"Significant changes

As for the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of baptism, we all recognize that significant changes have occurred in our Catholic understanding.

When I was studying theology in Rome in the 1950s, our systematics professor insisted on the existence of limbo for children who died without baptism.

Now, thanks to interreligious dialogue and other developments, limbo is a forgotten teaching.

Even Pope John Paul II does not accept limbo for unbaptized children.

According to Evangelium Vitae, aborted fetuses are now in heaven."

From .......... National Catholic Reporter

February 7, 1997

pages 5-7


Curran welcomes Balasuriya

to theological outcast status

Fr. Charles E. Curran, now the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, was banned by the Vatican from teaching moral theology at The Catholic University of America. He writes this open letter to Fr. Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka who was excommunicated by the Vatican in January (NCR, Jan. 17).

Dear Tissa:

I am profoundly saddened and angered by the Vatican's action in excommunicating you.

We have never met. I have read and learned from your earlier book on the Eucharist but have not read your most recent book, Mary and Human Liberation. A mutual acquaintance told me many of the circumstances in your case. I cannot judge the merits of the issue, but the process and final action cry out to heaven for vengeance.

In the light of the recent excommunication action and my own experience, I feel a bond with you and the need to write this letter.

The action against you is so much more radical than the action against me. The Vatican's action against me (and in the case of Hans Kung) was limited to my role as a Catholic theologian and did not affect my canonical identity as a Catholic or even my role in the order of presbyters. The Vatican action now separates you canonically from the church community and from the exercise of priestly ministry. It might even result in your expulsion from the religious community you have served for more than 50 years. Why does the Vatican try to deprive you of the identity that has been yours for your whole life?

Only my identity as a Catholic theologian was attacked by the Vatican, but its action against you destroys the most fundamental identity of your life as a baptized Catholic, a theologian, and a priest. I was hurt by the action against me, but you must be devastated by what has been done to you.

When the Vatican took its action against me more than 10 years ago I was 52. You are now 20 years older, entering into the shadows of your own lifetime and now completely cut off from your life's identity and work.

We theologians serve the two publics of the church and the academy. As a university professor, I was able to find a position in a non-Catholic university to continue my teaching and my research. I have been given a very prestigious chair by Southern Methodist University. To my friends who lament that I cannot teach in a Catholic university, I reply that I have never been treated better in my life and I am very happy where I am. In fact, my primary worry is that I am too well off in comparison with just about every other brother and sister on this globe.

On the other hand, your theology has been primarily in the church context and not a university context. As a result, you have no place to go. How isolated and abandoned you must feel.

They rolled their eyes

You signed the Credo of Paul VI as a profession of your Catholic faith. It is unheard of for the church to design a new profession of faith for a particular individual! We are talking about the faith of the whole church and not just the theology of a particular school. Why should one who accepts this credo still be excommunicated?

Tissa, you have been treated so unChristianly and inhumanely. In addition, our church, which we both love and try to serve during our lifetime, has suffered grievously by this unfair action against you.

I read about the final Vatican action on the front page of The New York Times Jan. 7. As I came into my university that morning, I happened to meet four colleagues at the door - all non-Catholics. Their first reaction was to roll their eyes and ask how the Catholic church could do such a thing.

You have written about the church as a sacrament or sign of the presence of Jesus in our world. How can a church that takes this action against you be such a sign? What a contradiction!

You are humble and honest enough to admit you might be wrong. You recognize the need for the whole church and its bishops to be solicitous about the theology taught in the church. I have always recognized that at times the church might have to say that an individual theologian on particular points is opposed to the faith of the church. However, we need just procedures in the church to protect the church as a whole and the individual theologian.

The present processes of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are totally inadequate and unjust. The congregation itself is judge and jury. You do not have a right even to know your accusers. You cannot be represented by an advocate. In addition, the congregation tends to follow just one theological school or line and does not recognize the pluralism of theologies in our time. You were absolutely correct in pointing out the deficiencies in the process you experienced.

The present restorationist mentality frequently present in our church today forgets that the Catholic tradition is a living tradition that never merely repeats what has been said in the past. Our Catholic tradition has emphasized its and - scripture and tradition, faith and reason, grace and works. The word and work of Jesus must become incarnate in the contemporary world. Tradition grows in and through our learning from our present circumstances but still being in continuity with our faith tradition. I greatly sympathize with what you are trying to do in your culture and circumstances.

No once-for-all reality

To be credible, our church must support and promote the work of theologians in dialogue with their historical and cultural surroundings. Theology is not a dead, universal, once-for-all reality. In the process, all of us theologians will make mistakes and sometimes be wrong. Whereas promoting creative theology is the first responsibility of the church, it must also be able to protect itself against denying or changing aspects essential to our faith.

The bishops of the United States recognized the need for more adequate and just procedures in the case of tensions between bishops and theologians in the document "Doctrinal Responsibilities" issued in 1989. The document and the procedures resulted from dialogue among bishops, theologians and canonists. The procedures are not perfect, but they are infinitely better than the Vatican procedures.

Without doubt, consternation over my case at least occasioned these new procedures for the United States. The United States bishops have proposed "formal doctrinal dialogue" for resolving doctrinal disputes involving theologians and bishops, but they first recognize the need to promote cooperation and informal dialogue. Such cooperation and working together is necessary for the good of the church. However, "in cases of dispute, the theologian has the right to expect access to a fair process, protecting both substantive and procedural rights."

