An interview with Leonardo Boff – The Church is without a spiritual leader who elicits hope and purpose. We need a different type of pope; more a pastor than a professor, not a man of the Church-institution, but a representative of Jesus of Nazareth who said: “and he that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”, (Gospel of John, 6,37), be he a homosexual, a prostitute, or a transsexual.
How did you receive the news of the renunciation of Benedict XVI?
At first, I felt a deep sadness for him because from what I knew, especially of his shyness, I could imagine the effort he had to have made to greet the people, to embrace them, kiss the children. I was convinced that one day he would take advantage of a sensible reason, such as the physical limitations of his health and his declining mental vigor, to resign. Even though he appeared to be an authoritarian pope, he was not attached to the position of pope.
I felt relieved because the Church is without a spiritual leader who elicits hope and purpose. We need a different type of pope; more a pastor than a professor, not a man of the Church-institution, but a representative of Jesus of Nazareth who said: “and he that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”, (Gospel of John, 6,37), be he a homosexual, a prostitute, or a transsexual.
What is the personality of Benedict XVI like, since you had a certain friendship with him?
I met Benedict XVI in my doctoral years in Germany, between 1965-1970. I attended many of his conferences, but was never a student of his. He read my doctoral thesis: “The Place of the Church in the Secularized World” and liked it very much, to the point of looking for an editor to publish it, a 500 page work.
After that, we worked on the international magazine, Concilium, whose directors met every year, somewhere in Europe, during the week of Pentecost. I edited the Portuguese edition. This was between 1975-1980. While the others took a nap, he and I would take a walk and talk about topics of theology, faith in Latin America, especially about Saint Bonaventure and Saint Augustine, of whom he is a specialist and to whom even now I often turn.
Then, in 1984, we found ourselves in a moment of conflict: he as my judge in the process the former Holy Office undertook against my book, Church: Charisma and Power, (Iglesia: carisma y poder, Vozes 1981; Sal Terrae 1982). Then I had to sit in the chair where, among others, Galileo and Giordano Bruno had sat.
He subjected me to a time of “obliging silence”, I had to leave teaching and was prohibited from publishing anything. After that we never saw each other again. As a person he is refined, timid and extremely intelligent.
As a Cardinal he was your Inquisitor, after having been your friend: how did you see that situation?
When he was named President of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Inquisition) I was extremely happy. I thought: we will finally have a theologian as the head of an institution with the worst imaginable reputation. Fifteen days later, he thanked me, and said: “I believe you have several issues pending here in the Congregation, that we will have to solve.”
And almost every time I published a book, requests for clarification would come from Rome, that I did not answer promptly. But nothing ever comes from Rome that has not previously been sent to Rome. Here in Brazil there were conservative bishops who persecuted theologians of liberation and sent complaints of their theological ignorance to Rome, under the pretext that my theology could harm the faithful.
Then I realized that he had already been contaminated by the Roman virus that causes all those working in the Vatican to quickly find a thousand reasons to be moderate or even conservative. And then, more than surprised, I was truly disappointed.
How did you receive the punishment of “obliging silence”?
After the examination and the reading of my written defense, that is now an appendix to the new edition of Church: Charisma and Power, (Record 2008), there were 13 Cardinals who opined and decided. Ratzinger is only one of them. Then they submitted their decision to the pope.
I believe his was a dissenting vote from the majority, because he knew other books of mine on theology, translated into German, and had told me that he liked them. Once, in front of the pope in an audience in Rome, he even referred to them favorably.
I received the “obliging silence” as any Christian linked to the Church would: I accepted it with calm. I remember saying: “It is better to walk with the Church than alone with my theology”. It was relatively easy for me to accept the imposition, because the Presidency of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, (CNBB, in Portuguese) had always supported me, and two of its Cardinals, don Aloysio Lorscheider and don Paulo Evaristo Arns, accompanied me to Rome and participated, in a second part, in the dialogue between Cardinal Ratzinger and me.
