The crazies at Church Militant have been useful, this time by drawing attention to an interesting newspaper interview with the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff. What has angered them, is his claim that Pope Francis is “one of us” – that is, in sympathy with liberation theology. That should not surprise anyone: to me, it is obvious. Right from the start of his papacy, Francis has sent out signals of sympathy to both the people and ideas of the liberation theology movement. However, there’s much more of importance in this interview, some of it much more radical.
I am particularly interested in Boff’s discussion of the possibility of married priests returning to active ministry. He claims that the Brazilian bishops have already made this request to the pope, and that he (Boff) has “heard” that Francis has agreed. More interesting, is that he personally feels he does not need this papal permission to return to ministry, which he is already exercising, with the tacit approval of local bishops – some of whom may even be encouraging others to do the same.
A fun observation in the interview, is his dismissal of the objections to Amoris Laetitia by Cardinal Burke and his cronies in their “dubia”. Burke, he says, is the Vatican’s equivalent of Donald Trump. The difference though, is that he is effectively sidelined in the curia (“cold-shouldered”, if I understand correctly the German “kaltgestellt” ).
The interview report of course is in German. Fortunately, the quality of Google Translate has improved markedly since a recent major change in their technology. I include here the Google translation of the complete interview, lightly edited to improve English readability. (For the complete German language interview, see Kölner Stadt-Unzeiger)
The Brazilian Leonardo Boff, born in 1938, is the son of Italian immigrants. In 1959 he joined the Franciscan Order and studied in Germany for five years.
In the 1980s, Boff became the main representative of liberation theology, and because of his criticism of the church, he was in conflict with the Vatican and Joseph Ratzinger, his superior. After having been twice subjected to a publication ban, Boff left the Order in 1992 and laid down his priesthood.
Mr. Boff, do you like Christmas songs?
What do you think? (Sings): “Si-hil-lent night, holy night …” This is sung in every family that celebrates Christmas. With us in Brazil, this is just as much a tradition as in Germany.
Do not you see this kind of Christmas kitted up and commercialized?
This is different from country to country. Of course, Christmas has become a big business. But in all this, joy is still alive, a time of being together with the family, and in many cases also a time of faith. And as I have experienced Christmas in Germany, it is a celebration of the heart, very coherent, wonderful.
How does a faith, which speaks for Christmas of a “God of peace”, fit the dissatisfaction we experience everywhere?
The major part of faith is promise. Ernst Bloc*h says: “Real genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it only starts to begin when society and existence become radical.” The joy of Christmas lies in this promise: The earth and the people are not condemned, it always goes on as we experience it – with all the wars, violence, fundamentalism. We are promised in faith that in the end everything will be good; That despite all the mistakes, missteps and setbacks, we are coming to a good end. The real meaning of Christmas is not that “God has become man,” but that he has come to tell us, “You men belong to me, and when you die, you will come home.”
Christmas means: God is coming to pick us up?
Yes. Incarnation means something of us is already divine, immortal. The divine lies within us. In Jesus it has been shown most clearly. But it is in all people. In an evolutive view, Jesus does not come to the world from outside, but grows out of it. Jesus is the manifestation of the divine in evolution – but not the only one. The Divine also appears in the Buddha, in Mahatma Gandhi, and other great beliefs.
This does not sound very Catholic.
Do not say that. The entire Franciscan theology of the Middle Ages conceived of Christ as part of creation, not only as the Redeemer of Debt and Sin, who comes into the world from above. Incarnation is also salvation, yes. But first and foremost it is a glorification, a deification of creation. And something else is important at Christmas. God appears in the form of a child. Not as an old man with white hair and long white beard …
Just like you …
So, if at all, I rather resemble Karl Marx. What I am concerned with is the following: If, at the end of our lives, we have to face the divine judge once before, then we are faced with a child. But a child does not condemn anyone. A child wants to play and be together with others. This side of faith must be re-emphasized.
Latin liberation theology, among whose most prominent representatives you belong, has come to new honour by Pope Francis. A rehabilitation also for you personally after the decades of fighting with Pope John Paul II and his most faithful guardian Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI?
