Interview with Clodovis Boff in Folha de São Paulo (2007)

In May 1986, the brothers Clodovis and Leonardo Boff published an open letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in it they analyzed the “Libertatis Conscientia” Instruction, where the future Pope Benedict XVI alleged deviations of the theology of liberation in Latin America. […]

In 2007, the younger brother of Leonardo Boff returned to the fight. But this time, the target was the theology of liberation — a movement where Clodovis was one of the principal theorists. He condemned the instrumentalization of the faith by politics and infuriated his old colleagues by suggesting that it would have been better to take Ratzinger’s criticism seriously.

In a telephone interview in Folha de São Paulo, Friar Clodovis affirmed that Benedict XVI “defended the essential project of the Theology of Liberation”, that is to say, “commitment with the poor as a consequence of the faith”, while at the same time “criticizing Marxist influence”.

Was Benedict XVI the great enemy of the theology of liberation?

This is a caricature. In the two documents he published, Ratzinger defended the essential project of the theology of liberation, the commitment with the poor as a consequence of the faith. At the same time, he criticized Marxist influence. In fact, that is one of the reasons why I have criticized it as well.

In the 1986 document, he underlined the primacy of spiritual, perennial, liberation, over social liberation, which is historical. The hegemonic currents of the theology of liberation preferred not to understand this distinction. This often made the theology degenerate into an ideology.

And the inquisitorial proceedings against certain theologians?

It expresses the essence of the Church, which does not enter into negotiations when it is addressing the heart of the faith. The Church is not like civil society, where people can say what they please. We are bound to the faith. If someone professes something different than this faith, they are excluding themselves from the Church. In practice, the Church does not expel anyone. It only declares that someone has excluded themselves from the body of the faithful because they profess a different faith.

Is there no room for Christian charity?

Love is lucid, correcting when considered necessary. The Spanish Jesuit, Jon Sobrino, says: “Theology is born from the poor”. Rome simply responds: “No, faith is born in Christ, and it can not be born in a different manner.” 

When were you converted into a critic of the theology of liberation?

From the beginning, I was always clear on the importance of placing Christ as the foundation of all theology. In the hegemonic discourse of the Theology of Liberation, I noted that this faith in Christ was placed on a secondary plane. But I reacted in a condescending manner. “With time this will correct itself”, I thought internally. I was mistaken.

“It is not faith that confers a supernatural or divine meaning to the struggle, on the contrary: that objective and intrinsic meaning gives faith its power.” Do you still believe in this?

I abjure this silly phrase. It was my “Rahnerian” phase. The German theologian Karl Rhaner was fascinated by the advances and values of the modern world, and at the time […] saw that modernity was increasingly secularized.

Rahner was unable to accept the condemnation of a world that loved and conceived the theory of the “anonymous Christian”: any person that struggled for justice now is a Christian, even without believing explicitly in Christ. The theologians of liberation tended to cultivate this same naive admiration for modernity.

“Anonymous Christianity” was a very good excuse for setting aside Christ, prayer, the sacraments, and mission, to dedicate oneself to the transformation of social structures. Eventually, I noticed that this was unsustainable, because it has no sufficient basis in the Gospel, in the great tradition and the magisterium of the Church.

When did you break with the thought of Rahner?

In the 70s, Cardinal Eugenio Sales withdrew my license to teach theology at the Universidad Católica de Río de Janeiro. The theologian who advised the cardinal, Karl Joseph Romer, wanted to talk with me: “Clodovis, I think that you’re mistaken, it is not enough to do good to be a Christian. The confession of faith is essential”. He was right.

I took on a more critical posture and I saw that, with Rahnerianism, the Church became absolutely irrelevant. And not only this: even Christ. God did not need to reveal himself in Jesus if he simply wanted to save man through ethics and social commitment.

Did Benedict XVI bury the advances of Vatican II?

Whoever affirms this believes that the Second Vatican Council created a new Church and broke with 2000 years of Christianity. That is an error. Pope John XXIII was very clear in showing that the goal was, [while] preserving the substance of the faith, to present it with garments more suitable for contemporary man. 

Benedict XVI guarantees fidelity to the Council. At the same time, he combats the attempts to secularize the Church, because a secularized Church is irrelevant for history and humanity. It turns itself into a party, an NGO.

But the rehabilitation of the mass in Latin? And the attempt to rehabilitate the traditionalists who rejected Vatican II? 

We cannot forget that the condition imposed on the traditionalists was exactly that they accept Vatican II. Catholicism is, by nature, inclusive. There is space for those that like Latin, for those who do not like it, for all political and social tendencies, provided that they do not go against the faith of the Church.

Whoever is opposed to this opening manifests an anti-Catholic spirit, Various groups considered progressive fall into sectarianism. These groups are no exception. Benedict XVI suffered harsh opposition during his entire pontificate. And the majority of the internal criticisms come from sectors of the Church who want to allow it to be colonized by the spirit of hegemonic modernity, which does not admit the centrality of God in life. 

How would Benedict XVI’s relationship with modernity be described?

It is possible to identify a certain pessimism in his reflections. But he is not the only one. There is a stream of literature on the crisis of modernity, which comes down to us through authors such as Nietzsche and Freud. What does he have that is different? He proposes a way out: an opening to the transcendent. 

Even so, there is pessimism. 

There is something that I would need to correct: Benedict XVI takes modern secularism far too seriously. It is a tendency of European Christians. They forget that secularism is a culture of minorities. They are powerful, hegemonic, but still minorities. 

Religion is the choice of 85% of humanity. Atheists are only 2.5%. Agnostics are not even 15%. Culturally important minorities, without doubt: they dominate the microphone and the pen, the media and the academic world. But they are running out of gas. There is a renewed interest in spirituality among the youth. 

What other criticisms would you make of Benedict XVI?

He prefers to resolve theological problems than to address the administrative issues of the Curia. This has created various limitations during his pontificate. Nor does he have the charisma of John Paul II. To a certain extent, it is expected in an intellectual like him.

Is it time for the Church to position itself closer to the reality of the faithful?

Benedict XVI did not solve an issue which had been dragging on since Vatican II: the necessity of channels where the hierarchy can listen to and dialogue with the base. 

Parish priests oftentimes feel pressured between the cold writing that comes from the hierarchy, and the daily suffering of the faithful, which can involve situations like abortion or divorce. Keep in mind that I do not suggest changes in the teaching of the Church. But I believe that it could be much easier for the people to live Catholic doctrine if it had processes to facilitate this dialogue. 

How do you see the future of the Church?

Modernity does not have anything more to say to postmodern man. What are the ideologies that move the world? Marxism? Socialism? Liberalism? Neoliberalism? All have lost credibility. Who has something to say? The religions, and especially, in the West, the Catholic Church.