There we were three against one. Sometimes we put Cardinal Ratzinger on the spot because the Brazilian Cardinals assured him that the criticisms against the theology of liberation Ratzinger had made in a recently published document were just an echo of its detractors and not an objective analysis.
They asked for a new, positive, document. He accepted the idea and actually did it two years later. They also asked, to me and to my brother Clodovis who was in Rome, that we write a scheme and give it in the Sacred Congregation. In one day and one night, we wrote it and turned it in.
You left the Church in 1992. Do you have any bitterness over the whole Vatican affair?
I never left the Church. I left a function within the Church, the priesthood. I continued as a theologian and professor of theology in several chairs, here in Brazil and abroad. Whoever understands the logic of a closed and authoritarian system, not very open to the world, that does not cultivate dialogue and exchange (living systems are alive to the degree that they open up and inter-exchange), knows that someone like me, who does not plainly get in line with that system, will be watched over controlled and eventually punished.
It is similar to the security systems that we have known in Latin America under the military regimes of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Within this logic, the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (former Holy Office, former Inquisition), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger condemned, silenced, removed from their teaching chairs or transferred out more than one hundred theologians.
There were two of us from Brazil: theologian Ivone Gebara and myself. Because I understand and lament the above mentioned logic, I know they are condemned to do what they do with complete good will. But, as Blaise Pascal said: “Evil is never so perfectly done as when it is done with good will”.
Of course this good will is not good, because it creates victims. I have no rancor or resentment because I had compassion and mercy for all those who moved within this logic, that, as I see it, is many light years away from the witness of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, it is something of the last century, already past. And I will not go back to it.
How do you evaluate the pontificate of Benedict XVI? Has he known how to handle the internal and external crises of the Church?
Benedict XVI was an eminent theologian, but a frustrated pope. He did not have the charisma to direct and animate the community, as John Paul II had. Unfortunately, he will be stigmatized in a reductionist manner, as the papacy when pedophiles increased, homosexuals were not recognized, and women were humiliated, as in the United States, where the right of citizenship was denied to a theologian for reasons of gender.
And he will also go down in history as the pope who strongly criticized the theology of liberation, interpreted it in the light of its detractors, and not through the pastoral and liberating witness of bishops, priests, men and women religious and lay people who made a serious option for the poor against poverty and in favor of life and liberty.
For this just and noble reason they were misinterpreted by their brethren in the faith and many of them were detained, tortured and murdered by organs of national security of the military state. Among them we find bishops such as Bishop Enrique Angelelli from Argentina and Archbishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador.
Archbishop Dom Helder Camara was the martyr they did not kill. But the Church is much larger than her popes, and she will continue, between shadow and light, offering a service to humanity, in order to keep alive the memory of Jesus and to offer a possible source of meaning to life beyond this life.
Now we know from the Vatileaks that the Roman curia are deeply involved in a ferocious fight for power, especially between the wing of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the present Secretary of State, and the former Secretary, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, already emeritus.
Both have their allies. Bertone, taking advantage of the limitations of the pope, has practically built a parallel government. The scandals revealed by the leaked secret documents from the desk of the Pope and the Vatican Bank, used by Italian millionaires, some from the mafia, to launder money and send it abroad, very much affected the Pope.
And more and more he became isolated. His resignation is due to the limits of age and illness, but made even graver by these internal crises that weakened him and that he did not know how to, or could not, stop in time.
Pope John XXIII said that the Church cannot be a museum, but must be a house with open doors and windows. Do you believe Benedict XVI attempted to transform the Church back into something like a museum?
Benedict XVI is nostalgic for the medieval synthesis. He reintroduced the mass in Latin, chose vestments of renaissance popes and of other times in the past, kept palatial habits and ceremonials, to those who sought communion he would first offer the papal ring to be kissed, and only after that would he offer the sacrament, something that was no longer done.
