from the people. The objection to the socialistic demands for societal reforms was even more deep seated, till the historic encyclical of Leo XIII on the "Condition of the Working Classes" in 1891. Even this encyclical was very much downplayed in many churches during several decades.

The changes in the situation of colonial peoples after their Independence made the churches reconsider the attitude towards other religions. Now due to much work for consciousness raising in some local churches, the Catholics have changed to be among the foremost defenders of democratic rights and of free and fair elections as in the Philippines in 1986.

B. Some Recent Trends in Theology

In the renewal of Catholic theology in the second half of the 20th century, especially after Vatican II, various issues have been taken up in different regions according to their concerns and needs. The earlier renewal was in Western Europe following the Enlightenment, with the studies in biblical interpretation and hermeneutics. They reflected on the mission of the Church in the context of European Rationalism, Modernism, Darwin, Marx and Freud and the growing secularization in the West. They were reaping the fruit of decades of biblical studies based on linguistic, cultural and historical analysis.

In the United States, with their experience of the separation of church and state, John Courtenay Murray, perhaps the strongest theological proponent of religious freedom in the church, led in the rethinking on the relationships between church and state and the need of religious tolerance. He had a principle impact in the formulation of the Vatican II "Declaration on Religious Liberty" which recognized that the dignity of the human person consists in his responsible use of freedom.

In Germany Johannes Metz, agonized by the experience of the horrors of Nazism, developed a "political theology", emphasizing the need of witnessing to Christian values in the social and political spheres also. Such thinking had much impact on the Western countries and contributed to the growing commitment of Western Christians and churches to social justice, at least within their societies.

The East-West cold war and the fear of nuclear annihilation motivated groups towards building up the peace movement, beyond denominational, religious and ideological boundaries.

North America was foremost in the development of Black theology and feminist theology, both having strands of a liberational approach.

The feminist theologians bring in the dimension of gender analysis of Christian life and thought in every area of life and study. This is a growing movement that has now a quasi universal and radical questioning of almost all aspects of theology and spirituality. The starting point of feminist theological reflection is the acute consciousness of the systematic exclusion of women from leadership in the life of the church. They have been excluded from the study of theology, and hence from teaching and ministry as well as administration in the church.

From this reflection they see that theology and spirituality have been conditioned to legitimize male domination throughout centuries. Three dimensions of the development of feminist theology are the demonstration of the androcentric and misogynist bias in the whole of church life including scripture and theological tradition. Secondly, they tried to draw up alternative norms and sources of tradition to challenge these biases. This is a process of deconstruction of traditional theology and spirituality. Thirdly they seek a reconstruction and re-envisioning of the theological themes and life relationships to free them from biases against women.

Now there are numerous feminist theologians in all the Continents of the world. Various trends are rapidly developing within this movement. Some radically question whether a male God can be a liberator for women. Thus Mary Daly repudiates the possibility of the reform of the Christian tradition and seeks a new spirituality. Rosemary R. Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza are among the leading Catholic feminist theologians from North America. There is also a trend for a more holistic spirituality that seeks to transcend difference and divisions of gender and make common cause with the other struggles of humanity today such as for the preservation of the environment. Marian theology is also developed by several feminist theologians as seen in the latter part of this book.

Theological rethinking is now developing very much in Asia and Africa, especially since emancipation from colonial rule. In Africa the accent has been on issues such as African culture, family and community values, traditional religions, relation to ancestors, poverty and liberation from discrimination on the basis of race and tribe. The relationship with Islam is a dimension of Christian reflection and life in most African countries. In South Africa the numerous theologians and church leaders like Desmond Tutu and Albert Nolan and some churches themselves contributed to the struggle against Apartheid and the recent success of the democratic process in transferring power to the Black majority in a compromise solution.

In Asia the thinking is influenced by the realities of poverty, massive populations and religious plurality, in addition to the other dimensions that are bringing about theological renewal elsewhere. Hence the ferment here, especially South Asia, is very active and leading to much further questioning than elsewhere. The nature of the human condition, the understanding of the presence of the divine in the world, and the identity and role of Jesus the Christ, and the mission of Church are all under scrutiny in this environment. Asian theology is being developed in many countries: especially the Philippines, South Korea, India and Sri Lanka. Oppression of caste and tribals is also leading to an elaboration of liberation theology in India.

Throughout the world there is a growing concern for the environment and ecology. The future of planet earth is worrying many - particularly due to the noticeable changes in the climate and the known exhaustion of some limited non-renewable resources. This is a spiritual and theological problem of lifestyle and attitude towards nature.

