Leonardo Boff, a Catholic theologian and key figure of Liberation theology, was condemned for decades by the Vatican. Now, he says, the pope himself is going beyond Liberation teachings.
BUENOS AIRES — When the Catholic Church decided in the 1980s to call to account the theologian and Franciscan friar Leonardo Boff for his radical theology, the bearded Brazilian took the same historical seat as Galileo Galilei, the 17th century astronomer who was also tried and condemned by the Church.
Just above him sat the judge, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, destined to become Pope Benedict XVI. The setting was the Church's doctrinal court, formerly known as the Holy Inquisition.
Boff had to defend the ideas in his book Church: Charism and Power, wherein he urged a more prominent role for women and laymen in the Church. It was a rigorous, theological trial, and the German-born judge sentenced Boff to silence on matters of theology. He could neither speak nor write, and remained in that state for almost a year.
At the Rio Summit of 1992, one of his speeches again irked the Vatican. They invited him to become a missionary in Asia or keep quiet in his country. This was too much, and he decided then to abandon the priesthood, as the now 77-year-old recently recalled during an extended conversation with Clarín.
CLARIN: What was your life like after that decision?
LEONARDO BOFF: I did not break with the Church. I keep doing what I did before, baptizing, marrying couples, celebrating services. I have the approval of Brazilian bishops and remain a theologian. Compared to what the pope is saying today to cardinals and bishops, the book for which I was condemned is all piety. At the end of the day they listened to the reformers.
Why do you think that happened?
The Church was demoralized. Its spiritual goal was to be humanity's moral guide, and then they discover there were people in the Church who gravely offended the innocent. There was child abuse, money laundering. No European cardinal would have confronted this. They called on the right person.
In your book Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi, you cite Liberation theology and the People's theology — to which the pope subscribed before his papacy — as closely related. That is not how they saw it in the 1970s. Some people spoke of "class oppression" and others, of "popular piety."
The difference was in the methodology, not the fundamental intention. I remember talks in Germany with Juan Carlos Scannone a Jesuit priest and theological inspiration to Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, in which each spoke from their particular position but all of them within the ark of liberation. It is not just the people. The people are oppressed. Culture is silenced. The method was different but the intention, the aim, was liberation — whether through popular culture, the path of organizing the people, or awareness. Suspicion and marginalization began to hover around us. But we are doing the same pastoral work. Nobody entered the Communist Party.
How did Liberation theology evolve? We are hearing them talk more about ecology.
Along with the poor, you have to add the Earth as the "great pauper" that is oppressed and devastated. We have been saying it since the 1980s. It's the ecotheology of liberation. It is not as if we went from red theology to green theology. It is the same liberating impulse.
Did the pope ask for your writing when he was preparing his encyclical on the environment?
Yes he is preparing an encyclical on how to save life on the planet. I sent him material twice.
Did you meet him?
I met him in 1971 in the San Miguel's Colegio Máximo in Buenos Aires, at a meeting of religious orders.
I read an article in which you wrote that Jorge Bergoglio should be discarded "at the threshold" of the 2005 conclave, because of his conservative profile and because you linked him to the Argentine junta of the 1970s.
I did not know him. I didn't know he visited the shantytowns. The image of the Argentine Church was that it was closed and did not confront the dictatorship. I made a prophecy at the last conclave that the next pope would be a "Francis" who would restore a Church in ruins. And when he was presented over St Peter's Square, he first asked for the blessing of the People of God, then blessed the people as their servant. A Church that makes sacred power the source of its articulations, has no love, forgiveness or mercy. That is how the Church structured itself from the fourth century, until Jorge Bergoglio. He has depaganized the Church and destroyed its essentially Rome-centric structure.
Some people fear that the reforms will weaken the Church's doctrine.
Two models are face-to-face. The doctrinaire model with the dogmas of canonical law used so far, and on the other side the People of God, a Church that respects human fallibility and weakness, and accompanies him as a pastor. There is a pastor in one Church, and a doctor in the other. The pope's position is clear. The Church must walk with history and read the sign of the times.
Two years into this papacy, what will Francis's legacy be?
My opinion is that he will create a dynasty of Third World pontiffs, from Asia, Africa and Latin America. And these will bring new blood into old, European Christianity, which is aged and in a way slowly dying. His legacy will be a Church less centered on Rome and based more on an immense network of communities across the world, with a pope who walks among them. It will not be just a Western Church, but a global Church.