Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Colloquy

The Death and Ascension of St.Francis, by Giotto

Last year I read The Silencing of Leonardo Boff by Harvey Cox. Back in 1984, Leonardo Boff, one of the leading proponents of liberation theology, was called to Rome to have a discussion with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was then the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The topic was Boff's book Church: Charism and Power.

I covered some of the fencing and barbed comments that passed between them at that meeting in this post. Cox, and Boff himself, provide a few more details...

Cox was saying how, at the colloquy in Rome, Boff was startled and taken aback when Cardinal Ratzinger started grilling him on the "subsists" issue (the Vatican II statement that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church). Boff didn't think that this was what the conversation was going to be about. Boff did think that the Church could subsist in other churches, but he was surprised that this was the focus of the discussion, because it wasn't the point of his book, or the the main theme of his work in general. He was also surprised that Cardinal Ratzinger took a different view from it's meaning than was presumably held by other Council fathers like Rahner, Willebrands, Koenig, and Congar.

Robert McAfee Brown, in his article Leonardo Boff: Theologian for All Christians, describes the meeting this way...

In May 1984, Boff received a six-page letter from Ratzinger, detailing charges against him and summoning him to Rome for an accounting. Ratzinger charged Boff with distorting old doctrines by reinterpreting them in new contexts. Boff’s language lacked "serenity" and "moderation," and, more substantively, he employed "ideological" perspectives from history, philosophy, sociology and politics that were not fully enough informed by theology. Thus, Ratzinger asked, is Boff guided by faith or by "principles of an ideological nature"?

Ratzinger was deeply disturbed by three areas of Boff’s book.

He first accused Boff of suggesting that Jesus did not determine the specific form and structure of the church, thus implying that other models besides the Roman Catholic one might be consistent with the gospel.

A second charge was that he is cavalier about dogma and revelation. Boff responded by acknowledging that dogma is needed to protect against heresy, but not in the same way in all times and places. It is ultimately the life of the Spirit in the church that protects faith against encrustation in "timeless truths" that can only negate spiritual progress. Ratzinger feared that such a doctrine of the Spirit would legitimate the theological whim of the moment.

Finally, Boff is charged with being unnecessarily polemical and disrespectful in his comments on the church’s use and abuse of power. Boff certainly does not mince words, and in one place even offers a kind of Marxist analysis of institutional church life, citing "the expropriation of the religious means of production" (forgiveness, sacraments and so forth) as means by which the clergy deny power to the people. Such excessive concentration of power, Boff believes, leads to domination, centralization, marginalization of the faithful, triumphalism and institutional hubris -- an extensive laundry list of aberrations from which not even the Sacred Congregation itself is exempted. In the notorious Chapter 12 -- the precis of his dissertation -- Boff offers an alternate model of power for the church -- a model based on the "service" of a living, changing church in which theological privileges are not concentrated in the few, but shared among the many.

It is clear that the congregation’s main fear with Boff is not Marxism (as it is with many other liberation theologians) but his central emphasis on the Holy Spirit, which could challenge the validity of present ecclesial structures.

Boff met with the Sacred Congregation in Rome in September 1984. Though the curtain of secrecy is drawn over such meetings (one of the abuses that Boff had criticized in his writings) , Boff emerged from the encounter smiling, believing that he had made the point that, when dealing with liberation theology, the church ought to consult people directly involved in the struggle, rather than relying solely on European theologians who, as he told reporters, "look on poverty from the outside, from a position of security, in a paternalistic way."

One reason that Boff may have escaped censure on this occasion is that (in a move indicating that Franciscans know how to combine the wisdom of the serpent with the gentleness of the dove) he had chosen as the theologian to defend him at the closed-door proceedings His Eminence Cardinal Alois Lorscheider, head of the Brazilian hierarchy -- neither a person nor an office that the Sacred Congregation would instinctively care to challenge.

Boff seemed to be home free. He wasn’t. Some months later the unexpected order came, consigning him to "silence" for "an opportune period."

Here on his website, Boff describes the colloquy in his own words. I have to say, even though I sympathize with Boff (especially in these days of a cautioned Jon Sobrino and the pending normalization of relations with the SSPX) there was plenty of ego in the room to go around.

Objective facts are always submerged, as it were, in the feelings of those who are living them out. What effect did the events of my judicial proceedings within the former Inquisition in Rome in 1984 have upon me?

