Clodovis Boff – Where Is the Theology of Liberation Going? (1985) (Interview)

Clodovis Boff

[Found in The liberation theology debate by Rosino Gibellini (translated from the Italian by John Bowden) and published by Orbis Books. Interview found in the Appendix section, pages 88-95. Where is the theology of liberation going? A conversation with Clodovis Boff.]

[Original Source: Edited by Rosino Gibellini, cf. Settimana 9, 1985, 6f.]

Clodovis Boff, born in 1944, a Brazilian theologian, brother of the better known Leonardo Boff, is also a liberation theologian. He has written an important work, Theology and Praxis (1978, Orbis Books 1987), on the theology of liberation: it was his doctoral thesis presented to and defended at the University of Louvain. It is an enormous study which analyses the epistemological basis of the theology of liberation in the context of a theology of politics: it is not a reconstruction of the lines of liberation theology but only an attempt to make its language more rigorous, constructing an epistemological theory of the theology of liberation. So at an epistemological level his treatment moves on the level of meta-theory. Along with Jon Sobrino’s Christology at the Crossroads, Clodovis Boff’s work is one of the most relevant contributions from those who are now known as the second generation of Latin American liberation theologians.

In your book Theology and Praxis you bring out well the fact that the theology of liberation is different from European and North Atlantic theology, including political theology, because it uses what you call socio-analytical mediation, taking up the term introduced by Hugo Assmann. In other words, unlike European theology, which gives priority to philosophical mediation, liberation theology makes use of the social sciences,being a theology focused on praxis. The theology of liberation arises out of the linkage of socio-analytical mediation with hermeneutical mediation. And by adopting socio-analytical mediation the theology of liberation comes up against Marxism. Would you like to say a little more about this very controversial point?

This is a somewhat theoretical, indeed epistemological problem. In origin it is a real problem: the understanding that the Christian communities want to have of their situation of poverty, suffering and oppression. And when they try to understand their situation in its social context, they use categories which are provided by culture generally. To begin with, these categories are very simple: poverty, underdevelopment, oppression. Here we are not yet at a cultural level: we have not yet met with the social sciences, but only with the reality of oppression felt through the direct experience of the exploitation of the worker or the marginalization of the barrio. But then there is a second stage: when this experience and this awareness grow, the communities ask for greater clarification, for an overall vision: they want to see clearly in their situation. And it is at this point that the social sciences come in: they provide words with which they seek to interpret a reality and an experience which is presented as a first act. It is true that the social sciences are very much in their infancy, but they have succeeded in explaining something of social reality.

If theology comes up against the social sciences,it does not do so because the theologians have now discovered the social sciences, or because the theologians have met the sociologists. This is no arbitrary choice. The theology of liberation comes up against the social sciences because the faithful face a specific situation of oppression and marginalization. Liberation theology is an expression of this encounter between faith and poverty. Faith + poverty = liberating faith; theology + sociology = theology of liberation. The organic, indeed umbilical relationship between liberation theology and the communities of liberation should never be forgotten, because it should never be forgotten that the theology of liberation is the theory of a praxis of faith and a community of faith. If the theology of liberation detaches itself from this context, it makes itself absolutely incomprehensible. So the relationship between theology and the social sciences a relationship demanded by faith and Christian love which seek to be effective.

At this interpretative level Marxism is also present; it displays its credentials as a theory developed from the perspective of the oppressed, and therefore as an explicative theory of their situation. Not many sociological theories have been developed in this perspective. In practice we have on the one hand functionalist theory with Weber, Durkheim, Talcott Parsons; and on the other, Marxist theory. But it needs to be understood that the basic communities see Marxism on the basis of praxis, and for this reason they embark on an instrumental and free relationship with Marxism; they adopt it freely as an instrument of clarification, and for this reason they have a critical and corrective relationship with it. The church communities sense where Marxism does not give an explanation, where it is limited, and they go beyond it, because they have an experiential wisdom, a humanistic wisdom, and above all very great faith which carries them forward. Marx is like a travelling companion who can help to interpret their situation of oppression, but no more than that. This is the point of encounter with Marxism. It is not a cultural debate, from study seminars, which is what happened in Europe during the 1960s. Our problem is the poor and their liberation, and Marxism, too, can help here with its analyses.

On the other hand, if we do not want to take Marxist analysis into account, then there is the problem that capitalism, which is our problem with all its dehumanizing effects, would not be criticized and censured. So to prevent Christian communities and theologians from having such recourse to Marxism is to remain within the capitalist system.

So the novelty of the theology of liberation from an epistemological perspective consists in the adoption of socio-analytical mediation. And this adoption brings with it a reconstruction of hermeneutical mediation, the mediation which is already operative in traditional theological discourse. Would you like to go into more detail about the content of socio-analytical mediation? What is the programme for the communities of liberation? Can it be said that such a historical programme goes ‘beyond capitalism and Marxism’?

In the theology that they are developing the basic Christian communities are not seeking to anticipate the future dogmatically; in other words, they are not putting forward very detailed social programmes, because if the social programme has not yet matured it is likely to be illusory and to end up by getting in the way. What can be seen in the experience of the Latin American church and theological reflection is more than a well-defined historical programme; it is a utopia inspired by faith. Such a utopia has two sides: one negative and the other positive.

The negative side is the negation of society as it is, i.e. the negation of an unjust, exploited and inhumane society, But the majority already give a name to such a society and talk of a capitalist society. It can be said that the documents of the Latin American churches are anti-capitalist.

