Friday, June 16, 2006

Whatever happened to Leonardo Boff?

As Pope Benedict prepares for his trip to Latin America, it reminded me of a post where Crystal and I had discussed the Maryknolls and Liberation Theology. Thinking about Liberation Theology led me to wonder whatever became of one of its leading theologians and proponents, the Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff.

When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to the papacy in April of 2005, taking the name of Benedict XVI, a collective groan of disappointment, shock, and disbelief rose up from Catholic liberals and dissidents around the world. A little more than a year later, some observers have maintained that the Pope we’ve seen is the one they always knew. On the other hand, some conservatives and traditionalists are disappointed that he has not cracked down on liberals as they had expected, and some liberals such as Charles Curran and Andrew Greeley have been encouraged that he has been more gentle and open to dialogue than they were led to expect from his days as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Two dissident scholars who know Benedict very well share this more optimistic view of him.

Uta Ranke-Heinemann was a classmate of Joseph Ratzinger’s when studying theology at the University of Munich. She went on to become the first woman ever to become a professor of Catholic Theology, when she was granted a chair at the University of Essen. She also became the first woman to lose her position and chair as a professor of Catholic Theology when she was excommunicated for denying the Virgin Birth. In this interview, she speaks highly of Pope Benedict and for their mutual respect for one another. She has tremendous respect for his intelligence, and considers him to be humble.
…After I lost my chair and was excommunicated in 1987, Ratzinger was the only one, of all those bishops and cardinals, to write to me in a friendly way, offering support.

I did reconcile myself with John Paul II after he died. But with Ratzinger, I am already reconciled with him in life. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because, like Socrates, the more I know, the less I understand.

Hans Kung, of course, is the famous liberal theologian who was a rising young star at Vatican II along with his colleague and friend Joesph Ratzinger. They taught together at the University of Tubingen, and started to part ways when student radicals appeared at Tubingen, and in a watershed event, invaded Ratzinger’s classroom in 1968. Ratzinger was never the same, and took a markedly conservative turn after that. On the other side, Kung, in his struggles with the CDF, eventually lost his license to teach Catholic theology. He is still a priest.

Recently, the two men who were once friends had an amiable, lengthy meeting and a dinner together, pledging to work together on issues surrounding human rights and world peace. Kung spoke highly of the meeting, and also of the Pope’s first encyclical on love (Kung was not given back his license to teach Catholic theology, nor did he ask Benedict to do so).
I can certainly tell you that my disappointment . . . I had when I heard of the election of my former colleague Joseph Ratzinger . . . that this disappointment did not realise. I must say he made it much better than I expected, and we still can have hope that he will make progress in the church.

I was happy that he spoke about love; and he has done it in a rather constructive way, without [the] negative statements you hear sometimes from Church people.

He may now be in a new situation, you know. When he was the head of the Holy Office, he always had to say, “Well, here are doctrinal deviations; here are some people who are not absolutely Catholic”, and so on. He had always to use censorship, and all the rest. Now he is in a different position: he has to talk to people, he has to face all sorts of people, he needs the sympathy of the people, he has to show a pastoral mind. And, I think he [understands] very well that he cannot show the same face as he had before.

With Leonardo Boff, there has apparently has been no such rapprochment. Boff was a student of Ratzinger’s when he wrote his doctoral thesis in Germany. Later, he went on the become well-known as one of the principal writers on Liberation Theology.

Taking a cue from Vatican II and the Medellin Conference of 1968, which emphasized the “preferential option for the poor”, liberation theologians stressed that the Church should derive its legitimacy and theology by growing out of the poor, and that the Bible should be read and experienced from the perspective of the poor. They had a much more horizontal view of the Church than a vertical one, and established “base communities”, in which priests and nuns moved out of their religious houses and lived among the poor, sharing their living conditions. There was a heavy emphasis on social justice, human rights, and the Church being aligned with the working class to bring about social change. Some priests became active in politics and trade unions.

There was a great deal of alarm by the 1980’s in the Vatican over certain aspects of this, especially since many of these theologians used the language of Marxist dialectic, and were committed to socialism. Marxism of any kind or in any guise was never going to fly with Pope JPII or the CDF.

For his part, concerning the structure of the Church, Leonardo Boff wrote in his book, Church, Charism, and Power:
The church recognizes the unfathomable dignity of the human person and so can be the conscience of the world with respect to human rights… But proclamation alone is not enough. The church will only be heard if it gives witness by its practices, if it is the first to respect and promote human rights within its own reality. Otherwise, one would be right to criticize a church that sees the speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam in its own.

