The NI Interview
Wayne Ellwood chats with one of Latin America’s best-known exponents of liberation theology.
With his grizzled beard, relaxed manner and generous smile, Leonardo Boff is one of those people who puts you at ease before you know it.
He has been preaching an activist gospel in Brazil for decades. Although no longer a priest, Boff’s not about to abandon his beliefs. ‘I may have left the priesthood,’ he chortles, ‘but I have not left the faith. I am still a theologian and an active member of a Christian community in Brazil.’
In fact, Boff didn’t exactly ‘leave’ the priesthood. He was more or less forced out nearly four years ago after a toe-to-toe battle with the Vatican over his penchant for mixing politics with religion. He has since married and settled into a university teaching position in Rio de Janeiro. I managed to catch up with him at the Jesuit Centre for Social Justice in Toronto.
‘In many ways I am more estranged now than ever from the institutional Catholic Church,’ Boff begins, easing into a battered office chair. ‘What I’ve found as a layperson and a professor confirms this feeling. The sense of grace and holiness outside the Church actually seems much greater.’ He laughs softly at the irony. ‘People I work with now are committed to building a better world not because they are Christians but because they are profoundly human.’
Boff acknowledges the tremendous thirst for religion on the part of ordinary people, but says the Catholic Church itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Instead, the poor in Brazil find a vision of social justice and community in the comunidades de base or ‘Base Christian Communities’. There are more than 100,000 of these grassroots Christian groups in Brazil which attempt to fuse the teachings of Christ with a liberating social gospel.
‘These are the places where liberation theology is lived concretely and where the political dimensions of a liberating faith come into play,’ Boff believes. ‘The poor must understand that poverty is neither natural nor wanted by God. The comunidades de base show there can be another church and they continue to spawn leaders who work on behalf of the poor – in trade unions, political parties and in community organizations.’
Nonetheless, Boff admits the world has changed dramatically since the birth of liberation theology 20 years ago in Latin America. ‘Today the problem is no longer marginalization of the poor but complete exclusion. The question now is how to survive. That’s why liberation theology deals with fundamental issues like work, health, food, shelter and how we live.’
Economic globalization and the spread of poverty is of particular concern to Boff. ‘The poor are much worse off today than 30 or 40 years ago,’ he says flatly. ‘In Brazil the excluded don’t believe in the old myths of development anymore. They feel that development has been at their cost and not for their benefit.’ And no wonder: ‘Brazil has 150 million inhabitants. For a third of them the system functions very well. But for the other 100 million it is a disaster.’
Living in a country which has sparked world concern with the continued destruction of its Amazon rainforest, the ex-cleric is especially attuned to the ecological costs of industrial development. ‘The earth has arrived at the limits of its sustainability with the result that we can no longer think of humanity apart from nature. We need an ecological spirituality which sees human beings as part of the whole. Our task is not to create sustainable development, but a sustainable society – human beings and nature together.’
Despite his anxiety about ecological collapse, Boff can be surprisingly upbeat. ‘I am an optimist,’ he says, unfolding his hands and smiling broadly. ‘I believe a more spiritual globalization will also come. There is a growing consciousness of our common destiny, that we are all in the same spaceship together. It’s true a few are in first-class and the rest in the baggage compartment. But we’re going to have to learn to share or we’ll all blow up together. When that becomes widely understood it will change both politics and economics.’
In the meantime, Boff argues, the first step toward change is for the poor to take charge of their own lives. ‘The institutional Church counts on the support of the economic and political powers. And that is why the Church can no longer count on the support of the poor. They see the Church as separated from the Gospel and from the dream of Jesus.’
It is this kind of political analysis that has left Boff with few allies in Rome. As far as Boff is concerned, Pope John Paul II and his Vatican advisors have much to account for. ‘The Pope’s concern is to present the Church in the world from a position of power, not from a position of dialogue. This is an almost feudalistic approach.’ He hesitates for a moment, pausing to enforce the cadence of his words. ‘You see, I believe the Pope wants a Church of the rich for the poor, but not with the poor.’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996