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Stephan U. Neumann

Liberated Church - Liberated Culture


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 50/2008, P. 559 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Today in Latin America ideas and influential figures of the theology of liberation turn up in social and cultural movements as well as in politics. Leonardo Boff who on 14 December celebrates his 70th birthday is an example of that change.


In the seventies and eighties there was hardly any theological seminar, hardly any church event at which the theology of liberation did not turn up, but since the mid-nineties the European theology was almost completely closed to those influences from Latin America and from Asia and Africa. How can we proclaim God as the good Creator, who looks after people like a good shepherd, when two thirds of mankind are excluded and hungry? In the wake of the Second Vatican Council Latin American bishops and theologians startled the then centre of the church by that question from the margins of the world. The appeals formulated by the Latin American Bishops' Conference in 1968 in the Colombian Medellin, to hear the "cry of the poor" and to take it seriously, to support the cause of a "preferential option for the poor" and to change the unjust structures in church and society - those appeals shook the self-understanding of a Christianity that lived "self-satisfied" in a bourgeois way.

Leonardo Boff, who as hardly any other theologian stands for the liberation theology and for various conflicts with the Church's teaching authority, came shortly before his seventieth birthday for a lecture tour to Switzerland. With it he here in the middle of Europe again reminded of a theology of liberation that is changing and growing by the new challenges. But why has the general attention waned? Boff gives two main reasons: The liberation theology today is less polemical and thus less interesting for the media, and it is "against the ruling system. For that reason it is to be made invisible". With it Boff above all refers to the global economic system and less to the current governments in Latin America. But also the disappointment about socialism after the "turning" of Eastern Europe might have been of crucial importance for the developing disinterest. But the liberation from material and spiritual poverty still remains one of the most pressing tasks in Latin America and elsewhere. The retired Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga confirmed in the magazine "Brazil News, "The option for the poor ... has been taken over even by the most conservative dioceses ... and has become an indispensable part of today's church."


Theologians with Politicians

Increasingly, however, the intellectual exchange takes place in "secular" committees and forums. During the World Social Forums, which since 2001 are organized as counter-events to the summits of the World Trade Organization, e.g. about 500 liberation theologians from around the world met for discussions. Boff says: Today a development is observable that goes beyond the mere inner-church area towards a "liberated culture" but which had its beginnings in theology and church, formed many social movements, and meanwhile influences also politics. The Brazilian President Luiz da Silva Inácio, the former leader of the metalworkers' union, for instance, felt today as politician just as a representative of liberation theology as his Ecuadorian colleague Rafael Correa. Boff is in contact with them as well as with the new President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo. The bishop, who is suspended from his spiritual pastorate, has been for more than thirty years an avowed liberation theologian. But to the controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Boff prefers to keep his distance.

But has today's proximity of liberation theologians to politics actually promoted the liberation of the poor? Or is confirmed what church critics have always claimed: The theology of liberation is attached to the Marxist ideology? Aside from Cuba and Venezuela the new "left" governments in Latin America admittedly regard themselves as socialist. Though there is missing an ideological hostile stance as it existed in the northern hemisphere during the Cold War. In most Latin American countries a rejection of Christianity or a systematically hostile church policy would be unthinkable. The ruling workers parties, which are rather oriented towards "social democracy", have no fear of contact with church representatives or theologians; that is also proved by the fact that several liberation theologians cooperate in the governments.


Brazil - Germany - Brazil

But there are also critical voices against the governments. The bishops in Paraguay, for instance, criticize that Lugo had not yet tackled the promised land reform, and the Dominican and Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto after only two years turned as adviser his back on the President, because the social inequality had further increased. Asked about that, Leonardo Boff admits in the interview that the current economic policy, because of international pressure to open up the markets, hardly differs from the former. But for the fifty million poorest people the government project "zero fome" meant that they no longer got only one but three meals a day. There will still be needed a lot of patience and work until de facto socially fairer global structures can be built under the conditions of a global market and of free competition.



