On 25 December 2016 the Brazilian Leonardo Boff, one of the most prominent theorists and operatives of Latin American Liberation Theology, gave a candidly revealing and manifoldly informative interview to the German regional newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. Due to his confident, if not presumptuous, openness, the 78-year-old Boff (b. 14 December 1938) speaks about several matters of moment which we otherwise would not so easily hear about.
For example, he reveals the following:
- How and why Pope Francis did not meet Boff in Rome, as planned, on the day before the second Synod on the Family in 2015 – because the pope was angry at the Thirteen Cardinals’ Letter and was trying to quiet the situation (and himself?) ahead of the Synod;
- How Cardinal Walter Kasper recently told Boff that Pope Francis has some “big surprises” planned;
- How Pope Francis intends to allow the Catholic Church in Brazil to permit married priests, as his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes has been requesting now for some time;
- How Pope Francis had requested from Boff material for the writing of his own encyclical Laudato Si and how the pope thanked him afterwards;
- How Boff considers Pope Francis to be “one of us,” meaning one of the supportive sympathizers with liberation theology.
In the following, therefore, I shall translate parts of this important interview. The words of Leonardo Boff will speak for themselves. Important to note in this context, however, is that Boff himself was publicly criticized and silenced in 1985 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – then the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – for his unorthodox writings that boldly go quite far against Church doctrine. Thus, in 1992, he both formally left the Franciscan Order to which he had belonged and he also then publicly left the Catholic priesthood.
Q: Liberation Theology of Latin America – one of whose most prominent representatives you certainly are – has now received new honors [and encouraging support] from and through Pope Francis. [Is there now to be] A rehabilitation also for you personally, after your years-long struggles with Pope John Paul II himself and with his highest defender of Doctrine, Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI?
Francis is one of us. He has turned Liberation Theology into a common property of the Church. And he has widened it. Whoever speaks today of the poor, also has to speak of the earth, because it, too, is now being plundered and abused. “To hear the cry of the poor,” that means to hear the cry of the animals, the forests, of the whole tortured creation. The whole earth cries. Also, says the pope – and he thus quotes one of the titles of one of my books – we have to hear simultaneously the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. And, for sure, both need to be liberated. I myself have dealt in the recent past with this widening of the Liberation Theology. And that [this environmental dimension] is also the fundamentally new aspect in Laudato Si.
Q: ….which is now in the “ecological encyclical” of the pope promulgated in the year 2015. How much Leonardo Boff is in Jorge Mario Bergoglio?
The encyclical belongs to the pope. But he has consulted with many experts.
Q: Has he read your books?
More than that. He asked me for material for the sake of Laudato Si. I have given him my counsel and sent to him some of what I have written. Which he has also used. Some people told me they were thinking while reading: “Wait, that is Boff!” By the way, Pope Francis directly told me: “Boff, don’t send the papers directly to me.”
Q: Why not?
He said: “Otherwise, the Sottosegretari (the employees of the Vatican administration, editors [of the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger]) will intercept them and I will not receive them. Rather, send the things right to the Argentine Ambassador [at the Holy See] with whom I have a good connection, then they will safely land into my hands.” For that, one needs to know that the current Ambassador at the Holy See is an old friend of the pope from his time in Buenos Aires. They have often drunk together mate [a special drink from Argentina, a sort of tea]. Then, one day before the publication of the encyclical, the pope had someone call me in order to thank me for my help.
Q: A personal meeting with the pope is still outstanding?
He [Pope Francis] has sought a reconciliation with the most important representatives of the Liberation Theology: with Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, and likewise with me. I have said to him with respect to Pope Benedict – respectively Joseph Ratzinger – “But that other is still alive, after all!” He did not accept this. “No,” he said, “Il Papa sono io” – “The pope, that is me!” We were welcomed to come. That is where you see his courage and his decisiveness.
Q: Why then has your visit not yet worked out?
I had received an invitation and I even had already landed in Rome. But just that day, immediately before the beginning of the [second] Synod on the Family in 2015, 13 cardinals – among them the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller – rehearsed a rebellion against the pope with a letter addressed to him which then, o surprise!, was published in a newspaper. The pope was angry and he told me: “Boff, I have no time. I have to establish calm before the synod begins. We will see each other another time.”
Q: But also with the hoped-for calm, that did not really work out, either, did it?
The pope feels the sharpness of the headwind from his own ranks, especially coming from the U.S. This Cardinal Burke, Leo Burke, who now – together with your retired Cardinal Meisner from Cologne – has already written another letter [to the pope]; he is is the Donald Trump of the Catholic Church (laughs). But, unlike Trump, Burke has now been neutralized within the Curia. Thanks be to God. These people really believe that it is up to them to correct the pope. As if they are above the pope. Something like this is unusual [sic!], if not unprecedented in the history of the Church. One may criticize the pope, one may have discussions with him. That is what I have often done. But, that cardinals publicly accuse the pope of the spreading of theological mistakes or even heresies, that is – I think – too much. That is an affront with which a pope cannot put up. The pope cannot be judged, that is the teaching of the Church.
Q: With all your enthusiasm for the pope – what is it with these Church reforms which so many Catholics have expected from Francis; but where, in fact, not so much has yet happened?
You know, as far as I understand, the center of his interest is not any more the Church – and certainly not the internal operation of the Church – but, rather, the survival of humanity, the future of the earth. […] I believe that there is a hierarchy of problems for him. When the earth perishes, all the other problems have also been taken care of. But, with regard to the questions within and about the Church: wait and see! Only recently, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close confidant of the pope, told me that soon there will be some great surprises.
Q: What do you expect?
Who knows? Perhaps a diaconate for women, after all. Or the possibility that married priests may be again engaged in pastoral care. That is an explicit request from the Brazilian bishops to the pope, especially from his friend, the retired Brazilian Curial Cardinal Claudio Hummes. I have heard that the pope wants to meet this request – for now and for a certain experimental period in Brazil. This country with its 140 million Catholics should at least have 100,000 priests. But, there are only 18,000. Institutionally, this is a catastrophe. No wonder that the faithful now go in droves to the Evangelicals and the Pentecostals, who fill this personal vacuum. If now all these thousands of already married priests might again exercise their office, this would be a first step toward an improvement of the situation – and, at the same time, it would be an impulse [and a sign] that the Catholic Church now loosens the fetters of obligatory celibacy. [my emphasis]
Q: If the pope were to make a decision in this sense and direction – would you yourself, as a former Franciscan priest, also again undertake priestly duties?
I personally do not need such a decision. It would not change anything for myself because I still do what I have always done: I baptize, I give Christian burials, and if I happen to come into a parish without a priest, then I also celebrate Mass together with the people.
Q: Is it very “German” to ask whether you are permitted to do that?
Up to now, no bishop whom I know has ever either criticized it or forbidden it. The bishops, on the contrary, are happy and tell me: “the people have a right [sic] to the Eucharist. Just keep doing it!” My theological teacher, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns – who just died a few days ago – was, for example, of a very great openness. He went so far that, when he saw married priests sitting in the pew during Mass, he had them come to the altar and he then concelebrated the Eucharist with them. He did it often and said: “You are, after all, still priests – and you will remain so!”