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faith & spirituality | legacies

The Prophet and the Professor

Liberation theology insists the poor are our teachers and that the church is not an end-in-itself. The church that serves itself is different than the church that serves the world. The church that wants to return to the 19th century with little interest in social issues is a caricature. "Outside the poor there is no salvation" (P.Casaldaliga) is an important corrective.

[This Interview published in: stern.de July 27, 2008 is translated from the German on the Internet. Leonardo Boff was born in 1938 as the son of Italian immigrants in Concordia in southern Brazil. He joined the Franciscan order in 1959 and studied philosophy, theology and other subjects in Munich where he wrote his doctoral dissertation. Boff is a co-founder of liberation theology which propagates the struggle against poverty and oppression as the main task of the church. In 1985 the Vatican issued a prohibition on his speaking and teaching. He gave up his priestly office in the meantime. Boff married and lives with his wife in Petropolis near Rio.]

The Brazilian, the most important representative of liberation theology, was punished by the Vatican with a speaking prohibition in 1985. His great adversary at that time was Cardinal Ratzinger.

When I was invited to appear before the Congregation of Faith, the atmosphere was very tense. I wanted to ease the strained atmosphere a little.

Were you successful?

No. The situation was extremely formal and rigid. The cardinal led me into the interrogation room of the holy inquisition. I had to sit on the chair on which Galileo Galilei was accused. We discussed for three hours.

The discussion focused on your book "Church - Charisma and Power" in which you attacked the undemocratic structure and the Catholic Church's claim to sole authority.

Yes. Something curious happened in the coffee break. Several members of the Congregation of Faith asked me to sign that book for them. Ratzinger was very nervous.

Right after the discussion, you were punished with a one-year "penitential silence." Were you disappointed by Ratzinger whom you knew well from your time in Germany?

I came to know Ratzinger in Germany as a brilliant and open theologian. When Ratzinger went to Rome, he adopted the logic of the Roman system, the logic of power. That disappointed me. As a pope, he became even worse.

In what way?

At first Ratzinger was conservative. Today he is completely reactionary. He condemns everything modern and wants to keep the church of the 19th century. Ratzinger is a professor pope, not a shepherd, withy no charisma and no personal magnetism.

Did you have contact with him in the last years?

No. But if he would have invited me, I would have gladly discussed with him. Saint Francis even spoke with the wolf.

After more conflicts with the Vatican, you left the Franciscan order in 1992 and laid down the priestly office. Did you later regret this step?

No. I only changed the trenches, not the battle. From a priest I became a lay person but still do theology, write books, give addresses all over the world and accompany base communities and social organizations.

Are you still a believing catholic?

I see myself as a Franciscan and ecumenical catholic - not a Roman. Roman-catholic is the authoritarian, legal form of Christianity.

Is liberation theology still a burning issue today?

Theology of liberation lives in many churches in the world wherever Christians turn to the oppressed, poverty and the environment - and hear the cry of the earth. This cry becomes louder and louder. But liberation theology is not as visible any more because it is not as polemical as in the past.

Are young courageous theologians lacking who openly oppose Rome?

Today new parish priests are trained entirely in the mentality of the Vatican - turned inward and without interest in social questions. When they are interested in liberation theology, they are monitored and sometimes persecuted. Therefore the laity are engaged above all. We old liberation theologians have no successors.

Can't you withdraw from active life?

Like a Schwaban I create, create and create. I will fight for justice to the Last Judgment.


[Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff was once world-famous through his dispute with Cardinal Ratzinger. Ratzinger has now been pope for five years and in Boff's eyes has completely failed as the shepherd of Catholics. This interview "Es mangelt ihm an allem" published in: sueddeutsche.de, 4/18/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, ]

[Leonardo Boff, liberation theologian and author, is one of the best-known church critics worldwide. The 71-year old who studied in Munich lives in the Brazilian city Petropolis.]