Francis is one of us. He has made liberation theology the common property of the Church. And he has extended it. Those who speak of the poor must also speak of the earth today because it is also plundered and desecrated. “To hear the cry of the poor,” means to hear the cry of the beasts, the forests, the whole tormented creation. The whole earth cries. So, says the Pope, quoting the title of one of my books, we must at the same time hear the cry of the poor and the earth. And both must be liberated. In recent times, I myself have been very concerned with this extension of liberation theology. And this is also the fundamentally new one in “Laudato si” …
… the “eco-encyclical” of the Pope from 2015. How much Leonardo Boff is in Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
The Encyclical belongs to the Pope. But he has consulted many experts.
Has he read your books?
Even more. He asked me for material for “Laudato si”. I have given him my advice and sent some of what I have written. He also used it. Some people have told me that they had thought on reading it, “that’s Boff!” By the way, Pope Francis said to me, “Boff, please do not send the papers directly to me.”
He said: “Otherwise, the Secretariat will see them off, and I will not get them. I would like to know that the current Vatican ambassador is an old acquaintance of the Pope from his time in Buenos Aires. They have often drunk mate together. One day before the encyclical was published, the Pope had to call me to give me his thanks for my help.
But a personal meeting with the Pope is still pending?
He has sought reconciliation with the most important representatives of liberation theology, with Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, and also with me. I said to him, with a view to Pope Benedict and Joseph Ratzinger, “but the other one still lives!”. He did not accept this. “No,” he said, “il Papa sono io” – “the pope is me”. So we should come quietly. You see his courage and determination.
Why did it not work out with your visit?
I had an invitation and had already landed in Rome. But on that very day, just before the beginning of family synod 2015, 13 cardinals – among them the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Congregation of the Faith – were preparing rebellion against the Pope with a letter addressed to him, which then – oh, miracle! – appeared in the newspaper. The Pope was angry and said to me, “Boff, I have no time. I have to make peace before the Synod. See you another time.”
Even with peace that has not really gone away, right?
The Pope feels the sharpness of the wind from his own ranks, especially from the USA. This cardinal Burke, Leo Burke, who has now written a letter together with your Cologne Cardinal Meisner, is the Donald Trump of the Catholic Church. (Laughs) But unlike Trump, Burke is now cold-shouldered in the Curia. Thank God. These people actually believe they should correct the pope. As if they were above the Pope. Such a thing is unusual, if not unprecedented in the church history. You can criticize the Pope, discuss with him. I have done this often enough. But that Cardinals publicly accuse the Pope of spreading theological errors or even heresies, which I think is too much. This is an affront, which the can not be done to the pope. The Pope can not be condemned, that is the teaching the Church.
With all your enthusiasm for the Pope, what about the Church reforms that many Catholics had hoped for from Francis, but where in fact still not so much has happened?
You know, as far as I understand it, the center of his interest is no longer the church, certainly not the inner church enterprise, but the survival of mankind, the future of the earth. Both are in danger, and one must ask whether Christianity can contribute to overcoming this great crisis that threatens humanity.
Francis takes care of the environment, and now his church is on the wall?
I believe there is a hierarchy of problems for him. When the earth perishes, all other problems have also settled. But as for the inner-church questions, wait a while! It was only recently that Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close confidant of the Pope, said that there would soon be great surprises.
What do you expect?
Who knows? Perhaps women deacons. Or the possibility that married priests can be used again in pastoral care. This is an explicit request from the Brazilian bishops to the Pope, especially his friend, the Brazilian Cardinal emeritus Claudio Hummes. I heard that the Pope wanted to comply with this request – initially for an experimental phase in Brazil. This country, with its 140 million Catholics, should have at least 100,000 priests. But there are only 18000. Institutionally, this is a disaster. It is no wonder that the faithful overflow with the evangelicals and Pentecostals who fill the vacuum. If the many thousands of married priests were able to exercise their office again, this would be a first step towards the improvement of the situation – and at the same time an impulse for the Catholic Church to loosen the fetters of the obligation celibacy.
If the Pope were to decide in this sense, would you, as a former Franciscan friar, take on priestly duties again?
Personally, I do not need such a decision. It would not change for me, because I am still doing what I have always done: I baptize, I bury, and when I go to a church without a priest, I celebrate the Mass together with the people.
Is it very “German” to ask: Can you do that?
So far, no bishop I know of has ever criticized or forbidden it. The bishops even rejoice and tell me: “The people have a right to the Eucharist. So keep on, in peace! “My theological teacher, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who had died a few days ago, for example, was very open. He went so far as to bring married priests, whom he saw sitting in the bench during the Mass, to the front of the altar, and together with them celebrated the Eucharistic feast. He often did that and said. “You are still priests, and you will remain so!”