Leonardo Boff: Theologian for All Christians

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 2-9,1986, p. 615. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is primarily his creative views on ecclesiology that have gotten Brazil’s liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, into trouble with the Vatican. Although his ban has been lifted, Vatican conservatives still have reason to fear his influence.

The Vatican’s recent lifting of the "silencing" of Brazilian Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff for writings deemed injurious to the faith means that his voice and pen once more have their full power. This happy outcome provides an occasion to examine the broad sweep of Boff’s writings -- not only those that got him in trouble. Whatever Boff’s ongoing difficulties with Rome may be, he is an important theologian for all Christians, both Protestants and Catholics.

A review of Boff’s writings does not make him seem like a "dangerous" theologian. Christology . . . grace . . . stations of the cross . . the Lord’s Prayer ... St. Francis -- what could be more appropriate subjects for a Catholic theologian? But Boff’s unyielding insistence on a theology with two eyes -- relating the gospel to the contemporary scene -- finally overstepped the presumably appropriate boundaries.

In 1981, not caring to quit while he was ahead, Boff published a collection of essays, Church: Charism and Power (Crossroad, 1985) , which, in the original Portuguese, carried the exquisitely descriptive subtitle, Essays in Militant Ecclesiology. There is a message here for theologians who want to stay out of trouble: if you must write, don’t write about ecclesiology; and if you must write about ecclesiology, don’t write militantly. Boff did. And he got into trouble.

Boff’s troubles actually have their roots in his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote in Germany under a fellow Franciscan, Bonaventura Kloppenburg. Interestingly enough, his other Doktorvater was Joseph Ratzinger, present prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When a summary of Boff s dissertation appeared some years later as a chapter in Church: Charism and Power, Kloppenburg -- who, in the interval, had become an ardent foe of liberation theology -- wrote a long review charging Boff with heresy.

Understandably startled by this about-face on the part of his former teacher, Boff sent a copy of the review and the book to Ratzinger -- his other former teacher -- asking for advice. Ratzinger suggested that he reply to Kloppenburg’s charges, which Boff did.

That, one might have presumed, would have been the end of the matter -- save, perhaps, a series of exchanges in some learned theological journal. It wasn’t.

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. (One is reminded of a comment by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini during a debate at Vatican II, when, after a number of speeches about the Holy Spirit, he responded, "We don’t need the guardianship of the Holy Spirit; we have the hierarchy.")

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."

Through this analysis we hope to nourish faith in the strength of the Spirit that is capable of awakening the dormant heart of the institutional Church, encouraging the living presence and the dangerous yet powerful memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ [p. 48].

It would be difficult to overstress the richness of this powerful and clearly written book. Even a look at the table of contents will make the point. The initial essays (1-3) are clear, positive statements about pastoral practices in the church. The next three (4-6) are critiques of current Roman Catholic institutional practices, which, with the change of a word here and there, describe Protestant ecclesiastical sins with devastating accuracy. After a transitional essay "In Favor of Syncretism" (7) , there are three informative and challenging essays on the "base communities" (8-10) , and then three concluding essays (11-13) that profoundly explore an alternative way to view the church as "A Sacrament of the Holy Spirit" with "Charism as the Organizing Principle."

Church: Charism and Power is only the most recent of many books. For more than 15 years, Boff has been among the most important -- and prolific -- contributors to the developing theology of liberation in Latin America.

In 1972 he provided the first substantial Christology from the new perspective, Jesus Christ Liberator (Orbis, 1978) , just one year after Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation brought Third World theology to the attention of the rest of the world. That year was a bad one for freedom of expression in Brazil, and Boff worked with certain external constraints in saying what he wanted to say about the liberating work of Christ. This caution was overcome in an epilogue, added to the English translation in 1978 when the Brazilian political climate had become less repressive. This exciting 31-page essay situates the mission and message of Jesus in a socioeconomic setting that illumines the earlier pages.

