Heresy and women priests

 — Jan. 18, 199718 janv. 1997

Fr Tissa Balasuriya was unable to subscribe to the clause in the profession of faith drafted for him which ruled out any possibility of women priests. Does that mean that those of the same opinion on this matter should consider themselves heretics? A Jesuit professor at Boston College, Massachusetts, answers no.

On 2 January, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a Notification, signed by the prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger, and by the secretary, Archbishop Bertone, and approved by Pope John Paul II, which declared that Fr Tissa Balasuriya OMI of Sri Lanka “has deviated from the integrity of the truth of the Catholic faith and, therefore, cannot be considered a Catholic theologian; moreover, he has incurred excommunication latae sententiae (can. 1364, par. 1).” This canon states that an apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs an automatic excommunication. The charge of “deviation from the truth of the faith” indicates that it is for heresy, rather than for apostasy or schism, that Fr Balasuriya has been excommunicated.

Canon 751 defines heresy as “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” The previous canon describes the truths that must be believed by “divine and Catholic faith” as those which “are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium.”

These are the truths that are meant by the term “dogmas of faith.” The declaration that Fr Balasuriya has incurred excommunication means that he has been judged guilty of obstinate denial or doubt regarding one or more dogmas of the Catholic faith.

The text of the Notification specifies some of the dogmas that he is said to have denied in his book entitled Mary and Human Liberation, which was published in the journal Logos for March-July 1990, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Among other things, he is said to have denied the necessity of baptism, the dogma of original sin, several Marian dogmas (her divine motherhood, immaculate conception, virginity, and assumption into heaven), and the special character of the papal ministry.

Fr Balasuriya does not agree that he is guilty of heresy in what he has written on these matters. When, in 1994, he received from the Roman congregation 11 pages of “observations,” indicating the points on which he was judged to deviate from the faith, he sent back a reply of 55 pages, in which he claimed that the charges against him were based on “misunderstandings, misrepresentations, distortions and falsifications” of his text.

The congregation found his reply unsatisfactory, and on 2 May 1996 wrote to him as follows: “In order to overcome your objections concerning the correct interpretation of your thought, this dicastery formulated a profession of faith concerning the truths held by the Church and taught by her magisterium. From this profession of faith it would be possible to verify if you accept these truths, which were expressed with lack of clarity in your book.” Fr Balasuriya was told that he must sign this profession of faith by 15 May 1996 or be excommunicated.

He chose rather to sign another profession of faith which had been composed by Pope Paul VI in 1968. The congregation was not satisfied with this, because he had added the clause: “I make and sign this profession of faith of Pope Paul VI in the context of theological development and church practice since Vatican II and the freedom and responsibility of Christians and theological searchers, under canon law.” According to the congregation, “the addition of such a clause rendered the declaration defective, since it diminished the universal and permanent value of the definitions of the magisterium.”

Apart from the addition of this clause, it would be difficult to understand why the congregation did not find Pope Paul VI’s “Credo of the People of God” satisfactory, since it clearly expresses faith in all the dogmas that Fr Balasuriya is charged with denying. I would conclude that, in the judgement of the congregation, it was Fr Balasuriya’s own way of understanding and exercising the “freedom of theological searchers” that rendered his profession of faith defective as a proof of his orthodoxy. If one reads his clause without any reason to suspect the orthodoxy of its author, it would seem to me to bear an acceptable meaning.

In any case, the congregation insisted that he sign the profession of faith especially composed for him, without any conditions, by 8 December 1996, or face excommunication. He appealed to the Pope, but the Secretary of State replied that Pope John Paul II had personally followed the various phases of the procedure used by the congregation, and had expressly approved the Notification, which was then published.

As is obvious, the sentence pronounced against Fr Balasuriya is far more severe than those against Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff, or other theologians who have been censured in recent years by Rome. One can expect that the grounds for this judgement and the procedure used by the congregation will be carefully examined by other Catholic theologians. The one question which I wish to raise here has to do with the profession of faith which Fr Balasuriya was required to sign. I presume that its text will be made public, and I am concerned that unwarranted conclusions may be drawn from it.

In particular, I am concerned about a conclusion that might be drawn from the fact that, among other things, Fr Balasuriya was obliged to declare: “I acknowledge that Christ, in calling only men as his Apostles, did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time but rather he acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. Therefore, I firmly accept and hold that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

It would not be altogether surprising if someone were to argue that, since Fr Balasuriya was excommunicated as a heretic for refusing to sign a profession of faith which includes the above statement, then anyone who does not firmly accept and hold that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women is likewise guilty of heresy, and would incur the same excommunication. In my opinion, such a conclusion is unwarranted, for the following reasons.