C. Issues Involved

In all these theologies there is process of theological de-construction and re-construction in stages including:

i) a reflection by the victims from a lived experience of oppression and marginalization,

ii) leading to a critical rethinking of the interpretation of scripture and tradition that was seen as de facto allied to discrimination on the basis of race, gender or social class and religion.

iii) Consequent on the experience of these different groups there has been an analysis of doctrines and authority patterns in the church based on gender, race, class and even caste.

iv) The issues raised in the process include the understanding of the human condition of sin beginning with original sin, gender relations partly related to the interpretation of the responsibility for original sin, the nature of the redemptive process, the role of Jesus Christ and of the church in human salvation,

v) The rethinking of theology includes a revaluation of the type of formation of the clergy and leadership in the church. Traditionally the formation in the seminaries has been attuned to the continuation of the status quo in the church and society.

vi) The understanding and practice of spirituality in the church had been such as not to contest such discriminations that prevailed in the dominant society. Such an approach was helped by the narrow self- centred individualistic "salvation-of-soul" perspective that prevailed in Europe especially in the modern period after the decline of feudalism. The shift is now to a broader interpersonal and social concern according to the perspective from which the spirituality is developed.

D. Mary and Modern Women: Feminism

Pope Paul notes that some women are getting "disenchanted with devotion to the Blessed Virgin and finding it difficult to take as an example Mary of Nazareth" interpreted traditionally in comparison with the vast spheres of activity open to women living with equality in the home, in politics, society and scientific research and intellectual life. Paul VI exhorts "theologians those responsible for the local Christian communities and the faithful themselves to examine these difficulties with due care."

Thereafter the Pope offers his own reflections for this task. He points out that the difficulties alluded to above are closely related to certain aspects of the image of Mary found in popular writings. They are not connected with the Gospel image of Mary nor with the doctrinal data. It is normal that different generations would interpret Mary in different socio-cultural contexts. The Marian image of earlier ages should be verified with today's conditions and Mary in the Scripture.

The modern woman will note with pleasant surprise that Mary of Nazareth, while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others; on the contrary, she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions (cf. Lk. 1:51-53). The modern woman will recognize in Mary, who "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord", a woman of strength, who experienced poverty and suffering, flight and exile (cf Mt. 2:13-23).... These are but examples, which show clearly that the figure of the Blessed Virgin does not disillusion any of the profound expectations of the men and women of our time but offers them the perfect model of the disciple of the Lord: the disciple who builds up the earthly and temporal city while being a diligent pilgrim towards the heavenly and eternal city, the disciple who works for that justice which sets free the oppressed and for that charity which assists the needy; but above all, the disciple who is the active witness of that love which builds up Christ in people's hearts".

The Pope then corrects certain attitudes of piety already denounced by Vatican II:

"... the exaggeration of content and form which even falsifies doctrine and likewise the small- mindedness which obscures the figure and mission of Mary.... vain credulity, ...merely external practices... sterile and ephemeral sentimentality, ...Careful defence against these errors and deviations will render devotion to the Blessed Virgin more vigorous and more authentic.... It will ensure that this devotion is objective in its historical setting, and for this reason everything that is obviously legendary or false must be eliminated. It will ensure that this devotion matches its doctrinal content - hence the necessity of avoiding a one-sided presentation of the figure of Mary, which by over stressing one element compromises the overall picture given by the Gospel. It will make this devotion clear in its motivation; hence every unworthy self-interest is to be carefully banned from the area of what is sacred.

39.... When the children of the Church unite their voices with the voice of the unknown woman in the Gospel and glorify the Mother of Jesus by saying to him: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked" (Lk. 11: 27) they will be led to ponder the divine Master's serious reply: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" (Lk. 11:28). While it is true that this reply is in itself lively praise of Mary, as various Fathers of the Church interpreted it and the Second Vatican Council has confirmed, it is also an admonition to us to live our lives in accordance with God's commandments. It is also an echo of other words of the Saviour: "Not every one who says to me "Lord, Lord", will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt. 7:21), and again: "You are my friends if you do what I command you"(Jn. 15:14).

With such a renewed Marian theology and spirituality....

"56.... Contemplated in the episodes of the Gospels and in the reality which she already possesses in the City of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary offers a calm vision and a reassuring word to modern man, torn as he often is between anguish and hope, defeated by the sense of his own limitations and assailed by limitless aspirations, troubled in his mind and divided in his heart, uncertain before the riddle of death, oppressed by loneliness while yearning for fellowship, a prey to boredom and disgust. She shows forth the victory of hope over anguish, of fellowship over solitude, of peace over anxiety, of joy and beauty over boredom and disgust, of eternal visions over earthly ones, of life over death.

Mary and Human Liberation -The Other Side

Excerpts from 'Mary and Human Liberation - The Other Side' by Manel Abhayaratna

Of late much has been spoken and written about the book published by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya OMI titled 'Mary and Human Liberation'. It has been featured not only on Catholic but also public media, including the print and electronic. Many accusations have been levelled, especially at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka, by different writers and speakers.