His vision was restorative and he is nostalgic for a synthesis between culture and faith that visibly exists in his native Bavaria, something he explicitly noted. In the University where he studied, where I also studied, in Munich, when he saw a poster announcing me as a guest lecturer to deliver a conference on the new frontiers of the theology of liberation, he asked the dean to postpone it sine die.
His theological idols are Saint Augustine and Saint Bonaventure, who always had a great distrust of everything coming from the world, contaminated by sin and in need of rescue by the Church. It is one of the facts that explain his opposition to modernity, which he sees through the lens of secularism and relativism, and as being beyond the realm of the Christian influence that helped to form Europe.
In your opinion, will the Church change her doctrine on the use of condoms and sexual morals in general?
The Church must maintain her convictions, those she believes cannot be abandoned, such as opposition to abortion and the manipulation of life. But she must renounce the status of exclusivity, as if she were the only carrier of truth. She must understand herself within the democratic space, where her voice is heard alongside other voices. And she must respect those voices and even be ready to learn from them.
And when her point of view is defeated, she should offer her experience and tradition to improve what can be improved and to make easier the weight of existence. In fact, she has to be more human, more humble and to have more faith, in the sense of not having fear.
The opposite of faith is not atheism, but fear. Fear paralyzes and isolates the people from each other. The Church must walk together with humanity, because humanity is the true People of God. She reflects this more consciously, but she does not exclusively own this reality.
What should the future Pope do to avoid the emigration of many of the faithful to other Churches, especially to the Pentecostals?
Benedict slowed down the renewal of the Church that was encouraged by Vatican Council II. He did not accept divisions in the Church, so he preferred a lineal point of view, strengthening tradition. It so happens that the tradition of the XVIII and XIX centuries opposed all the modern achievements of democracy, such as religious liberty and other rights.
Benedict has tried to reduce the Church to a fortress to defend herself from modernity, and he saw Vatican II as a Trojan Horse through which it could enter. He did not deny Vatican II, but he interpreted it in the light of Vatican Council I, that is centered on the figure of the Pope with monarchical power, absolute and infallible.
This produced a great centralization in Rome, under the direction of the Pope, who, poor pope!, has to guide a Catholic population the size of China. This has brought a great conflict to the Church and even to whole episcopacies, such as the German and the French.
It has contaminated with suspicion the atmosphere of the internal Church, resulting in the creation of groups, the emigration of many Catholics of the community and accusations of relativism and of parallel teaching. In other words, in the Church there no longer lived a frank and open fraternity, a spiritual home common to all.
The profile of the new Pope, in my opinion, should not be that of a man of power nor of a man of the institution. Where there is power love does not exist and mercy disappears. The new Pope should be a pastor, closer to the faithful and to all human beings, independently of their moral, political and ethnic situations.
He should have as a motto the words of Jesus mentioned above: “and he who cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”, because Jesus of Nazareth welcomed everyone, from a prostitute such as Magdalen to a theologian such as Nicodemus.
He should not be a man of the West that is seen now as an accident of history, but a man of the vast globalized world who feels a passion for the poor and for the suffering cry of the Earth, devastated by consumerist greed.
He should not be a man of certitudes but someone who encourages all to find better paths. He would logically be guided by the Gospels but without a proselytizing spirit, with the consciousness that the Spirit always arrives before the missionary and that the Word illuminates all men and women who come to this world, as Gospel writer Saint John says.
He should be a profoundly spiritual man open to all religious paths, that together they keep alive the sacred flame that is in every person: the mysterious presence of God. And, finally, he should be a man of profound goodness, in the style of Pope John XXIII, with tenderness for the humble and a prophetic firmness to denounce those who promote exploitation and who make of violence and war instruments to dominate others and the world.
May a man of this type prevail in the negotiations of the cardinals in the conclave and over the tensions of the tendencies. How the Holy Spirit works there is a mystery. He has no other voice, or other head, than those of the Cardinals. May the Spirit not fail them.