Tag Archives: Marist Brothers

Mary and Human Liberation

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)

This book inspired two of my November blog sonnets, but that’s no reason not to give it a separate entry.

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 Eurocentrism 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.

School Holidays are almost over

School holidays are almost over and the Art Student will soon gone back to her normal routine. It has been lovely having her about the place, but it will be a relief when the holidays are over.

We’ve been up to quite a lot:

• We visited Michael Callaghan’s exhibition The Torture Memo at the Damien Minto Gallery. Text  – phrases from the ‘war on terror’, a mediaeval Arabic poem – side by side in English and Arabic, combine with images  to powerful effect: realistic water pours from a plastic bottle down the middle of the canvas with text on water boarding on either side, and a blown up woodprint showing that form of torture being carried out in the Spanish Inquisition; a hooded figure with vulnerable looking hands the only visible parts of his body against a background of text and splattered blood. Michael’s political posters have been around for at least four decades – it’s great to see this new work in a gallery, as intelligently provocative, and beautiful, as ever. Some of the large works have been bought by the Australian War Memorial.

• We got out of town for a couple of nights, stayed at Bundanoon, the small town on the southern highlands that was celebrating the first anniversary of its decision  to no longer sell bottled water. It was wet and bitterly cold (by Sydney standards – I realise that 0oC is balmy to Alaskans and others), and though the town’s Mid-winter Festival was in full swing, we mainly played Scrabble beside a wood fire, dining at the local Chinese restaurant and the Suffolk Forest pub bistro. We drove the extra ks to Canberra on our full day, to visit the National Portrait Gallery (how a newborn baby must feel, fascinated by human faces, but surrounded by far too many of them to process comfortably) and the Hans Heysen exhibition at the National Art Gallery. It turns out I can’t get enough gum trees, though the Art Student grew weary after the first hundred of so. We both loved the later, stark Flinders Ranges landscapes.

• We popped in on an Elisabeth Cummings exhibition and narrowly avoided buying a small etching – I’m not sure why we avoided it, as we both loved the painting and both thought it was probably a wise investment. And on the same trip to East Sydney we had a look at Euan Macleod’s riveting Antarctic landscapes.

• We strolled around some fetching Victoriana at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, because the A-S had to write an essay about two of the paintings. While we were there we paid good money to see Paths to Abstraction, which included any number of wonderful 19th and 20th century paintings but left me no wiser about abstraction. Between the Nabis and the Cubists, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for 30 years – and given that I have a bit of a reputation for vagueness I’m glad to report that I recognised her. We gratified each other by knowing bits of recent news about each other’s family. This alone made the exhibition worth the price of admission.

• I nearly forgot to mention that on the way back from Bundanoon we made a detour down Bong Bong Road at Mittagong to visit what is now The Hermitage but for three and a half years in the mid 1960s was my home when I was in training to be a Marist Brother. We’d intended to drive around the buildings and be on our way, but we bumped into one of my coevals, still a member of the order, who turns out to be Guestmaster (a church title, as he said) of what is now a retreat centre there. He showed us over the place, which of course bears no resemblance at all to the drab, chilblain inducing environment of our youth. Given that most mentions of the Marist Brothers in the mainstream media these days are to do with sexual abuse, it was a real shot in the arm to be spend time with my old friend Paddy, getting a sense of what he and the others who have stayed in the order have been up to. The place is full of ghosts, some of them still living (one of them in a tiny personal hermitage in the middle of a cow paddock), almost all of them benign.

On the home front, the Art Student’s studio has invaded the sitting room: an easels, a cheap mirrors (for self-portayal purposes), linocut gear, scanned images, scraps of paper, tubes of paint, the occasional fellow artist.

Life is good.