Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Balasuriya Affair

by Pravin Thevathasan


Useful documentation on one of the rare excommunications effected in recent times.

Larger Work

Christian Order



Publisher & Date

Christian Order Limited, December 1997

The book "Mary and Human Liberation" by Fr. Tisa Balasuriya, OMI, was published in Sri Lanka in 1990. As with some of the author's previous work, it was considered theologically deficient. Initial attempts at dialogue between Fr. Balasuriya and the bishops proved unfruitful.

In June 1994, the Catholic Bishops released a statement requesting the faithful not to read the book.

In July 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (SCDF) requested a retraction from Fr. Balasuriya. He refused to comply with this request.

In November 1995, the SCDF sent Fr. Balasuriya a specially drafted Profession of Faith with the full approval of Pope John Paul II. Fr. Balasuriya refused to sign for the following reasons

1. It stated that "the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church built by Jesus Christ on that rock which is Peter . . . is necessary for salvation".

2. It stated that, "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women".

Fr. Balasuriya also stated: "My difficulty is that some of the items of the POP are ancient formulations, in the terminology and philosophy of those times... some of these items are debated issues in contemporary Church teaching".(1)

Instead Father Balasuriya sent the Credo of Pope Paul VI signed with the following statement at the end: "I sign this POP of Pope Paul VI in the context of theological development and Church practice since Vatican II and the freedom and responsibility of Christians and theological searchers under canon law".

This was again considered unacceptable.

On the 7th of December 1996, the papal nuncio in Sri Lanka read a notice of excommunication to Father Balasuriya. Once again he refused to sign the POF. The SCDF signed the excommunication notification on the 2nd January 1997.

Why Excommunicated

Father Balasuriya's beliefs on a number of doctrines are at variance with Catholic orthodoxy


"The Gospels do not say that Jesus baptized anyone. If baptism was essential for Salvation, he should have given it his most serious attention" (Mary and Human Liberation —MHL).

"One may also ask whether Jesus would have known about the future development of this doctrine by his disciples in the course of centuries. If he had seen the disastrous consequences of this doctrine on the Christian mission would he not have warned his followers of it." (MHL)

"We can see in the evolution of this doctrine how much the presupposition and assumption of a group influence the development of dogma—leaving room for imagination combined with authoritarian justifications". (MHL)

"The doctrine is based on unproved and unprovable assumptions."

" ... We may go further and ask whether this doctrine itself is not the original sin of traditional Christian theology." (MHL)


"Even if we maintain that Salvation is through Jesus Christ, it does not Follow that we can claim that Jesus wanted a Church — say the Catholic Church — to be the mediator of that Salvation". (MHL)

"The traditional theology has defined Jesus as one person having two natures... who is able to know these things with any degree of acceptable certitude?" (MHL)

"In Christian theology we have the situation in which the original mythical presentation of the beginning of the universe and of human life have been the subject of interpretation in later centuries by the ecclesiastical authorities. These in turn have claimed divine authority to Jesus Christ... it is necessary to exercise a critical judgement on the evolution of the myth into religious teaching and later even defined dogma of the Catholic Church". (MHL)

For discussion of "some issues around Christology implicitly in Mary and Human Liberation", Fr. Balasuriya includes:

"Jesus of Nazareth not centre of God's saving activity, Christianity is one means, different religious traditions are paths to Salvation, Jesus of Nazareth is not unique and final in Salvation.

"The Church definitions... can claim only a faith that is due to the Church in her teaching power. They are not necessarily directly from Jesus. (MHL)


Fr. Balasuriya quotes the following from Fr. Raymond Brown Which clearly influences his understanding of Mariology:

"Mary lends herself more freely than Jesus does to a symbolic trajectory". (MHL)

On the Immaculate Conception:

"I agree that Mary was born without original sin. But I am also saying that nobody is conceived in sin".(3)

On the Virgin Birth:

Fr. Balasuriya quotes Fr. Raymond Brown:

"The general context of the infancy narratives on which the virginal conception is preserved, does nothing to increase our confidence in historicity." (MHL)

This leads Fr. Balasuriya to conclude that the "historicity of the virginity of Mary is an open issue among scholars." (MHL)

"Who can know'.. whether Mary was a virgin even after the birth of Jesus?" (MHL)

On the Assumption:

"We are once again before a privilege of Mary about which we cannot have certain empirical knowledge to affirm or deny it." (MHL)

On Mariology:

"One of the consequences of the development of Mariology in a 'descending' way i.e. postulating divine maternity, Immaculate Conception, virginity and Assumption is that Mary is not thought of as a human mother of a human son who lived in very ordinary human circumstances." (MHL)

"This Mary of the New Testament does not have much in common with the Mary of theological elaborations." (MHL)


"There is no reason, biological, psychological, pastoral, theological or spiritual why we cannot have a woman Pope... the functions of a Pope are similar to those of a head of state or of a spiritual community." (MHL)

His Supporters

The theological errors of Fr. Balasuriya are not subtle. However, as Fr. Balasuriya wrote following his excommunication, "many other writers especially in the West, have expressed similar or identical views."(4) He was excommunicated in good measure due to the vigilance of the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka who have been ridiculed by the secular media because they have upheld the purity of the Faith.

