Can I Trust Fr Anthony de Mello, SJ? (Part I of II)
Dear Dan, my spiritual director recently recommended I read a book by Fr. Anthony Demello, SJ. Are you aware of his writings? I am a bit concerned about what I am reading but I can’t put my finger on exactly what is making me so uncomfortable.
Maybe I should answer a different question first. “What should I read if I want to grow deeper in my faith?” The best answer is, 1) Scripture and the Catechism, 2) Relevant Church Documents, 3) Doctors of the Church, and 4) other writings recommended because of their faithfulness to the magisterium and their primary reliance on the teachings for the first three.
To answer your original question, the good news is that your instincts match those of Pope Benedict XVI. In 1989, then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued the following important statement of concern about Fr. de Mello’s writings (emphasis mine).
The Indian Jesuit priest, Father Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) is well known due to his numerous publications which, translated into various languages, have been widely circulated in many countries of the world, though not all of these texts were authorized by him for publication. His works, which almost always take the form of brief stories, contain some valid elements of oriental wisdom. These can be helpful in achieving self-mastery, in breaking the bonds and feelings that keep us from being free, and in approaching with serenity the various vicissitudes of life. Especially in his early writings, Father de Mello, while revealing the influence of Buddhist and Taoist spiritual currents, remained within the lines of Christian spirituality. In these books, he treats the different kinds of prayer: petition, intercession and praise, as well as contemplation of the mysteries of the life of Christ, etc.
But already in certain passages in these early works and to a greater degree in his later publications, one notices a progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith. In place of the revelation which has come in the person of Jesus Christ, he substitutes an intuition of God without form or image, to the point of speaking of God as a pure void. To see God it is enough to look directly at the world. Nothing can be said about God; the only knowing is unknowing. To pose the question of his existence is already nonsense. This radical apophaticism leads even to a denial that the Bible contains valid statements about God. The words of Scripture are indications which serve only to lead a person to silence. In other passages, the judgment on sacred religious texts, not excluding the Bible, becomes even more severe: they are said to prevent people from following their own common sense and cause them to become obtuse and cruel. Religions, including Christianity, are one of the major obstacles to the discovery of truth. This truth, however, is never defined by the author in its precise contents. For him, to think that the God of one’s own religion is the only one is simply fanaticism. “God” is considered as a cosmic reality, vague and omnipresent; the personal nature of God is ignored and in practice denied.
Father de Mello demonstrates an appreciation for Jesus, of whom he declares himself to be a “disciple.” But he considers Jesus as a master alongside others. The only difference from other men is that Jesus is “awake” and fully free, while others are not. Jesus is not recognized as the Son of God, but simply as the one who teaches us that all people are children of God. In addition, the author’s statements on the final destiny of man give rise to perplexity. At one point, he speaks of a “dissolving” into the impersonal God, as salt dissolves in water. On various occasions, the question of destiny after death is declared to be irrelevant; only the present life should be of interest. With respect to this life, since evil is simply ignorance, there are no objective rules of morality. Good and evil are simply mental evaluations imposed upon reality.
Consistent with what has been presented, one can understand how, according to the author, any belief or profession of faith whether in God or in Christ cannot but impede one’s personal access to truth. The Church, making the word of God in Holy Scripture into an idol, has ended up banishing God from the temple. She has consequently lost the authority to teach in the name of Christ.
With the present Notification, in order to protect the good of the Christian faithful, this Congregation declares that the above-mentioned positions are incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.
The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Notification, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation, and ordered its publication.
Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 24, 1998, the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist.
+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger
+ Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B.
Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli
Given the “grave” theological errors of Fr. de Mello, his materials should obviously be completely avoided as even his earlier works, as noted by Cardinal Ratzinger, are tainted. As well, any spiritual director who would recommend his works should be suspect regarding their understanding of central Christian truths and spiritual theology.
As I noted in the beginning of this post, if we want to learn about prayer and ever-deepening devotion to God, the Church has no lack of rich texts and insights offered by scripture, the saints, and those who faithfully reflect their wisdom in our time.
Art: Tony de Mello, Mihai Andrei, 2005-10-28, CC-Universal Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons. Pope Benedict XVII, file copy.
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