SZ: When Joseph Ratzinger was chosen pope in 2005, you said: loving this pope will be hard. Five years later is there anything to admire in Benedict XVI?

Boff: What do I admire? Nothing at all. Perhaps the stubbornness with which he pursues his project of restoration since he regards the first Vatican Council as more important than the second Council. In other words, the pope is set in the center and not the Christian community. He has great fear. He should believe more in the Spirit than in traditions and doctrines. My 2005 statement is still true. During his over-twenty year time as leader of the Congregation of Faith, Ratzinger condemned more than a hundred theologians. He has never understood liberation theology. He subjected many bishops' conferences to a strict control.

The five years of his pontificate were marked by conflicts: with Muslims, Jews, non-catholic churches to which he denied the status as churches, with the Anglican church, Lefebvre's' followers, women and homosexuals. He made many mistakes in governing. According to the gospels, his task is to strengthen brothers and sisters in faith. He has not succeeded in that.

SZ: That sounds devastating.

Boff: I heard him at the university as a theology professor in Germany. A man like him was not created to lead, coordinate and fill with life a community of more than a billion people. He has not been a teacher or understood himself as a shepherd. Everything is lacking to him, especially charisma. If he had read a little Marx and less Augustine and Bonaventura, he would have understood the oppression of the poor and the theology of liberation better since he would have heard the cry of the oppressed and the cry of the earth.

SZ: Because of your criticism of the church hierarchy, you sat before Ratzinger on the same heretic's chair in 1984 as Galileo Galilei. How do you bear this humiliation up to today?

Boff: I don't cultivate animosity or have any scars from this sad journey into the dark and ugly interrogation room. This is not a special virtue. I am structured that way. I was convinced my concern was justified. It was an opportunity to convince him that the oppressed are a challenge for a new liberating proclamation. But it was all in vain. He did not change; he has only become worse.

SZ: In an ironic way, you could even be thankful to Ratzinger. The conflict with him has made you famous the world over.

Boff: Fame does not bring any advantage, not even for persons like myself who loath standing in public. Whether as an author who has written 82 books, as a scholar or teacher, the honors have brought me more vexation than joy.

SZ: You are a co-founder of liberation theology. How much should the church meddle in politics?

Boff: Liberation theology has become an obsession for this pope. In March, he criticized Marxist liberation theology before bishops from southern Brazil. But this theology only exists in his head and not in reality. He stamps on a dead dog. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, no one spoke any more of Marxism in liberation theology. The worst thing is that he hits the poor in base communities in the head who now say "The pope plays the game of our enemies who oppress us. He condemns our allies, the theologians of liberation. We must pray for the father because he has lost his way.

I believe the church has always meddled in politics. But it may only do this for ethical and not partisan reasons. The church must act like one social force among others that respects the separation of state and the church, acknowledges the plurality of society, strengthens the spirit and not only defends privileges. In the Vatican, there is more concentration on politics than on proclamation of the Christian message.

SZ: Doesn't the discussion around religious fundamentalism show that the church should completely keep out of politics even if it has a good intention?

Boff: No, I don't believe that. I regard catholic parties as wrong. Catholics can be members of all parties in which Christian values are alive. But the institutional church - especially under this pope - has fundamentalist characteristics when it claims that only it is Christ's church and denies other churches the title church. It declares other religions are not capable of the redemption of people. It is the revival of the medieval idea that there is no redemption outside the church. This is an unsurpassable arrogance and insults all others. Benedict XVI confuses Bavaria with the Vatican and the Vatican with the world.

SZ: To what extent is the crisis of the Catholic Church reflected in the scandal around misuse?

Boff: Pedophilia is not merely a sin as the church interprets it. A sin can always be forgiven. Then everything begins all over again by transposing the sinner to another place. The church authorities try to hide the facts to maintain their credibility. This approach is wrong and Pharisaic. Pedophilia is a crime that belongs before a criminal court. This was only admitted by the church on account of the pressure of the world public. The church made itself totally unreliable.