Another large book, Liberating Grace (Orbis, 1979) , appeared in 1976, exploring many facets of the traditional doctrine of grace in both social and individual terms. Hoff sees grace at work in the midst of a situation of dependency and exploitation, and his whole approach gives special meaning to the first word of the title, "liberating." (The combination of "liberation" and "grace" is considered to be so dangerous that one North American writer subsequently cited the book as "among the most significant Socialist or Marxist titles" to come out of Latin America.)

One of Boff’s most powerful books is Way of the Cross -- Way of Justice (Orbis, 1980) Written in blank verse, it is a series of meditations on the stations of the cross, a traditional exercise of individualistic Catholic piety that Boff transforms into a communal exercise as well. He effects this transformation by offering meditations on each of the "stations" of Jesus’ original journey along the Via Dolorosa, all of which are followed by second meditations reflecting on the meaning of the station for Jesus followers in today’s world. The practice exemplifies Boff’s conviction that theology must have "two eyes," one looking to the past "where salvation broke in" and the other looking toward the present "where salvation becomes a reality here and now." The "way of the cross" focuses on the historical Jesus, but the "way of justice" focuses "on the Christ of faith who continues his passion today in his brothers and sisters who are being condemned, tortured and killed for the cause of justice" (p. viii) The parallels between what Jesus suffered then and what his followers suffer today are acute and heartrending. The book has intense power, and will surely become one of the spiritual classics of our time.

Another book dramatizing Boff’s contention that "devotional" literature and the world of the nitty-gritty cannot be separated, is The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation (Orbis, 1983) The word "integral" is the key. "Integral" means "whole," "entire," "complete," and Hoff insists that the Lord’s Prayer gives no support to a merely "spiritual" liberation divorced from the world of poverty and hunger. The book attacks "reductionism," whether as "theologism" or "secularism." Praying must be done in context: "Prayer is not the first thing a person does. Before praying, one experiences an existential shock." Each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer is then examined in terms of theology’s two eyes. Prayer is always "toward God" and "toward us"; we are not allowed the luxury of separating them.

Hoff has also written an engaging and challenging book about the founder of his religious order, Saint Francis: A Model for Human Liberation (Crossroad, 1982) He is not so naïve as to suggest that we can transplant Francis -- in all of his breathtaking simplicity -- to the complications of the 20th century. But he does believe that important connections can be made. The methodology in each chapter is a clue: after a brief vignette from Francis’s life, Boff carefully analyzes some characteristic of our modern world, and then suggests how St. Francis’s perspective might illuminate that situation. After describing St. Francis as "a model of gentleness and care" (qualities desperately lacking in our culture) , Boff jumps into the fray by dealing with the contribution St. Francis could make to our understanding of "the preferential option for the poor." Another chapter, "Creation of a Popular and Poor Church," indicates what St. Francis could offer to the formation of contemporary "base communities." Throughout, St. Francis contributes to an "integral liberation" -- liberation that is not exclusively "spiritual" or "economic," but both tied together.

The recent lifting of the ban (a month ahead of schedule) may be an olive branch from the Curia, and its timing, coincident with the release of Cardinal Ratzinger’s temperate second "Instruction" on liberation theology (see my article "The Roman Curia and Liberation Theology: The Second (and Final?) Round," June 4-11 Century) , suggests that the aggressive warlock-hunt (as we must call it in this case) against liberation theologians is being placed on a Vatican back burner, if not on hold. There is no doubt that the Vatican’s image suffered as a consequence of a punitive action, suited (if at all) to other centuries than our own, while Boff became an instant folk hero throughout the Third World.

We can be sure, furthermore, that during the time he was forbidden to publish, it crossed his mind that he had not been forbidden to write. The curtailment of outside speaking engagements may even have provided more time than usual to put pen to paper. (When this possibility was mentioned to Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of Boff’s compañeros in the liberation struggle, he replied, "Yes! After one year, four books!")

Even if that estimate should prove excessive (and it may not) , we can now look forward to more writings by Boff than might have resulted if Rome had left him alone. For this, at least, we can render oblique thanks to the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.