On January 4, 1997, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that it had excommunicated the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya. Balasuriya, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, had been involved for several years in controversy with the Sri Lankan bishops and the Vatican over his views on a range of issues, including Original Sin, the place of Mary in Christian piety, and the role of Christ in human salvation. He defended his views as appropriate and necessary adaptations in the context of the culture and religion of Sri Lanka--where Buddhism and Hinduism predominate and the Christian minority is tiny. This defense was dismissed by Vatican officials. In turn, the theologian refused to sign a profession of faith which included a promise of complete submission to church authority and an affirmation that the church does not have the power to ordain women. His offer to sign instead the profession of faith composed by Paul VI and his direct appeal to the current pope were also dismissed. He was excommunicated on January 2.
This is a sad and complex controversy. It involves serious theological differences over the truths of the Catholic faith and their communication in a pluralistic religious environment; a cultural clash between Vatican officials and a theologian in postcolonial Asia; and yet another chapter in the argument about dialogue and due process inside the Catholic church. Since the pertinent documents are not yet available, however, the full significance of the confrontation is not clear. But certainly one underlying issue is the concern of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the congregation, that relativism is ruining the church.
In a recent address delivered before the presidents of Latin American doctrinal commissions and before bishops from "mission territories," the cardinal spoke on "Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today" (Origins, October 31, 1996). In Ratzinger's view, too many Catholics are inclined to believe that people of all religions can contribute equally to human advancement; that truth can be known only through multiple limited expressions; that all religions reach the same transcendent goal, though by different paths; and that Christ is but one face of ultimate reality. Tainted by this tolerant attitude, the cardinal observed, Catholics are too ready to presuppose, when they enter upon interreligious dialogue, that other religions deserve equal respect and that Christian faith is not necessarily superior to the faith articulated in other traditions. This dangerous relativism, he believes, has replaced a Marxist-influenced liberation theology as the number-one threat to the faith today.
Ratzinger fills out his critique in two ways. First, he uncovers an alliance between Western theorizing about pluraIism and "Asia's negative theology," particularly India's Hindu heritage, according to which "the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live." This traditional characterization—"traditional" because for centuries Europeans have had the habit of finding in India whatever they happen to be seeking—portrays Indians and Hindus as denying the reality of the world and being ambiguous about religious truth and tolerant of all religious viewpoints. Contrary to the cardinal's characterization, a century of Indological scholarship shows that the Hindu traditions are often exceedingly precise and developed in their doctrines and truth claims, and that, for the most part, they are quite willing to speak positively about the world, our responsibilities, and divine involvement in human affairs. As the cardinal seems to recognize later in his speech when he briefly explores the Indian emphasis on right practice—more basically a question of ritual than of ethics—India is not a natural or obvious ally of relativism. Indeed, until they are studied closely and carefully, the Hindu traditions are best presumed to be nonaligned in Christian theological debates.
Second, the cardinal names in his talk two contemporary thinkers as indicative of the relativist mindset: the Presbyterian John Hick and the Roman Catholic Paul Knitter. Hick is a British theologian and philosopher of religion who has spent a long, distinguished, and provocative career exploring many Christian theological issues, particularly Christianity's place among the world religions. His Interpretation of Religion (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1989) is a mature summation of his position on pluralism: He says that it is philosophically and theologically necessary to distinguish between reality and our perceptions of it and, accordingly, it is also necessary to expect an enduring plurality of religious viewpoints.