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Asian theologian, Aloysius Pieris

East meets West: the journey of Aloysius Pieris.

Catholic New Times | July 01, 2001 | Kaiser, Robert Blair

One of the most important Catholic theologians in Asia, a man who is most decidedly a liberation theologian himself, is a Jesuit priest named Aloysius Pieris. He has been ignoring efforts by Rome to control him and his theological pioneering in Asia since he first took to heart a mandate that Pope Paul VI delivered to the Asian bishops in the early 1970s. Paul VI said that the church should make an effort to understand the faith expressions native to their countries, their cultures, their races, and "draw nourishment from the genuine values of the venerable Asian religions and cultures."

I wonder if that pope's words have had much impact on the investigators in the church's Ministry of Truth (formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition). They got after Pieris some decades ago for his writings on the genuine values he found in Buddhism (and for some provocative added words on liberation theology). Fortunately for Pieris, his Jesuit provincial challenged the competence of the Holy Office to even understand what Pieris was saying (he writes in English!) and, after another exchange of letters, the Holy Office sent the provincial a note stating there was nothing in Pieris' writings that was "intrinsically against orthodoxy," only that Pieris might be "a little confused."

Vatican II is not an end

Pieris is a diminutive fellow (five foot two) with a caffe latte complexion who was born 67 years ago in Sri Lanka (once known as Ceylon). It became a British tea colony in 1818, after successive dominations by the Portuguese and the Dutch that dated back to the 16th century, when Pieris' forebears became Catholic converts. Pieris is thankful they did; otherwise, he would never have received the education he did, in the Jesuit order, which he joined at age 19 at an international house of studies in India. He did his theology in Naples -- close to the action at Vatican II during the early 1960s, when he and his classmates often entertained some of the Council's leading theologians, like the German Jesuit Karl Rahner. Pieris remembers his last encounter with Karl Rahner and Rahner's exact words: "Vatican II is not an end, but a beginning. You have to take its liberating message out to your people, translate it for them, and help spell out its implications in the context of their lives."

For the past 35 years, Pieris has been trying to do exactly that. After finishing his Jesuit training, he returned to Sri Lanka for doctoral studies in Buddhist philosophy, at the University of Sri Lanka's Vidyodaya campus in Colombo, the first priest (in fact the first Christian) ever to win a doctorate there in Buddhist philosophy, despite the fact that he had had no aspirations to live the life of a scholar. "I was a poet and a musician," he told me. "I wanted to write plays. I wanted to dance. And I wanted to work with the rural youth." At the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, revolution was in the air, and Pieris studied with the rambunctious youth in Sri Lanka's cradle of revolution, the university campus, to watch them grow from the unthinking tools of others into adult actors in their own futures. Then the Jesuit general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, snatched him up to teach Buddhism at the Jesuits' Gregorian University in Rome and, during the Roman summers, at another Jesuit training ground in Manila, the East Asian Pastoral Institute.

When Pieris returned to Sri Lanka two years later, he felt called to cross-fertilize the socialist concerns of his student friends with their own authentic Buddhist roots. In 1974, after two years of discernment and prayer and consultation with his superiors, he founded his Tulana Centre, "as a kind of laboratory where they could feel at home and deepen themselves in their own orientation."

"We started with a hundred rupees," recalled Sister Frances de Silva, who has served as Pieris' bookkeeper and general factotum for 25 years. A few months later, Pieris got a letter from Jean Leclerq, a French Benedictine monk who applauded what he was doing. It contained a cheque for the equivalent of $240 US dollars, a fortune in Sri Lanka, where a dollar could then buy enough groceries for a week.

Since those humble beginnings, Pieris has pursued his pioneering work as a kind of freelance Jesuit with one major agenda: to understand Buddhists, not to convert them, and to work with them in what he calls "our common struggle for liberation." While Pieris can understand some Jesuits in other places in the world who also assume the mantle of Buddhist monks, particularly as Zen Buddhists, that route is not for him. "Our people wouldn't understand this double identity," he says, "and therefore I don't claim it."

Instead, Pieris has continued to deepen his own knowledge about the sources of Buddhism. Working with its prime original texts in Pali and other Asian languages, Pieris has gone on to publish a number of learned commentaries on Buddhism, and his Buddhist library at the Tulana Centre is now a place where Buddhist scholars come to read, reflect, and confer with him. But Pieris would not call himself a Buddhist. "I am critically loyal to the church," he says. "I have a deep faith in Jesus Christ." Because he is so certain and so secure in that identity, Pieris is rather impervious to inquiries by Cardinal Ratzinger's Ministry of Truth. "We have a great advantage here in Asia" he says, "because we work in languages that Ratzinger does not understand."

That hasn't seemed to stop Ratzinger's heresy hunters from dogging other Asian theologians for the past decade with a quiet fury, so I suspect that if Pieris keeps writing his popular works in English (which he has been doing at a rate of roughly one every year), it won't be long before his provincial gets another letter from the Holy Office. Wait until Ratzinger sees his most recent book, a slim paperback based on private talks that Pieris gave to predominantly Jesuit audiences in 1997 and 1998. If The Christhood of Jesus and the Discipleship of Mary: An Asian Perspective does not raise Ratzinger's beetling eyebrows, then nothing ever will. In this book, Pieris takes up some of the very issues that led to the excommunication in 1998 of Pieris', fellow Sri Lankan theologian, the Oblate Tissa Balasuriya, an edict that was later revoked by Pope John Paul II after a worldwide outcry in defence of Balasuriya.

Dogmas owe more to Roman law than words of Jesus

In this book, Pieris goes right to the heart of the Ratzinger agenda with a gentle attack on the very notion of dogmatic definitions themselves, pieces of legalism that owe more to Roman law than to the loving words of Jesus and his followers in the early years of Christianity. "Faith," he writes, "began to be judged, and the deviants condemned, entirely on the basis of one's adherence to the formula of faith" as defined by church authorities. Result: a set of faith propositions that parallel a legal code and which seem to call for an efficient monitoring system that is run by a powerful clerical class armed with massive punitive powers.

The church, says Pieris, should have known better from its own history. "The history of the Christological dogmas is not an edifying story of an innocuous development of a teaching; it is a sad story of serious misunderstandings, punctuated by political intrigues and physical violence." He cites the Council of Chalcedon, which condemned the Patriarch of Alexandria in 451. Fifteen centuries later, Pope Pius XII revoked the condemnation in 1951 with an encyclical that admitted confusion over some vocabulary. Formulas, says Pieris, often do more harm than good, especially if those formulas are asserted as "coming from Divine Revelation."

In fact, says Pieris, all the church's formulas are culturally conditioned. As human constructs, then, they are relative, time-bound, and culturally limited expressions of faith that cannot be used as absolute norms for measuring orthodoxy. But it is precisely on this ground, relativism, that Ratzinger and company have condemned Asian theologians, who tend to agree with Pieris that dogmas are not divinely revealed at all, but guiding statements that serve the believing community as practical aids "to foster and fructify our faith and hope in God who is love."

Kaiser, Robert Blair. "East meets West: the journey of Aloysius Pieris." Catholic New Times. 2001. Retrieved July 01, 2010 from accessmylibrary: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-10524234_ITM

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