Ann Pettifer


In the grip of yet another spasm of
millenarian distemper, the Vatican decided to celebrate the
New Year with an excommunication. Excluded from the community
of believers for his heretical views was an elderly Sri
Lankan priest, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya. Not well known in the
west, Fr. Balasuriya has won plaudits in Asia for helping
Catholic theology address the considerable social, political,
and economic ills which plague third world countries,
including his own. The runes of this excommunication, when
read carefully, yield disturbing information about the heresy
hunters in Rome.

To the modern mind, heresy has an odd,
anachronistic ring–which may explain why the media covered
the story with little more than a shrug. The New York
report quoted a Rome-based Catholic scholar (the
brave soul asked not to be identified) who rebuked the
Vatican for the fuss and "making a somebody out of a
nobody." In contrast, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor
of the neo-conservative journal First Things, seemed
to think that Balasuriya’s head on a pike had saved Catholic
doctrine from contamination and this would help the Pope
"promote dialogue among the world’s religions."

With nearly a billion Roman Catholics
in the world today, an effort must be made to investigate
Rome’s motives when it does something as unhinged as
separating an old man from his life-long community. Human and
natural rights are at stake. The spotlight in this horrible
drama must fall principally on the Pope’s grand inquisitor,
the Bavarian Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger.

Ratzinger, arguably the most powerful
man in the Roman Catholic Church today, has never made any
bones about his admiration for the pre-war German Church in
which he grew up. No apologies for that Church’s
accommodation and concordats with Hitler have ever tripped
off his tongue, nor for his own stint in the Chancellor’s
Youth Movement. It is a pretty kettle of fish when the man in
the Vatican calling the shots on heresy cut his teeth
politically in a fascist context.

Fr. Balasuriya was an obvious target
for a rabid Occidentialist like Ratzinger. Oriental and
other, the Sri Lankan couldn’t help but make the Bavarian
nervous, even before he had written a word. While a fear of
syncretism is one hobgoblin haunting the Cardinal, the
proximate cause for the heresy verdict was liberation
theology. Fr. Balasuriya does social analysis, entertaining
the quaint notion that theology should provide folk with the
tools to free themselves from grinding, dehumanizing poverty.
His books on Jesus, Mary, and the Eucharist have taken on,
variously, capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. Like Marx
before him, he is afraid of the opiate potential of religion
and has observed that prayers like the Hail Mary play a role
in "tranquilizing Catholics."

The prosecutor in Fascist Italy
responsible for imprisoning the Marxist theorist Antonio
Gramsci, said "We must prevent this brain from
functioning for twenty years." Without prison, the stake
or the rack at his disposal, the Roman Inquisitor sought Fr.
Balasuriya’s silence through excommunication. Rome has
battled modern political and economic ideas for more than 150
years. Its suspicions are also raised whenever layfolk
appropriate the Bible and read it as a manifesto for
deliverance from institutions that oppress them. Pius IX, in
his encyclical Qui Puribus, published in 1846,
condemned "crafty Bible societies which renew the skills
of the old heretics, and ceaselessly force on people of all
kinds, even the uneducated, gifts of the Bible."

The current papacy has given permission
for contemporary representatives of anti-modernism to crawl
out from underneath their rocks. Recently I read a
promotional brochure for a publication of theirs called Catholic
. Promised in an upcoming issue is a rewriting of
the history of the Spanish Inquisition: "It wasn’t what
the Church’s enemies claim." These people never
apologize–they just revise. Also scheduled is a
rehabilitation of Pius XII who, as we now know, could have
done so much more in standing up to Hitler.

What is so shocking, wicked even, is
that Ratzinger has almost certainly never set foot in Sri
Lanka and seems indifferent to its grave problems. Sri Lanka
continues to be mauled by the Tamil Tigers in a civil war
rooted in long standing ethnic tensions. It is clear that as
long as the political violence continues, Sri Lanka’s rampant
poverty will not be alleviated. Shortly after the
excommunication was announced, the BBC World Service
broadcast a report by Sue Lloyd Roberts on one consequence of
this poverty–the widespread pedophilic skin-trade in Sri
Lanka. Young boys’ bodies are being bought and sold, and it
is German men who are the chief consumers and purveyors.

This is the political and economic
context which has shaped Balasuriya’s liberation theology.
Like the author of the Book of Proverbs, he believes that
"the poverty of the poor is their ruin." His
theology loosens the mortar which keeps hierarchies in both
Church and State in place. It is the starting point of a
strategy to empower ordinary people at the grassroots level.

Balasuriya’s excommunication has also
lifted the veil on Cardinal Ratzinger’s racism. His choice of
victim, a brown-skinned man without powerful friends, living
half a world away, is no coincidence. White, well-connected,
controversial theologians living in Europe and the US have
offered a challenge to Church authority every bit as radical
as that of Fr. Balasuriya’s; they have not been subjected to
the Panzer Cardinal’s spite.

Shortly after having silenced the pesky
liberation theologian, the Pope, in a feat of breathtaking
humbug, proceeded to lecture diplomats assembled for his
annual New Year address on the need for a moral code to keep
stronger, richer nations from dominating others and
"imposing their cultural models, economic diktats or
ideological models." How are we to understand such
contrariness? The answer, I think, lies with Rome’s ingrained
paternalism. Lofty pronunciamentos from the Pope on justice
are one thing. Having an indigenous prophet teach and
activate folk at the grassroots to seek justice and dignity
for themselves, is quite another.

Ann Pettifer is the publisher of Common
Sense the alternative newspaper at the University of Notre