For this book, Boff landed himself in some trouble with the CDF. He was summoned to Rome to discuss his book and his views. The late Penny Lernoux describes the scene in her 1990 book, People of God. I think it says a lot about the difference between the way Leonardo Boff and Joseph Ratzinger think:
Boff kept up his good humor once inside the small interrogation room - the "room of the knights of the round table," as he called it - saluting Ratzinger with a smart, "Gruss Gott, Herr Kardinal." A cordial Ratzinger told Boff to read his responses to his charges, then questioned him politely about their differences. Afterwards there was a coffee break and banter, and it was then that the knives emerged:

"A cassock suits you very well, Father Boff," said Ratzinger, "and it also offers proof to the world of who you are."

"But it's not easy to wear in Brazil because of the heat," responded Boff.

“But that's how people recognize your devotion and patience, and they will say: He is paying for the sins of this world."

"Of course we need proofs of spiritualism, but they don't come from a cassock but from the heart, and it is the heart that should be well worn."

"But one doesn't see the heart, and something has to be seen, doesn't it?"

"Yes, but it could be that the cassock is a symbol of power. When I wear it on a bus, people feel they have to get up and give me their seats. We should be the servants of the people.""

Despite the apparent cordiality of the meeting, Boff found himself silenced over this matter in 1985, removed from editorial functions, and suspended from his religious duties.
Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was a Professor in Germany, it was he who orientated the doctorial thesis of Leonardo Boff on Christology and he liked it so much, gave it a very high mark and helped him even with money to publish his thesis in German at that time. And then Boff wrote a book based on his thesis that was published here 'Jesus Christ the Liberator' and some time afterwards when the book was being very criticised in Rome, Cardinal Arns spoke to Cardinal Ratzinger and said to him but how is it possible that you gave him such a high mark for his doctorial thesis and now your saying that his book is dangerous and should not be sold to Catholics etc, and Cardinal Ratzinger answered and said 'Well you have to understand when you are a university professor you read thesis one way, when you are responsible for the CDF you read books in another way.'

-- Ana Flora Anderson ( theologian at Sao Paulo's Catholic University)

Boff was obedient, stating that he would “rather walk with the Church than to walk alone”. He obeyed. The decision was repealed in 1986, Boff went back to work, but proceedings against him began again in 1992. This time, Boff left the Franciscan Order and the priesthood. He said:
Ecclesiastical power is cruel and merciless. It forgets nothing. It forgives nothing. It demand everything.

Before the 2005 conclave, Boff was quoted as saying:
Ratzinger is one of the (Catholic) church's most odious cardinals because of his rigidity, and because he humiliated the bishops' conferences and fellow cardinals in an authoritarian manner on questions of faith… (Ratzinger) will never be pope, because it would be excessive, something the intelligence of the cardinals would not permit

After the conclave, he said:
I feel let down because I was expecting someone who would bring hope in the sense of a new chapter in the Catholic Church which would be more open to dialogue.

I really believe that the Church is much more than the pontificate in the Vatican.

The Church is enormous and comes from the dream of Jesus Christ, which extends all over the world.

I personally believe that Cardinal Ratzinger has a profound spirituality, is a man of great virtue, but as well as these virtues, you need to have an ample vision of the world.

Even though he has left the priesthood, Boff is still active with Liberation Theology in Latin America, working with the "Landless Movement" and base communites, as his website suggests. From the look of him I’d say he has sort of a Jerry Garcia thing going on. :-)
He says this about theology:
Theology, as the word suggests, is a discussion about God and all things as seen in the light of God. It constitutes a singularity in our species that, in some moment during millions of years of evolution, the consciousness of God appeared. With this word, “God,” is expressed a supreme value, a final sentiment of the universe and life and an original Source from which all other beings came.

This God inhabits the universe and accompanies human beings. The sacred texts of religions and spiritual traditions testify to the permanent action of God in the world. He always acts in favor of life, defending the weak, offering forgiveness to the fallen and promising eternal life in communion with Him.

It belongs to the faith of Christians to affirm that God approximated Himself to human existence and made Himself man in Jesus of Nazareth. In this the promise of blessed union with Him is anticipated and will be the destination of all the beings of the entire creation.

