Legendary Church Critic Leonardo Boff Heaps Praise On Pope Francis

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.

Brazilian theologian and writer Leonardo Boff
Brazilian theologian and writer Leonardo Boff
Marcelo Larraquy

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.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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