Believers also lose trust in the priests to whom they entrust their children for first communion. One has to see the victims and not only the perpetrators. Modern culture devotes great attention to them - for example the genocide of the aborigines, child prostitution, international women trade and slave labor on the mammoth farms in Brazil. Asking and praying for forgiveness is not enough. Justice must be done for the victims of pedophilia by punishing criminal priests. Fundamental reforms are necessary to prevent such crimes.


SZ: In your opinion, what must happen for the Catholic Church to get out of the crisis?

Boff: The Vatican and many bishops do everything to separate pedophilia and celibacy from one another. Pedophilia is a perversity of conduct that has to do with a badly integrated sexuality. The Vatican does not want to see this but will be forced to see this. Celibacy remains outside discussion because it reveals much about the structure of the church. It is a totalitarian religious community, authoritarian, centralized and mono-sexual because only celibate men can serve. From the view of the church, it is very convenient that it can have complete control over persons who surrender everything to it - life, bonds, attachments and family.

SZ: What should the pope do?

Boff: The pope is a hostage of a conservative and doctrinaire view of Christianity. He is incapable of proposing fundamental reforms. Only a council of bishops and representatives of Christian communities from all over the world can rescue the church from total collapse and total disintegration. Jesus' legacy does not deserve this fate.

SZ: On the other hand, the protestant church does not need to grapple with celibacy or with an infallible pope. Nevertheless the churches there are also empty. Why?

Boff: Almost all Christian churches have fundamentalist tendencies. They believe they only have at their disposal the divine revelation. Protestants follow the Bible and Catholics the pope. They don't even regard as necessary listening to God who communicates in history and in the life of people.


SZ: In the western world, intellectuals turn to Buddhism and esotericism. Why?

Boff: We are all weary of a culture of materialism and consumption. In the dominant culture, there is an excess of intellectualism. The instrumental-analytic reason rules. But human existence also includes emotional intelligence which is allied with values, with solidarity, devotion and love. But there is also a neurologically-based spiritual intelligence. In other words, human existence embraces more than the hunger for bread. There is also the hunger for beauty, for free communication and for transcendence. The churches should nourish this mystical understanding. But they don't. Instead they repeat old formulas and recite sacred texts from the Bible.

SZ: In your Brazilian home, people are lured by charismatic communities. Isn't that another form of exploitation?

Boff: These communities must be seen in Brazil's social context. A large part of the population is poor and religious. The Catholic Church suffers under an institutional weakness. At least 120,000 priests would be necessary for a population of 140 million Catholics. But there are only 17,000, half of whom come from abroad. There is an institutional gap. The free churches come with their message and fill this gap. These churches are the places of refuge of the damned of the earth and fulfill an important function of social integration. Those who don't get a hearing are suddenly heard by God. This creates a spirit of brotherliness and mutual aid among them.

On the other side, these churches exploit the trust of believers because for many priests, including Catholic priests, the saying is in force: "In the choice between God and money, the latter is in first place." Still this does not devalue the human aspect of these churches.

SZ: If you today had to take the seat of Galileo Galilei, what would you like to say to Pope Benedict?

Boff: I would say simple, your holiness, you are an old man, tired and rather sick. You served the church with the best intentions despite the oppositions that you provoke. The hour has come to prepare for the great encounter with God. Withdraw into a monastery, sing Gregorian chants that you like so much, celebrate your mass in Latin and pray for the earth threatened by climate warming, for humanity which is being wiped out, above all for the suffering and for the children who are the victims of pedophilia in the church and society. Pray that the Creator Spirit may never leave us.


Leonardo Boff's website:
Leonardo Boff on Wikipedia:
Liberation Theology on Wikipedia:

homepage: homepage: http://www.freewebs.com/mbtranslations/
address: address: http://www.theologe.de