The path from a European-moulded theology to a theology of Latin America and the subsequent change from a theology of liberation to a culture of liberation are reflected in the life of Leonardo Boff. On 14 December 1938 he was born as the third of ten children of Italian immigrants in Concordia in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina and already at the age of eleven years he came into the so-called Minor Seminary of the Franciscans. That way the son of a poorly paid teacher and a mother who remained illiterate all her life could attend grammar school. The novitiate, the study of philosophy and theology and the ordination in 1964 followed. The following five years he did his doctorate in Munich and also studied a lot of philosophy and psychology, especially CG Jung and coordinated later the edition of his works in Brazilian. He could soon publish his doctoral thesis "The Church as Sacrament within the Horizon of World Experience", "because Joseph Ratzinger - then a professor in Regensburg - had read the theses and was enthusiastic about them", as Boff says in retrospect in an interview in the book "Leonardo Boff - Lawyer of the Poor" (publishing house Wegwarte 2008). In 1970 Boff did his doctorate in systematic theology with Leo Scheffczyk and the publication was financially supported by today's Pope Benedict XVI. The path of a diligent and recognized theologians seemed to be laid out.

But the return to Brazil where since 1965 a military dictatorship ruled was like a "Damascus experience". "When I arrived my head and heart were filled with European culture and mentality. But already on the way to Petrópolis ... I was overcome by the whole misery that I had hardly noticed until now; I saw so much misery on the road: beggars and labourers, unemployed and children roaming about ... I experienced a real culture shock", said Boff in an interview.


Dispute among Brothers

When in 1981 Boff published the book "Church: Charisma and Power - Studies on a Controversial Ecclesiology", in which he reproached the church for abuse of power and criticized the official hierarchical structure as non-biblical, it came to the open conflict with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The professor of theology at the university in Petrópolis still accepted the one-year silence in 1985 imposed on him as penance. When in 1992 the penal silence was re-enacted and the permission to teach should be withdrawn, he resigned from priesthood, left the Franciscan Order and married in 1993 the theologian and advocate of human rights Marcia Monteiro da Silva Miranda.

Criticism of certain manifestations, even one-sidedness of liberation theology came not only from Europe. The journal "Orientierung" (October 2008) portrays an interesting current fratricidal conflict in the liberation theology. In autumn 2007 Leonardo's brother Clodovis Boff in an article "Theology of Liberation and the Return to its Foundations" complains: God was no longer the first principle but the poor. He finds fault with the loss of theological fertility, with the Church's secularization or "becoming a NGO" (non-governmental organization) with the result that faith is reduced to an ideology mobilizing society. The reason for it was that the liberation theology had not coped with the "shock" of the encounter with poverty and had - like the whole theology - become a victim of modernism and anthropocentrism (man is in the centre).


Leonardo and Clodovis

The author of the contribution, Ludger Weckel of the independent "Institute of Theology and Politics" in Munster, points to the fact that it is neither about a mere Latin American nor a wholly new controversy. The reason of the problem probably was the division of theology into a theology one and a theology two, as it turns up already in Clodovis Boff's theological dissertation of 1983. The "first" theology dealt with God, creation, Christ, grace, etc., whereas the "second" theology reflected on culture, history or even politics. Liberation theology as a special type of political theology belongs to that second type.

But that division into a "theology in itself" and a subordinate "contextual theology" fails to recognize that all theologians at all times pursue theology in a concrete historical situation and environment - in a context.

Also the revelation of God in Jesus Christ - the Incarnation - is contextual. In a specific time God becomes man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Leonardo Boff therefore vehemently contradicts his brother, "It is not true that liberation theology replaced God and Christ by the poor. It was Christ who wanted to identify with the poor. Those who encounter the poor undoubtedly meet Christ in the figure of the still crucified who asks to be taken off the cross and to be resurrected." (All contributions to that controversy can be found as a free online book, Ludger Weckel (editor): The Poor and their Place in Theology, see:

The option for the poor therefore is and remains not only an act of human charity; on the contrary, in it the love of God is sacramentally embodied. The "Adveniat" action expresses that by the motto for this Christmas like this, "God lives among them".

The preferential decision in favour of the poor is therefore the foundation of a loving church that connects God's dignity with the dignity of his creatures. The theology of liberation in this sense is by no means at its end, even if it today less sensationally determines the belief and the religious activities of Christians. Despite all the conflicts and some personal tragedy it is owed to theologians like Leonardo Boff that the faith of Christians got involved in an important examination of conscience and renewed itself.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for the Poor'