Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation: The story and the text (1990, this edition with additional material edited by Helen Stanton, Geoffrey Chapman Publishers 1997)
I’m a stepchild of the Enlightenment; my natural parent was the Catholic Church. Of course most children don’t get to swap a natural parent for one who makes more sense to them, but if the analogy is allowed to stand despite that, I can say that reading this book was the equivalent of renewing contact with my birth parent, and discovering that she is no longer as I remember her – only to find a bit later that she really is pretty awful after all.
Father Tissa Balasuriya is a Sri Lankan scholar and liberation theologian. The essay at the heart of this book – the ‘text’ of the subtitle – first appeared as a special double issue of the journal, Logos, published by the Centre for Society and Religion which Balasuriya founded in 1971. It scrutinises Catholic doctrines, dogmas and devotions related to Mary the mother of Jesus, and puts the case for an approach to Mary more in keeping with a liberatory version of Christianity. ‘From a Catholic perspective,’ he writes, ‘the sources of Christian theology are the Bible and tradition. Both of these should be subject to critical evaluation.’ Given that most Catholic doctrine has been developed by celibate European men, it needs to be approached with ‘a hermeneutics of suspicion’: one needs to ask constantly whether particular formulations and interpretations are influenced by self interest and limitations of that group – whether they might not be contaminated by male domination, by colonialism, by taking Western culture’s assumptions and practices to be universally human.
I read the book with a double mind: one part that of a settled atheist (for whom the book was mostly inconsequential, and I won’t pay much attention to him here), the other of the young man in whose life as a trainee Marist Brother, roughly between the ages of 16 and 23, the BVM was the primary feminine presence and fascination, of whom he has never quite let go. That young man was reminded of his pleasure years ago when a teacher said, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the Church. But I don’t have to believe that anyone has ever gone there,’ when he read Balasuriya’s strikingly similar statement about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that is, the doctrine that she was conceived free of sin):
It is taught by the Church on the basis of tradition. I have no difficulty in accepting it. My problem is rather with the idea that the rest of humanity is stained or sinful at conception. … Suffice it to say here that while I appreciate the holiness of Mary, it is not necessary to deprecate the rest of humanity by contrast.
My young self was exhilarated to find the pale, most pure, most holy virgin being talked about as a mature working class woman who joined her son’s dangerous and deeply principled challenge to the oppressive order of their day. He found it bracing to be told to get his mind above the waist, to stop thinking of Mary primarily in terms of her miraculous reproductive history, and to focus on the song attributed to her, the Magnificat, which talks of psychological, political and economic revolution. He was delighted to read a powerful argument in support of the ordination of women. He (and the atheist he has become) smirked approvingly when Balasuriya pointed out that all but one of the future popes, bishops and priests of the Church deserted Jesus in his darkest hour.
That was the ‘text’. The ‘story’ is another matter altogether. In 1994 the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka issued a statement warning Catholics not to read the essay, and shortly after that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict 16) weighed in with ‘Observations’ pointing out a large number of deficiencies and errors in the essay (in this kind of writing, deficiencies and errors if defended are heresies – you know, the kind of thing that used to get people burned alive). Both those documents are included in this book, along with Balasuriya’s careful, thorough, mostly civil and at times enraged responses. It makes shocking reading. It looks to me as if the thing that really stung the bishops and the Vatican was Balasuriya’s daring to challenge the Eurocentricism and male domination of the Church authorities, because the conversation moved quickly away from the text itself (after all, it’s not clear how well the members of the CDF could read English – the misrepresentations in their Observations may well have resulted from language difficulties rather than authoritarian deviousness) to a demand that Balasuriya sign a statement of belief that was especially tailored to him. Paragraph 34 of the statement read, ‘Therefore, I firmly accept and hold that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.’ To cut a long story short, Balasuriya refused to sign off on something that no other Catholic is required to subscribe to, and in 1997 he was excommunicated with no right of appeal. (According to Wikipedia the excommunication was rescinded a year later, after this book was published, when Balasuriya signed a different, more generally acknowledged statement.)
If the current crop of militant atheists were seriously interested in anything beyond grandstanding and stirring up conflict, they would do well to engage with thinkers like Tissa Balasuriya. They wouldn’t reach agreement, but they might discover the possibility of mutual respect, and much common ground. Much more common ground, I expect, than you’d find between, say, Tony Abbott or George Pell on the one hand and on the other Tissa Balasuriya or, I’m willing to bet, any of the now oldish Marist Brothers who were my confreres in our youth.