The United States bishops recommend that formal doctrinal dialogue occur before any action is taken by church authority against the theologian. They carefully spell out four tasks in the process: Gather the data, clarify the meaning, determine the relationship with Catholic tradition, and identify the implications for the life of the church.

The document expresses the hope that such formal dialogue might resolve the dispute but realistically recognizes that such dialogue might not always be successful. Here the bishops suggest further steps in a graduated manner: Call for continual critical theological study, expand the dialogue to the regional or national level, restate authentic church teaching in a positive manner, issue a doctrinal monitum about the dangers to faith in such a teaching, and declare publicly the apparent error of the position. In addition, the common good might require further action.

The church universal needs to incorporate such a process and above all to recognize that excommunication is a last resort that is appropriate only in the most extreme case.

The total life

I think it is important for church authorities in this matter to take account of the total life and contributions of the person and not just propose such a vindictive penalty, considering only one book with a circulation of 600 copies.

As I mentioned, I have not read your book, and I work in a different area of theology. The issues raised by the congregation such as relativism, the uniqueness of revelation in Jesus Christ, the necessity of baptism and the doctrine of original sin are significant and important. These issues are all involved in the question of the dialogue with and relationship between Christianity and other world religions.

I have, however, read other Catholic theologians dealing with interreligious dialogue. Often in these discussions questions arise about the uniqueness of revelation in Jesus Christ in relation to other religions. From what I have read in this literature, it seems that many other authors are asking questions that are related to yours.

This fact raises a disturbing question. With others holding similar positions, why were you singled out? In the beginning of my own process with the Vatican I never thought it would come to what finally happened, precisely because so many other people held positions similar to mine. Many other theologians raised the question of fairness in the Vatican's taking action against me when it was well known that many other Catholic theologians hold similar positions.

The only logical answer is that the congregation wants to single out and make an example of one person. In my case, others pointed out that the action against me would have a chilling effect on other moral theologians in general and especially on theologians in the United States.

One can only assume that you have been singled out to send a message to other theologians involved in interreligious dialogue and to theologians working in countries such as your own. However, it is unfair to treat the individual in such a way.

I personally do not see how one can be a relativist and still be a Catholic theologian. The charge of relativism on face value is very serious, but the Vatican in the past has erroneously charged theologians with relativism.

The encyclical Veritatis Splendor accuses Catholic revisionist moral theologians of relativism, subjectivism and individualism. I know no Catholic moral theologian who is a relativist or subjectivist or individualist. The Vatican accuses revisionist moral theologians of being relativists because they happen to disagree with some noninfallible moral teachings. Within the broader field of ethics, all those involved recognize that revisionist Catholic moral theologians cannot properly be called relativists in any sense of the term. Knowing how the Vatican has abused this concept of relativism in the past, I have to be suspicious when they raise it in another context.

Significant changes

As for the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of baptism, we all recognize that significant changes have occurred in our Catholic understanding. When I was studying theology in Rome in the 1950s, our systematics professor insisted on the existence of limbo for children who died without baptism. Now, thanks to interreligious dialogue and other developments, limbo is a forgotten teaching. Even Pope John Paul II does not accept limbo for unbaptized children. According to EvangeliumVitae, aborted fetuses are now in heaven.

All of us in the church, bishops and theologians, must always take seriously the need to promote creative theological work and at the same time to safeguard the traditional faith. However, in carrying out it's safeguarding functions, the hierarchical magisterium must have just procedures, avoid unnuanced charges, recognize the legitimate theological diversity in the church, take into account the whole life and writings of the theologian in question and recognize that excommunication is ordinarily not appropriate.

The most important reality in this tragic episode is you, the person. The Vatican action has tried to strip you of the fundamental realities that have characterized yourself as a person. On the basis of what I have seen in the press, I greatly admire your response. You could so easily be totally embittered because of what has happened to you. Instead, you have announced your commitment to live in ecclesial and spiritual communion with the church. This says much about your faith and hope.

I was also gratified by the response of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians in saying they would still regard you as a priest and a theologian. Support from other Catholic theologians for you is most important.

I have been sustained and nurtured by the support of many Catholic colleagues in theology. At a meeting of Catholic moral theologians 10 years ago, I asked two things of my colleagues. First, do not patronize me. Please continue to enter into critical dialogue with me and do not avoid negative criticism because of fear that poor Charlie has suffered enough at the hands of the Vatican. Second, do not marginalize me. Please keep me in the Catholic circle by inviting me to meetings and campuses and by critically dialoguing with me in your own writings. I am most gratified by the positive response of my colleagues to these requests. I hope that the same can be true in your situation.

Facing the exclusions

However, you are bound to be hurt by the exclusions you will experience. You will probably never be invited to attend another official Catholic meeting or consultation. Even non-Catholic groups will avoid you for fear of stepping on some Catholic toes.

You will also face the problem of becoming a symbol and losing your own individuality. You will be automatically and uncritically acclaimed or castigated without any real attention to yourself personally or to your ideas. That can become annoying, to say the least.

But, again, your problems are so much deeper than these because the Vatican has attempted to cut you off from the church. What a shattering experience! Most people would be totally decimated by what has occurred to you. With Jesus you must be experiencing a tremendous abandonment.

Tissa, the months and years ahead will not be easy. I pray that in the depth of your deprivation and loss, your own faith and hope might sustain you. Above all, I hope that theologians, colleagues. confreres and friends will support and sustain you in theological and ecclesial Catholic communion.

In solidarity, Charlie

[sidebox] - You will be automatically and uncritically acclaimed or castigated without any real attention to yourself personally or to your ideas.

[photo of] - Fr. Tissa Balasuriya