Luke Coppen interviews the gentle priest with
aggressive words, who believes that truth depends on who you are and where you are standing
IiIiLS 'THE MORNING after the penultimate episode the BBC documentary on Catholicism, Absolute Truth, and its leading protagonist is tting in the dining room of a presbytery in Kilbwn, north London.
'Ile BBC ler makipyg good propaganda for the Catholic Church, no?" asks Fr Tissa Balasutiya, his fax dimpling into a smile. Not knowing quite how to reply I review the scenes quickly in my mind priest writes book, bishops condemn it, Vatican calls for retraction.. priest refuses, priest excommunicated, compromise found, excommunication lifted. A great story, but not what one would call great propaganda for the Catholic Church.
It is difficult to believe that the small, modest, gentle man sitting at the table is that priest A man who triggered a controversy of global proportions when he published his book. Mary and Human Liberation in 1990. How has this diminutive figure come to symbolise the clash between Catholicism and Eastern religions, between absolute truth and relativism?
Before these questions can be answered. Fr Balasuriya has several questions of his own. He is here in Britain to discuss international debt and wants British Catholics to reflect on the past 500 years of European colonialism and repent for the Church's role in establishing world economic inequalities.
"Even if debt is cancelled the immediate problem is the accumulation of capital," Fr Balasuriya explains. "Immense, electronically mobile capital, in enormous quantities, in the hands of a few billionaires. This is anew form of economic colonialism. Capitalism. because of its unbridled nature. has become a grave threat" He compares the juggernaut of global capitalism to the matchbox car of debt While he appall ids the Jubilee 2000 initiative to cancel all Third World debt for the millennium, he warns that the debt issue can become "conscience salving". Whereas everyone sees the intolerable burden of debt, "the evil of this system is not seen".
The wealth of the world mast be for all. That's general Catholic teaching," says Fr Balasuriya. "If it is now controlled by a few people, because of the growth of capitalism, then the world has an obligation to control it."
THE UNCHARITABLE might interrupt at this point and ask what authority Fr Balasuriya has to pronounce on the world economy; why he now declaims on debt, not doctrine. They suspect that the reason is that, burnt by his excommunication. he is seeking a leas controversial topic to take on his international speaking tours.
But the world economy is not new ground for the 74-year-old Sri Lankan theologian. He has written on social and economic issues for several decades. He is conversant with the appalling acronyms of gIobalisation: the TRIMs, the SAPs and the IMF. He is at home talking about floating exchange rates and share markets. He is not seeking to avoid controveisy by focusing on the global economy. Far from it. He intends to do for debt what he did for dogma: to challenge the Church's basic preconceptions about itself.
"The present Pope has apologised" for cobnialisrn, he argues. "But apologies aren't enough. An apology can become an alibi for real action. Real action is to recognise that this present world order is unjust. It is based on robbery, plunder and genocide."
The Church, Fr Balasuriya says, should not feel smug about its call for debt cancellation. "Have the British hierarchy written anything on any of the multinationals or coloni sation or the land-grab? If they have not what right do they have to claim that they are part of the Magi sterium?"
Fr Balasuriya has sent questionnaires to all the bishops' conferences of the world asking them to consider the Church's role in colonialism and the creation of an unjust world economic order. He wants the year 2000 to be a year of repentance for past and present wrorip. 'The Church can compensate for intolerance, for supporting colonialism. Christians say a million times a day, 'I confess to Almighty God...' If we have dishonoured other people and other religions, how do we compensate them?" he asks.
"For how long has the Church not been correct about salvation? For how long has it represented God as a tribal God? For how long has it condemned human nature because of one sentence mistranslated from St Paul? For how long have we been disrespecting woman? How can we recognise our faults? The purification of the Church has to be undertaken for the Jubilee."
This extraordinary list of questions is delivered with quiet deliberate emphasis. They do not have the anger or virulence that they have on the written page. Fr Balasuriya is a gentle man with aggressive words; kindly in person, but forthright in speech. It is this that upsets many people (the Sri Lankan episcopate included) about Fr Balasuriya. It is not so much what he says, but the way he says it He asks uncomfortable questions. that strike at nerves, particularly among the upper echelons of the Church.
What particularly infuriated Cardinal Ratzinger about Fr Balasuriya was the latter's suggestion that the Church has been corrupted by power. As the Church's most powerful doctrinal enforcer, such allegations go straight to the heart. Fr Balasuriya is instinctively distrustful and questioning of authority and power.
"Roth faith and reason," he says, of the Pape's latest encyclical, "are subject to self-interest, to power and to emotions. Our interpretation of the divine can be influenced by self-interest The truth itself we do not have. Not even the Pope has the truth."
So lithe Church doesn't possess the truth, then all it has is power over the lives and minds of the faithful. Fr Balasuriya is following in the footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche, with his belief that people and institutions are driven by a "will to powee', to dominate others.
Like Nietzsche. Fr Balasuriya is also a "perspectivalist". He believes that truth depends on who you are and where you are standing. A Sri Lankan Buddhist and a Polish Catholic see the truth differently. No one can say that one's truth is better than the other's. Or, in Fr Balasuriya's own tortuous formulation, "the truth as perceived is perceived by the perceive?'.
"A Polish pope sees things differently from an Italian pope." he argues. 'Mere is absolute truth, but no one possesses absolute truth. God is one. but the names of God are many. God is one, but the paths to the divine are many."
It is this fusion of Catholic faith and eastern wisdom that posed a problem for the Vatican. The Church's doctrinal guardians feel that eastern religions will absorb and dilute Christianity as they have hundreds of religions over the past thousands of years. Ratainger et al are concerned to preserve the uniqueness of Christ. "Jesus is divine, but God is not only Jesus," Fr Balasuriya suggests. "Given there is a plurality of religions, we [Asians] do not think we possess God and confine him to our conceptions."
Fr Balssuriya realises that this accommodating view of religion challenges the Catholic Church's identity. As Latin Christianity adapts to Asian cultures it is a challenge that must be confronted and resolved "They ate worried they are going to lose absolute truth," Fr Balasuriya says. running his fingers through his impressive white hair. "We are worried they are going to absolutise themselves."