Among the many functions of theology today two are most urgent: how theology collaborates in the liberation of the oppressed, who are today’s “crucified Christs,” and how theology helps to preserve the memory of God so that we do not lose the sentiment and sacredness of human life which is threatened by a culture of superficiality, consumption and entertainment. We should always unite faith with justice, where a perspective of liberation is born, keeping the flame of our sacred lamp burning so that it can feed the hope for a better future for the Earth and all humanity.

Was the Liberation Theology that seemed to wither away in the early 1990’s a lost opportunity for the Church? I see a remarkable, and in some ways, regrettable difference between the episcopate in Latin America back then and the men there now. As the lack of priests starts to tell, and more and more Latin Americans become convinced that the Church doesn’t care for their concerns, and leave for Pentecostalism, men like Colombia’s Cardinal Castrillon De Hoyos are obsessed with bringing back the Latin Mass. Were the base communities the way to go? Was Boff right, or is he really just rain-forest chic, “Ben & Jerry’s” gone over the top?


crystal said...

So, in modern times, what is the effect of excommunication? I've read that in the distant past, no Catholic was allowed to talk to, hang around with or give aid to omeone who was anathma ... must be different now?

I'm a fan of liberation theology :-) Did you see that past discussion of liberation theology at Steve's blog? There were some interesting comments ... link

Steve Bogner said...

Crystal, thanks for the link - that was a good discussion, wasn't it?

I like Liberation Theology; we - the church and the Church - have a lot to learn from it. There are LT extremists, just as there are extremists in any brand of theology.

The Vatican did discipline some priests and theologians, and perhaps they needed some correction. But if you read the church's criticism of LT, it's focused more on implementation of the theology than on the nature of the theology. It was all about how people wedded Marxism and LT; that really scared folks.

It seems to me that the early churches were base communities themselves. Maybe we look at the form of the modern church in too rigid terms? Can't it manifest itself as base communities in poor, politically suppressed countries; as big, grand parishes in major cities; and small close-knit churches in the country?

I'm glad Boff and his cohorts came around; we need people like them to shake things up now and then, even if the church's response to them is not always what we'd like to see.

Jeff said...

Steve and Crystal,

Thanks for the link. Outstanding summary in the essay, and great discussion! Way to hang in there and fight, Crystal! ;-) I agree with you about Malachi Martin, btw. I've had him thrown in my face many times for various reasons. He was a crank.

I had mixed feelings about LT after the 80's were over. I had always admired it previously. Around 1989 I was exploring the possibility of a vocation with the Jesuits, and was depressed by the state of the order as I saw it at the time. I started to wonder if they had wasted the decades afer Vatican II on this theology when there were many other things they might have been doing.

On the other hand, despite the tumult, I recall that era being a time of expectation, excitement, and movement in the Catholic Church in Latin America. There were great churchmen like Dom Helder Camara (I love the quote, Steve), Oscar Romero, Lorscheider, and Arns. The Church in Latin America misses these visionary men. On the other hand, there were some who probably went to far in a Marxist direction, like Ernesto Cardenal.

When I look over Boff's work, particularly in the passages I've shown here, I personally see nothing heretical in it (not that it's up to me to say). I think he is a brilliant and faith-filled man.

It's still hard to say how things in Latin america will turn out. Neo-cons and globalization-boosters in the USA funded Protestant prosletysation efforts in Latin America in a deliberate "Yankee-fication" effort to tamp down LT fervor and make Latin Americans more like North Americans. The World Bank and the WTO introduced economic shock-therapy to the region to break up inefficent state enterprises, and this caused a lot of dislocation, economic upheaval, and misery. The region seems to be shifting to the left again. As Crystal, pointed out, it is still dangerous there for those who stick up for the landless poor, like Sister Dorothy Stang.

It is a shame that LT, which I believe has profoundly accurate insight into Christ's Gospel message without the usual equivocations about "what Christ was really trying to say about the rich and poor", needed to include Marxist language, which, as some of Steve's guests pointed out, is a dated and out-moded philosophy. It could have made the same basic points without having to use that dialectic, and may not have provoked so much overt opposition.

As for excommunication, I think today it entails a denial of the sacraments, but I don't know for sure. They no longer have their temporal arm to burn people at the stake, forunately.

Mike McG... said...

" Socrates, the more I know, the less I understand."

This quote made my day! It exemplifies a refreshing, nuanced, 'both-and' perspective rarely encountered in blogdom. I propose the mutual respect between Uta and Benedict as a model for all of us.

I, too, feel drawn to liberation theology and regret the loss to the priestly leadership of Boff and others of his calibur. But I also believe the Vatican's discomfort to be more pastorally grounded that we progressives would care to admit.

