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Dissident Catholics Find a Hero In Sri Lankan Priest

BY Kathleen Howley

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 1:00 PM

 

A star is born. Father Tissa Balasuriya, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate from Sri Lanka, is the new darling of dissident Catholics.

Ever since his excommunication last year for refusing to retract teachings declared erroneous by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the case has become a rallying point for Catholics who hope to reshape the Church in their own image.

In fact, Call to Action issued a statement on the Internet last year saying that Father Balasuriya was planning to appear at their national conference and was available to speak to other groups during the following weeks.

The announcement urged people to contact CTA at its Chicago headquarters to arrange appearances.

But, despite their public admiration, many dissenting Catholics admit, privately, that Father Balasuriya's star lost some of its luster when the Vatican lifted his excommunication Jan. 15.

In some ways, he held the line and made all of them proud. On key points, though, he appeared to back-pedal.

The Sri Lankan priest refused to retract statements from his book, Mary and Human Liberation-including his seeming denial of key points of doctrine, such as the Immaculate Conception, the necessity for baptism, and the reality of Original Sin.

Some groups are candid about the fact that they hope to overthrow the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Instead, he issued an apology for “perceived errors” in the text, and expressed regret for the “negative reactions” that ensued.

“I truly regret the harm this has caused. This entire episode has been very painful for me,” he wrote, in his “Statement of Reconciliation.”

He refused to sign an oath worded by the CDF that clarified questions his book had raised. The oath included statements from various documents that affirm Church teachings on the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, papal infallibility, Original Sin, the necessity of baptism, and the impossibility of ordaining women.

So far, so good. If he held the line there, he would have won the undying approbation of dissident Catholics around the globe.

But, he went a step too far when he agreed to profess the Credo of the People of God, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968.

From the perspective of a discontented Catholic, the problems in Paul VI's Credo begin with the seventh word:

“We believe in one only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” it reads. If that's not enough to make them wince, almost every paragraph of the Credo contains references to God as “him.”

And, the Credo twice affirms the hierarchical nature of the Church. For example, it states:

“We believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church built by Jesus Christ on that rock which is Peter. She is the Mystical Body of Christ; at the same time a visible society instituted with hierarchical organs.”

That's a sore point for some Catholics. In fact, some groups, such as the Women's Ordination Conference, are candid about the fact that they hope to overthrow the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

It's not a secret. They delineate that goal to any journalist who asks. And, they say it loudly and proudly from the podiums of their open conferences.

“Ordination, not subordination” is the mantra du jour for many of these liberal Catholics. That means—they want women priests, but they also want to reshape the structure of the Church into something that mixes modern democratic principles with group therapy.

Liberals are not going to be very happy, either, about the Credo's statements concerning the Virgin Mary. It reads:

“We believe that Mary is the Mother, who remained ever a Virgin, of the Incarnate Word, our God and Savior Jesus Christ, and that by reason of this singular election, she was, in consideration of the merits of her Son, redeemed in a more eminent manner, preserved from all stain of Original Sin and filled with the gift of grace more than all other creatures.”

Dissident Catholics seem to have mixed opinions about the Blessed Mother-some profess a great love for her, some deny her perpetual virginity, some ignore her, and some despise her example of meekness and submission. For all of them, the Virgin's fiat-“Be it done unto me according to thy word”-is in direct contrast to their rebellion against Church doctrine.

Yes, poor Father Balasuriya let them down on several points. Of course, the Call to Action crowd could claim that the big, bad Vatican coerced him.

Still, his future appearances in America won't be quite as glorious. He would have made a better hero, to them, if he had simply said, “Non Serviam.”

Kathleen Howley is a Boston-based journalist.

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