In the first place I felt as if I had been truly kidnapped by someone from the “Red Brigades”. At 9 a.m. the Vatican officials came to fetch me and before I could say goodbye to my Superior they grabbed me and pushed me inside a car which sped to the nearby Vatican.

Swiss Guards escorted me from the car to the lift. On the floor above two other Guards were waiting for me together with the Cardinal Inquisitor, Joseph Ratzinger, attired in his formal cardinal’s robes. I was wearing my simple friar’s habit. To ease the tension I greeted him in his native Bavarian. But I was taken straight through a carpeted hall some 100 metres long which was lined with Renaissance paintings.

At the very end was a tiny door, so small that I had difficulty going through it into the small room, full of books, with a small podium on which sit both the Inquisitor and the person who is the object of his inquisition. A notary by our side would be taking everything down.

Proceedings began without further ado.I interrupted the Cardinal, however, and said to him,” My Lord Cardinal, in our country we are still Christians; before we start any serious business we ask for God’s protection”. Surprised by this, the Cardinal immediately started the ritual recitation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus. Within a juridical concept of the Church there is, really, no place for God.

I started reading what I had prepared. The Cardinal only interrupted me twice. First he wanted to know what an Ecclesial Base Community was; he thought it was a communist cell where militants were trained, because in these communities we are always talking about struggle.

The second interruption led to a debate which we have continued to the present day. He states, “The Church of Christ is only to be found within the [Roman] Catholic Church. There are only elements of Christ’s Church within other institutions: it is rather like having doors and walls, but not enough to make a complete house.These institutions are not churches and therefore cannot by rights be called churches”. This I consider to be offensive, arrogant and simply wrong if Tradition be taken into account.

There was a break for coffee in the large hall. Officials appeared from everywhere, each one with his copy of the condemned book Church: Charism and Power asking for autographs. This greatly irritated the Cardinal. I wrote the same thing in every copy, “Conserve Jesus’s inheritance, freedom won not with words but with his own blood”.

Alone with the Cardinal we went on looking at the paintings until we stopped before a huge picture representing Saint Francis, in old torn clothes, but transfigured in the sky above. On the ground below was the kneeling Pope with his triple crown on his head. I said to the Cardinal, “here is the symbol of the Church we defend, the Church of the poor, represented by St Francis and the Pope kneeling at its service”. The Cardinal said,” you politicize everything. Here we simply see this as a work of art and not a theological statement”. I then drew his attention to the great squared iron windows, “you have no eyes for Liberation Theology because you see the world of the poor through those square windows and so everything appears square to you”.

We worked for another hour. At the end we had a meeting with the two Brazilian Cardinals Arns and Lorscheider who had come to Rome to support me. Cardinal Arns came straight to the point, “Eminence, we do not like the document on Liberation Theology which has just been published. We are asking for another document which will do justice to the churches which take the option for the poor and their liberation seriously. You have tried to build a bridge by using a grammarian and not an engineer .Allow our builders in and they will help you to construct a good Liberation Theology, which will be of service to the whole Church”.

If only that had been given a chance. Where are such cardinals and bishops today? What has become of our hierarchy?


crystal said...

Nice painting!

I remember that "subsists in" argument. Think I posted something about it back then.

I think Leo Boff isn't so much arrogant (at least in the part you posted) as maybe trying to keep the more casual relationship he'd previously had with Benedict - he was his student?

Anyway, I think he's right :)

shera10 said...

"What has become of our hierarchy?


and this:
Pope Benedict XVI has promoted bishop of Linz a pastor who called Hurricane Katrina divine punishment for sin in New Orleans.

very sobering

cowboyangel said...

Interesting. One could do a screenplay on that whole meeting.

Have you read Church, Charism and Power?

Liam said...

I think one of the great problems with JPII was his propensity to elevate conservative-minded yes-men bureaucrats to the hierarchy. Our episcopate is not very inspiring.

Jeff said...


I know what you mean, but I did think the reference to collecting autographs on his book was a bit egotistical, :)


A cappa magna!? Good grief! Poor Toledo, I love that city. Is that who they've had to put up with?

Yes, I heard about Wagner in Austria too. What's the next thing, bringing in the Traditional Anglican Communion as a personal prelature? That's the latest rumor.


I have not read it, but I intend to.


I think it may be worse than a lot of us thought previously.