From my own experience in religious life, I know that *some* proponents of liberation theology moved well beyond any semblance of continuity with Christianity as even progressive theologians had framed it. Their last thread of connection with the church was its 'instrumental' value, the capacity of our narrative to bring about change. That is, while personally 'beyond' belief, they were willing to embrace the words of belief if they were instrumental in building a better world.

The Vatican dropped the ball in its response to liberation theology and should have separated the wheat (Boff et al.) from the chaff. Nevertheless Vatican concerns were not without some legitimacy. 'The more we know, the less we understand.'

Jeff said...

Hi Mike!

Good to see you again. I know what you mean. To whit, Socrates: "All I know is that I know nothing..." It's good to see a dose of humility from these people now and then. By the same token, I hope I don't give people the impression that I think I know all the answers either. I blow back and forth like an old barn door. I learn a lot more from listening and reading than I do from talking and writing. :-)

Were you in religious life, Mike? Were/are you a priest or ex-priest? Can you elaborate a bit more on what you experienced with LT adherents? Was it really LT they were espousing, or just plain old modernism?

Liam said...

Jeff, you're putting together some fantastic posts. Have you thought about doing some journalism on the side?

I remember the LT discussion on Steve's blog (I was too busy to contribute a comment on it). I think the Vatican's inability to dialogue with LT was a great loss to the Church. I think it was unfortunate that the issue came to a boil when we had a pope who had suffered under communism and was not very patient with anything that could be accused of marxism.

I worry about the Church in Latin America. The present pope seems overly concerned with Europe. The Church should be opening up, not closing people off.

Paula said...

The reaction of JP II to what he perceived as the marxist aspects of LT is typical of someone coming from an East-European country. I have also the tendency to reject everything that is related with Marxism without discrimination.
I remember one time when a friend of mine said jokingly: "Communism was not so bad", only to see how I react. "Wow, even if you said nothing, the expression of your face changed in an instant from friendly to angry" he said afterwards.:-).
I think also that JP II was afraid that LT can be used and abused by people from who have a marxist political agenda.
I do not think that LT is marxism from what I know about it(I admit that did not read a lot on this topic).
Thanks Jeff for this great post. You keep nailing it. Liam is right: you can do journalism, and you can do it well.:-).

Mike McG... said...

Hey Jeff: In the late '60s I was a scholatic and theology student in a congregation of religious brothers. Bracing times, those. Many of us lost our way 'round about the year God died. (For you younger folk, an allusion to a famous 'The Death of God' TIME cover story of that era.)

In any case, our social justice passions survived the rapid deconstruction of our religious beliefs. Before we left, and of course most of us did leave religious life, there was a period when liberation theology-like alliances managed the cognitive dissonance between the justice we affirmed and the beliefs we doubted. (This, of course, says everything about us and nothing about the veracity of liberation theology. It may, however, provide an insight into Vatican caution.)

I think thinkers of all stripes overplay the role of the intellect and underplay the role of the personal in the formulation of thought. My impression is that our worldviews bear the indelible imprint of our wounds. I imagine that Uta was wounded by misogny, Karl by inflexible orthodoxy, John Paul by communist oppression, Benedict by Tubingen in '68, Leonardo by a eurocentric Vatican out of touch with Latin American realitites.

It seems to me that if we focused more on understanding the wounds that shaped others' worldviews, we would be less inclined to debunk those same worldviews.

I'm intrigued, Jeff, at your comment that your ideas blow back and forth 'like an old barn door.' Mine do, too, but sometimes feel jealous of my contemporaries whose doors have *either* blown open *or* blown closed. The orthodoxy they've achieved (of left or right) appears to be more comfortable than the ambiguity I live with.

Darius said...

Certainly in terms of what the media puts out there today as representing Christian piety, it reflects a passion not for social justice and compassion for the poor, but preoccupations with a hodge podge of issues that have become all too familiar: homosexuality, public displays of piety of just the sort Jesus spoke against (prayer in schools, displaying the ten commandments), all things embryonic and stem cell, and a desire to return the status of the theory of evolution to before the Scopes monkey trial in the early twentieth century.

Politicians have to cater to the "Christian" right because they're so well organized as a voting block. Plus, many politicians now ARE right wing Christians. And they just don't have the passion for multicellular human organisms (i.e., people) living in Latin America, Africa, or anywhere else that they bring to the plights of stem cells here in the USA.