For a theologian who has campaigned for a Catholic theology in the Asian context, his own sources are surprisingly non-Asian: Rosemary Radford-Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Leonardo Boff, Matthew Fox, Edward Schillebeeck, Karl Rahner, Raimondo Pannikar and Raymond Brown.

The following writers have critiqued the book Mary and Human Liberation.

Mary Grey: "no other book on Mariology take such a clear and positive stance on the need for marian spirituality." (MHL)

Mary A. Curtin, a Senior Producer of religious programmes, Radio Telefis, Ireland: "It was refreshing and encouraging to find a presentation rooted in the Gospel stories." (MHL)

Sr. Myra Poole SND: "Your book is an important contribution not only to the freeing of Mary, but also the freeing of women."(5)

Roger Haight SJ, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Weston Jesuit School of theology: "The work itself, the interpretations of the doctrines is competent, intelligent, coherent and sound."(6)

Fr Aloysius Pieris SJ, another Sri Lankan theologian, supports Fr. Balasuriya because for both of them, "the imagination is an intellectual faculty by which we dream of new possibilities and thus discover truths hitherto hidden from our eyes. That was how the Church discovered the Immaculate Conception."(7)

Fr Samuel Rayan SJ, a Jesuit from India, made the following criticisms of the Profession of Faith:(8)

  • On papal infallibility — "The affirmations made here are historically and theologically ambiguous and are being debated among responsible Christian thinkers. (H. Kung: Infallible? A. B. Hasler: How the Pope became infallible)"
  • On original sin — "This is but one of the old theologies, the dominant Augustinian one."
  • "In a world of pluriform cultures and histories... truth and authenticity will demand, and will issue in, a real theological, even dogmatic, pluralism."

Fr Dalston Forbes, who was a Rector of Sri Lanka's leading Catholic seminary: "We must expect a certain amount of awareness and even heterodoxy in the context of Asian theology."(9)

Perhaps the most extraordinary response was made by Mr. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission. In a book entitled Power v. Conscience—obtained at the Centre for Society and Religion founded by Fr. Balasuriya — he compares Cardinal Ratzinger with Andrei Vyshansky, Stalin's prosecutor:

"Ratzinger, born in Germany during Fascist times, had his formative years under the culture created by the Nazis. In recent years he has been shaping a new style of trial against Catholic theologians. Fundamentalism leads to violence. Cardinal Ratzinger is attempting to lead the Catholic Church in that direction."

Interestingly, the author goes on to accuse the Vatican of, &,engaging in vicious attacks." The "Victims" mentioned along with Fr. Balasuriya are H. Kung and Leonardo Boff, neither of whom are renowned for their orthodoxy.

Perhaps the comparison with Stalin's prosecutor should not be seen so negatively since Fr. Balasuriya has written:

"A Lenin or a Mao Tse-Tung cannot be fully appreciated without seeing the mystical traits of their struggles... the lifestyle of Ho Chi Minh was as attractive in its simplicity and daring as those of great religious liberators."(10)

Fr. Balasuriya mentions the following as among those who wrote in his favour following the excommunication:

The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, Conference of Major Superiors (England), Society of Jesus (England), Bishop Neponuceno (Manila), OMI Fathers (Brazil), Dr. Hans Kung.(11)


After reading Mary and Human Liberation, a theologian supportive of Fr. Balasuriya wrote: "The Catholic ecclesiastical authorities could feel invited to rethink or even question several central elements of the classical theology of which they may consider themselves to be the rightful maintainers and defenders ."(12)

This is surely the point, Fr. Balasuriya continued to question basic Christian Doctrine. That is why he was excommunicated.

As Fr. Balasuriya has mentioned, he is one of many. There needs to be a systematic review of theological statements and an implementation of the charitable anathema if absolutely required.

Following his excommunication, Fr. Balasuriya wrote:

"Perhaps the reform of the Church in the future will be coming more from the base, inter-related through the fax, E-mail, Internet and other modern means of rapid communication."(13)

He appears to have forgotten the Holy Ghost!


1. Truth and the Ambivalence of Power, Logos.

2. Social Justice, January 1997.

3. Quest 140, August 1995.

4. Social Justice, January 1997.

5, Quest 140, August 1995.

6. Ibid.

7. Quest, op. cit.

8. Social Justice, June 1996.

9. Power v. Conscience (Asian Human Rights Commission Publication).

10. Quest, 132, November 1994.

11. Social Justice, January 1997.

12. Quest, 140, August 1995.

13. Social Justice, January 1997.

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