The profession of faith especially composed for Fr Balasuriya to sign was structured on the new formula for the profession of faith which the same congregation published on 25 February 1989. This is the profession of faith which the Code of Canon Law (can. 833) prescribes must be made by those who are called to exercise certain public offices in the name of the Catholic Church. Its first and longest section is the same creed with which all of us profess our faith each Sunday during the liturgy. There follow three paragraphs, which refer to three kinds of truths, three levels of authority with which they are taught, and three kinds of assent that they require of the faithful.

The first of these short paragraphs speaks of truths which are divinely revealed; they are taught with the highest level of authority as dogmas of faith, and the response required is that they be “believed with firm faith.”

The second paragraph speaks of truths which are not in themselves revealed, but are so necessarily connected with the faith that the Church can speak in a definitive way about them in order to defend or explain some aspect of revelation. Catholics are required “firmly to accept and hold” such truths, but not with an assent of faith in the proper sense of the term.

The third paragraph refers to the kind of teaching that one finds in papal encyclicals and instructions that are published by the Roman congregations with the approval of the pope. These call for “religious submission of will and intellect,” which can be translated as an attitude of willingness to accept such teaching and to form one’s judgement on matters of faith and morals in accordance with it, as far as one is able.

The profession of faith presented to Fr Balasuriya includes the same three short paragraphs of the formula published in 1989.

While that formula does not specifically mention any of the truths that fall within those three categories, however, the first part of the profession composed for Fr Balasuriya does specify a great number of the dogmas which call for the firm assent of “divine and Catholic faith.” The Notification describes this formula as “centred on magisterial definitions relative to those truths of the faith which the author had denied or had interpreted erroneously.”

Two observations suggest themselves at this point. First, the fact that Fr Balasuriya was required to make a profession of faith composed especially for him, specifying so great a number of the dogmas of Catholic faith, could well give the impression that he was judged guilty of denying every one of them, and that making this profession in order to clear himself from the charge of heresy would imply his admission.

Secondly, I think it not unlikely that questions may be raised by theologians concerning the grounds on which some statements in this part of the profession are presented as dogmas of faith. This would apply in particular to some that are drawn from the documents of Vatican II, which, as is well known, did not define any new dogmas.

The first section of the profession presented to Fr Balasuriya, specifying dogmas calling for his assent of faith, is followed by the second paragraph of the 1989 formula. This states: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything that is proposed by that same Church definitively with regard to the doctrine concerning faith and morals.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained what was meant by this in its subsequent “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” which says: “When the magisterium proposes ‘in a definitive way’ truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.”

In other words, this paragraph speaks of truths which are not dogmas calling for the assent of faith. When the Church has made a “definitive” statement on some issue by reason of its necessary connection with Revelation, the faithful are called upon to accept and hold that statement as true. It is official Catholic doctrine, though not a dogma of faith, that when the Church makes a truly definitive statement on such a matter, it teaches with infallibility. Even if it is certain that the magisterium has spoken infallibly, however, its statement does not become a dogma calling for the assent of faith, since this is given only to revealed truth.

While, in the first part of the profession imposed on him, Fr Balasuriya was called upon to declare his faith in a great many dogmas, in the second part the only doctrine he was required to declare that he “firmly accepted and held” was the statement quoted above concerning Christ’s choice of only men as apostles, and the conclusion drawn from this that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women. From the fact that the congregation has presented these not as dogmas calling for the assent of faith, but as truths to be firmly accepted and held, two conclusions can be drawn.

First, the congregation has clarified a  point which had not been so clear in the Responsum ad dubium which it published on 18 November 1995, concerning the teaching contained in Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The Response gave an affirmative answer to the question whether the papal teaching that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith. The phrase in English,”as belonging to the deposit of faith,” would seem to mean “as contained in Revelation.” The Latin, however, has ut pertinens ad fidei depositum, which could mean “as pertaining to the deposit of faith,” in the sense of being related to the deposit, without being contained in it.

By placing this teaching not among the dogmas to which Fr Balasuriya had to give the assent of faith, but among the truths which he must only “firmly accept and hold,” the congregation has clarified the sense of the term “pertaining to the deposit of faith” in its Response. It means “intimately connected” with Revelation, rather than directly part of it.

The second conclusion to be drawn from this, is that neither Fr Balasuriya nor anyone else could rightly be accused of heresy for disagreeing with the proposition that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Heresy, as we have seen above, is obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith. The Roman congregation itself has now made it clear that this teaching does not require the assent of faith, even though in its Response it declared that it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

I end with two propositions, which I hold to be certain.

First: whether the Church has spoken with infallibility on an issue is a question of fact which must be clearly established before a doctrine is to be understood as having been infallibly taught.

Secondly: even if it were clearly established that the Church had infallibly taught something that, while pertaining to the deposit of faith, was not actually contained in it, its statement would not be a dogma calling for the assent of faith, nor would one be guilty of heresy for denying it.

Posted: Jan. 18, 1997 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, doctrine, ordination, women
Transmis : 18 janv. 1997 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, doctrine, ordination, women

  Previous post: Ancien article : What is truth?
  Newer post: Article récent : Journey across the desert