The accidental - or providential - reason why the greater number of Catholics belong to the Catholic Church is that they were born of Catholic parents into Catholic families: "cradle Catholics." But, whether born Catholic, or Catholic by process of conversion in later life, there is really only one valid reason for remaining a Catholic. It is that despite the fact that the sheen has been taken off the name and the title of "Catholic" by the regrettable and sometimes highly disgraceful events which have come to light in recent years, the Catholic believes that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ; that He established it as "the pillar and ground of truth"; and that in the matter of fundamental teachings relating to doctrine and morality, God will not permit it to err, or to mislead its members.
A person who seriously accepts that proposition, and is baptised, is qualified to call himself/herself a Catholic. A person who does not share this belief may be a thousand times more generous, charitable, even noble than the great majority of Catholics; but that person's different belief is something other than Catholic. What is believed is the critical factor.
An individual, once a Catholic, may cease to believe, in the sense of that proposition, and may do so for a dozen reasons, some even seriously culpable. On the other hand, there are those who, without apparent culpability, may "think" themselves out of the Church as others "think" themselves into it. There may be long, long periods of doubt, uncertainty, unhappiness. But, for some reason, it has gone.
An honourable person has no alternative but to live with the consequences: which, in the last analysis - since no other Church even claims to be guaranteed as "the pillar and ground of truth" - is to face God, "Ultimate Reality," or even Nothingness, alone. As the laicised priest, the former Fr Anthony Kenny, who later became Master of Balliol, Oxford, wrote in his autobiography:
"Since being laicised and excommunicated, I have continued to attend church fairly regularly but I prefer to do so as an agnostic, rather than to simulate faith: I never receive Communion, or recite the Creed."
An honourable individual will not claim to be a Catholic once belief in the fundamental propositions on which the Catholic Church rests has ceased. It is a matter of basic integrity.
The case of the Sri Lankan theologian, Fr Tissa Balasuriya, appears to come down to that. The London Tablet which strongly favours him, and has expressed opposition to his excommunication, has listed a series of propositions which Fr Balasuriya holds (see p. 4).
If words mean anything, Fr Balasuriya's view is that there is no certainty that Christ was God; or that the Bible is inspired; or that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of her Son; or that either the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption are actually true; or that the circumstances of Christ's birth and early life enable us to conclude that Mary was any different from countless millions of ordinary mothers; and so on.
Fr Balasuriya claims that he has been misunderstood. How could he have been? The words quoted from his book, Mary and Human Liberation, by The Tablet are perfectly clear.
The English is simple and direct. If Fr Balasuriya claims that they have different meanings from the ones which those English words have always had, he does not understand the English language, and should not be writing in English at all.
If, as must be assumed, he does understand what he wrote, then at least in one literal sense, his position may be defensible. For some of those teachings, there is no actual historical evidence. The Scriptures themselves do not, indisputably, establish that Christ claimed to be God. On some occasions He seems to have done so. On other occasions, He seems not to have done so. The teaching of the Apostles, and of St Paul, was that the Resurrection actually happened and proved that He was God; a belief which became part of the Deposit of Faith; confirmed by the General Council of Nicea (AD 325).
To Fr Balasuriya the fact that these events were part of the Deposit of Faith, believed by countless Christians from the time of the Resurrection onwards, and were defended as doctrine by Church Councils, imparts no particular validity. Church Councils were apparently human gatherings, susceptible to all the weaknesses inherent in every human gathering. Hence the solemn decisions of the Church, through the bodies which, from the very beginning have been regarded by its members as divinely guided in their interpretation of the truths of Revelation, have no particular authority.
A sincere person can honestly believe all this. But the inevitable conclusion is that the entire corpus of the Church's doctrines, other than those deriving from words directly uttered by Christ, have no necessary validity. In other words, what the Church has taught for up to 2,000 years is a farrago of lies, half-truths and plain inventions. One might add that Fr Balasuriya's total reliance on words attributed to Christ in the New Testament is silly. It was the Church, whose final authority he does not accept, which actually decided which books did or did not constitute the Bible.
An honourable man, reaching this conclusion, would not claim to be a Catholic. He would hasten to separate himself from a body which could indulge in what is either stupidity or chicanery. Lord Macaulay once said that the profession of clergyman imposes on those who are not saints (in this case, simple believers will do) the necessity of being hypocrites. It would be harsh to characterise any person as a hypocrite. But at least it can be said that as Fr Balasuriya obviously has not the faintest idea of the responsibilities which attach to membership of the Catholic Church - or, indeed, of any organisation - the Holy See has done him a favour by clarifying his position.
As for the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians which rushed to his defence, well what can one expect of many modern theologians? The winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1912, Alexis Carrel, refused to return to his childhood faith for many years, partly because of what he called the "impudence" of theological intellectualism. A significant proportion of theologians has devoted the last twenty-five years, not to fighting the battle for Christian truth against scientific materialism, but to attacking the Pope and a variety of traditional teachings. They may ultimately succeed in getting rid of the Pope, only to discover that, in so doing, they have abolished themselves as well. Almost - but not quite - a price worth paying!