The bone of contention has been the alleged injustice meted out to Rev.

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya OMI by the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka concerning his book, which was published in 1990 under the Logos series. On the 5th of June 1994 the Catholic Bishops' Conference published in the Catholic weeklies "The Messenger" (English) and the Gnanartha Pradeepaya (Sinhala) a statement which warned the Catholic faithful about some of its errors and advised them to refrain from reading it.

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya claims that the Bishops' statement was based on "distortions" and false interpretation of his text and he accuses the Bishops of unfair treatment. He also accuses them of not having given him a fair hearing.Subsequently, it was also revealed that this book had been the object of an official inquiry by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, the highest Catholic Church institution which deals with such matters, and that even they had found unacceptable and erroneous certain positions in this book which go counter to the doctrinal heritage of the Catholic Church. It is said that among those who studied the book were not only reputed Catholic theologians drawn from different quarters but also some theologians of the Oblate Congregation to which Fr. Balasuriya himself belongs.

In June 1996 Fr. Balasuriya instituted per-legal action calling the members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka to appear before the State Mediation Board for an inquiry. This action, he later decided "not to proceed with" in accordance with the request made to him by the Superior General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Religious Congregation of which he is a member.

The Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka, except for their first official statement in the Catholic weeklies of 5th June 1994 and another brief statement on the status of the question published in the Catholic Messenger on 26th May 1996, have not so far made any statement in response.

All along it was clear to many people that there was another side to the question. Some of us felt that, in the name of truth, something had to be done to present "the other side" of the story to the public. We made a study of available documents and also interviewed some Bishops to obtain their side of the story. Having noted that booklets in "question and answer" form had been used to air the view points of Fr. Balasuriya, by whosoever that wrote them, we too decided to use the same format to present the facts we had gathered. We are presenting this book to the general public in a spirit of love for truth, filial devotion towards our Blessed Mother, esteem for our Bishops and profound thanks to the Holy See for faithfully guarding the deposit of faith.

The contents of this book are answers given at interviews to the questions listed below.

1. Why were the Bishops silent all this long ? Could they not have replied the media campaign then?

2. Has this not tended to make a one-sided picture to be regarded as the truth?

3. Would you feel it would have been better to leave the book alone?

4. What made you take it up at all?

5. What about the rules of Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat?

6. Did you not allow for proper procedure?

7. How did you come to the conclusion that Fr. Balasuriya always took a reactive attitude?

8. Is it true that he was rashly treated by the Bishops?

9. Is it true that he was not given adequate opportunities to explain himself?

10. Didn't Fr. Balasuriya welcome comment on his book "be they favourable or otherwise"? Did he allow room for that?

11. Is it correct to state that the CMBS was more sympathetic to him?

12. Is Fr. Balasuriya a "reputed theologian" as he claims to be or as others claim him to be?

13. What answer do you have to Fr. Balasuriya who wants you to prove from his book the "four glaring errors" you mentioned in your statement of 5th June 1994?

14. What is the relationship according to you between faith and rational or empirical evidence in the discernment of revealed truth?

15. What other errors do you find in this book?

16. Are there any other objectionable features in the book which you wish to highlight?

17. Did the CDF oblige Fr. Balasuriya to sign a profession of faith especially drafted for him?

18. What about the public campaign against your statement?

19. What about the recourse to the State Mediation Board by Fr. Balasuriya?

20. What were the main sources of doctrinal information used in evaluating Fr. BalasuriyaÕs views?

21. Why especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

22. What is the final decision that has now been taken?


1. Question: For quite some time much discussion and debate has taken place on the book ÒMary and Human LiberationÓ by Fr. Balasuriya OMI. Newspaper articles, booklets and even TV programs have been conducted in order to make it appear that the Bishops of Sri Lanka had treated Fr. Balasuriya unjustly. Except for two brief statements appearing in the local Catholic papers, the Bishops have remained silent. People expected some clarifications. What made you take that attitude of silence?

Answer: The Bishops have been silent on this matter on purpose. They should be examples of patience and charity. One must not be emotional in these matters and rush into things.

2. Question: But, could not such an attitude lead to the acceptance of a one sided story?

Answer: Yes, that is possible. More and more of our faithful have suggested to us that we come out with our side of the matter. We now intend doing so.

3. Question: Some people also feel that it would have been better to have ignored this book altogether. Your statement on the book seems to have given it more publicity.

Answer: The Bishops followed that reasoning at first. But then there was a move, to make a video film based on the book and to make it available to parishes, BCC groups etc. We heard that attempts were also being made to get this book translated into Sinhala. In other words, a point was reached when it could not be ignored any longer. Continued silence could have been misinterpreted as a dereliction of duty. Besides, there were some of our faithful who were asking us for guidance on this matter. We were aware of the inherent dangers they could have encountered if they had read the book without being warned about it.

To be continued next week

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