It's all mind boggling to me. I sincerly don't get it.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam and Paula,

Thank you. A career in journalism? I don't know about that. I'd love to have written popular history. All I do know is that I'm probably ill-suited for what I do, which is Information Technology, because at heart, I'm a technophobe. I'm practically a luddite. :-) My advice to those younger than myself? Follow your heart and do what you're good at and what you love best. Don't compromise and just follow the money, unless you absolutely have to to survive. You'll regret it. As for my own hopes and dreams, it would have been fun to be a free safety in the NFL, or to play blues guitar like Eric Clapton, or to act like Olivier, or to paint like John Singer Sargent, or to write like Hemingway, but that darned talent requirement keeps getting in the way. Damn it! What a p.i.t.a. ;-)

I do think the Pope is too eurocenric, and whether we see the pespective from Eastern Europe where Communists were the oppressors, or Latin America, where right wingers were the oppressors, we can all see the danger of unchecked power concentrated in the hands of a few.

Jeff said...


Regarding the barn door... I do see myself as a centrist, and like the tag-line in my profile suggests, what does worry me is the current state of polarization in the Church. I feel that in the last few years, especially in the wake of the scandals, the vital center, not the "mushy middle", but the vital center of Catholicism has largely collapsed. In my view, Catholicism in its best tradition has always reflected a healthy trend towards centrism and the avoidance of extremes, but I feel like the extremes are dominating the discourse today. I find that as a self-described centrist, it is hard for me to make anyone happy. I tend to anger both sides. That is why I posted the Rolheiser articles high up in my list of links. Liberals and Conservatives both have strengths and weaknesses. We should all be willing to be self-critical.

The time you describe is a fascination for me, and what you said intrigues me. I've always wanted to talk to someone from that era in religious life. What the heck happened in the late sixties?? Did priests leave in disappointment after Paul VI re-affirmed priestly celibacy and the ban on birth control? Did they leave to get married? To gain control over their own lives? Or, as you suggest, did the buy into the notion that "God was dead"?

Mike McG... said...

Jeff: Extraordinary period indeed. Perhaps we shouldn't bore the rest of your guests. I can be reached at
Best, Mike McG...

Jeff said...

Hi Darius,

I think you have a point in saying that there are many right-wing Christians who seem to care about the unborn more than they do for the born. In some cases, though, it is a more nuanced position than that.

In the novel '1984', George Orwell had a certain vision of the future. In 'Brave New World', Aldous Huxley had a different vision of the future. I think a lot of progressives might disagree with me, but I think that Huxley was more prescient than Orwell. I think we are living in a Huxley-ite pardadigm rather than an Orwellian paradigm today.

What concerns me is the commodification of human beings, especially of children. I know that some people don't accept "slippery slope" arguments when discussing a particular issue at hand, but it worries me that this is what stem-cell research with human embryos does. I confess that I probably need to do more research on this than I have, but I can't understand why we can't collect stem cells from every single umbilical cord obtained in a human birth in this country today.

I see this as a society that already devalues children. Rather than seeing a child as a blessing, a child today is seen as a burden, or an extension of a parent's own personality and sense of accomplishment. Children are treated like commodities, calculated with the cost of college educations and whether or not we can afford a new one at the same time as one of those new tripped-out SUV's. We regulate and micro-manage every step of their lives, stultifying their creativity, we barely educate them, we consumerize them and blitz them with marketing, and we sexualize them. We treat the elderly in this country very well (Thank God), but now it is being done at the expense of the young, laying a huge debt burden on them while we continue with our current entitlement ponzi schemes. Millions of children in this country have no health insurance. In other countries, we knowingly exploit child labor.

For me, the ends don't justify the means. I see embryonic stem-cell research as a harvesting of the young and defenseless, with troubling "slippery slope" consequences down the road. I see it as trafficking in human life and a commodification of human flesh, but I respect the arguments and sincere views of those who disagree with me. As a Catholic Christian, I see man as good, but fallen. We are ultimately dependent upon God, and should be careful not to get carried away in our own hubris. In my opinion, even an atheist, who sees the mind of man as a development of evolutionary psychology over the last few hundred thousand years, and sees our social relationships as ones based upon the principle of reciprocity, and who believe that the body is s vehicle to ensure the survival of the genes, should see this kind of research and solution as one that humans might have trouble adapting to.

Jeff said...


I don't think people would be bored at all, but as you wish. I'll be in touch. Thanks.

Paula said...

I would not have been bored...:-).