The other side is the positive, or propositive side: the perspective is that of an alternative and new society more in keeping with the ideals of the kingdom. Within this new society a new historical programme can come into being which can also be seen as a third way in comparison with capitalism and Marxism: an enriched historical alternative of the spiritual values of the gospel. This is not a third way in the sense of a new Christianity, but an adoption of the values of the gospel in their rationale of equality, love of the least, brotherhood, solidarity, power as service, a shared economy. It can be said that the gospel is confronted with an unprecedented historical challenge: that of inspiring the development of a more humane historical programme, beyond capitalism and Marxism.

This aspiration has been felt in the course of history: it is now an aspiration at a planetary level which is also making itself felt at the level of international organizations and institutions. And the church, Christians, has a decisive contribution to make to the purification and the historical realization of this approach. We are certainly not alone; we are working with other historical, political and social forces, inspired by other ideologies, but we must make our own contribution towards overcoming a crisis which is not just a crisis in social terms but a crisis of civilization, which involves both the capitalist and the Communist systems.

On 3 September 1985 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith published the Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation; some days later, on 7 September, your brother Leonardo Boff entered the Palace of the Holy Office to explain the ecclesiological theses put forward in his book Church: Charism and Power. Could you explain the connection between these two events?

The theme of Leonardo’s book, which has been the object of examination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, is an ecclesiological one. The controversial book puts in question the global structure of the church, and therefore also puts in question the hierarchy in that they have the task of co-ordination and communion. Now this ecclesiological theme must be seen as the internal aspect of the theology of liberation. A church of liberation must also be liberated within: a church which seeks to fight for a juster society, for a society in which there is a sharing in the economy, in culture and in power, must have within it a structure of communion and participation in which the voice of the least is heard and where responsibility is shared; this is a structural homology.

The ‘conversation’ between Cardinal Ratzinger and Leonardo Boff turned on ecclesiological, i.e. internal, questions raised by the theology of liberation. It is impossible to conceive of a church of liberation seeking to be structurally adequate to its liberating mission and its new historical tasks which is authoritarian and hierarchical in its internal structure. That means that the theology of liberation which is the vehicle of a programme of social renewal also has a programme for renewing the church: it is trying to elaborate a new model of being the church which is adequate to historical challenges and the demands of the gospel.

The Vatican Instruction has provoked a flood of comments, but so far the reaction of liberation theologians has been somewhat reserved and cautious, not least because the episode is not yet closed. What is your evaluation as a representative of the theology of liberation?

The first attitude of theologians of liberation is that of listening: an authoritative body is speaking to the theology of liberation which defines itself in terms of its roots in its church, which along with its communities, its bishops and its theologians, puts itself in an attitude of communion, and therefore of listening, of respect, of self-criticism. And the first message that we receive in this attitude of listening is this: the theology of liberation is a legitimate project and a legitimate task.

Another point that the Roman document forcibly stresses is that Marxism is dangerous to Christian faith because of its totalizing and totalitarian thrust: Marxism is all-devouring, it tends to exhaust rational explanation. But we have already indicated how the problem of the adoption of socio-analytical mediation is raised within the discussion of the theology of liberation.

Having said this, I should add that even confronted with an authoritative Vatican document, we must never cease to be theologians. The theologian is never simply the exegete of the magisterium: magisterium and theology—as the Pope also recalled in his speech on his visit to Germany are two autonomous and complementary functions in the service of the people of God. The theology of liberation is not simply the speculative reflection of the magisterium. Now, as theologians we also have something to say about the document. It seems to us that the document should have been produced on a less narrow, a broader basis of consultation and elaboration. We feel left out: it is a document composed from outside; you might say that it has the fault of extrinsicism , in that it is written outside the places where theology is developed. And this extrinsicism can be felt not only in individual phrases but in its general spirit, which is abstract, doctrinaire and deductive; it is a way of doing theology which is very different from ours; we begin from the reality which is experienced in our communities. For example, for us poverty also means sin in that it is in contradiction to God’s plan; it is not just a sociological datum.

A second theological observation can be associated with the first: in the perspective of the Vatican document liberation is only a theme to reflect on. However, this does not get to the real heart of liberation theology, which is an ecclesial process, that of a church which is struggling in the world and seeking to be its leaven. So the document detaches liberation from the church of liberation, from the experience of a liberating faith. For the document the crucial point is Marxism; for the theory of liberation the crucial point is poverty and oppression. The problem of the adoption of even Marxist categories in the analysis of reality must be put within the wider problem of poverty and oppression.

In the history of European theology we are familiar with the phrase post Bultmann locutum to indicate the new course taken by theology in German after the hegemony exercised by the theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Could you take up the phrase and in our case speak of a post Ratzinger locutum: where is the theology of liberation going after this intervention by Cardinal Ratzinger? How do you see the future?

It is difficult to make forecasts. I would say that while on the one hand this Instruction criticizes possible deviations, on the other it encourages the church, and not just the church of Latin America, but the whole church, to fight for the cause of the poor and of justice. I do not think that it disparages the work that is being done in the church basic communities, where the theology of liberation is coming into being; it does not attack the matrix of the theology of liberation. While there are these groups of Christians, priests, religious, bishops and theologians who are struggling with the poor for their liberation there will always be the possibility of reflecting on this process. And such reflection is called liberation theology. The document criticizes some expressions, some forms, but not the sources or the process of liberation as it is experienced in our communities; the document has also already served to universalize this historical challenge, the challenge of the poor. From this perspective, even though that was not its intention, it could be presented, beyond the limitations that I have recalled, as a contribution which relates to the theology of liberation and its cause. Now the problem is posed on a universal level: post Ratzinger locutum — to take up the expression the theologians of the First World, too, cannot ignore it with ostrich-like politics or play games by criticizing details.