Leonardo Boff Interview: “Pope Francis is One of Us”

An interview of Leonardo Boff appeared on Christmas Day in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (roughly, “Cologne City Notifier”), and it has some explosive things in it.

Boff, the 78-year-old son of Italian immigrants to Brazil, entered the Franciscan order and studied five years in Germany. He became a strong voice for liberation theology and a vocal critic of the official church, for which he was twice forbidden to publish by the Vatican. In 1992 he left the Franciscan order and the priesthood.

Referring to the pope’s relationship to liberation theology, Boff states that “Francis is one of us.” He believes that Francis has not only made liberation theology the common inheritance of the church, he has also developed and expanded it to include the ecological dimension. As Boff characterizes it, “Whoever speaks of the poor must today also speak of the earth… to hear the cry of the poor means to hear the cry of the animals, the forestlands, all of tortured creation.”

Boff reveals that Pope Francis asked him for material for his encyclical “Laudato si’.” Boff sent Francis his advice and some of his writings. The pope told Boff not to send the materials directly to him, however, because Vatican underlings would grab it and it wouldn’t get to him. He advised Boff to send the materials to the Argentinian ambassador, with whom Francis has a good relationship going back to his time in Argentina. “Then it will certainly land in my hands,” the pope told him. A day after the publication of the encyclical, the pope called Boff to thank him for his help.

Boff notes that the pope has worked for reconciliation with the most important representatives of liberation theology – Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, and him. Boff told the pope of the difficulty of acting while Pope Benedict is alive – “but the other one is still living!” The pope would have none of it: “Il papa sono io” (“I’m the pope”). Boff speaks of Francis’s “courage and decisiveness.”

Pope Francis invited Boff to Rome for a visit, and Boff had even landed in Rome for the visit. But then – this was immediately before the beginning of the 2015 family synod – 13 cardinals sent a letter to Francis as a sort of revolt against his leadership of the synod. The pope said to him, “Boff, I don’t have time. I must calm the waters before the synod. We will come together another time.”

Boff jokes that Cardinal Burke is “the Donald Trump of the Catholic Church.” Except that Burke is neutralized within the Roman curia – “Thanks be to God,” Boff exclaims. Boff says that Burke and like-minded cardinals think they must correct the pope, as if they stood over him. To which Boff says,

“One can criticize the pope, discuss with him. I have done that often enough. But that cardinals publicly accuse the pope of dissemination theological errors, or even heresy, this is – in my opinion – too much. This is an affront which the pope cannot tolerate.”

Asked about the lack of concrete church reforms under Pope Francis, Boff maintains that Pope Francis is more interested in the survival of humanity and the future of the earth than he is in the church and its inner workings. He wants above all that Christianity make a contribution to these overarching problems. But yet, Boff believes deep church reforms could be coming – “Just you wait!” He notes that Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is a close confidant of the pope, recently said that big surprises are coming soon. Boff wonders if it might be female deacons, or perhaps the readmission to ministry of married priests – “Who knows?” Boff has heard that the pope wishes to respond positively to a request of the Brazilian bishops in this regard, at first as an experiment in Brazil.

Boff says that a decision to readmit former priests would not affect him personally, for he already ministers as a priest. He baptizes, he buries, and when he comes to a community lacking a priest, he celebrates Mass with them. So far, no bishop has objected or forbidden this of him. Bishops in fact rejoice and say to him, “The people have a right to the Eucharist. Continue on without any worries.”

Boff reveals that his theology teacher Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who died recently, was very open about this. When the cardinal saw married priests in the pews during Mass, he called them up to the altar and celebrated the Eucharist with them. He often did this, and said, “They are indeed priests forever, and they remain priests!”

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20 comments

  1. Claiming a pope as embracing one’s one views remains a very popular pastime. Prudent people should not cultivate expectations.

  2. Agreed with KLS, and more: this is a time to further the Gospel mission unimpaired by the shadows of institutionalism. It’s a good time to take advantage of that and minimize some of the gossip.

  3. One of the most interesting asides of this conversation is the acknowledgement of the fact that underlings can and do censor what the Pope receives in the mail based on their views and assumptions of what he should or should not be reading. “Getting to the Pope” even when he has directly requested the communication, is subject to barriers that are ideological in nature. That’s the implication. And I believe it is true. I pray that the reforms he is undertaking will extend to the staff positions in his own mail room!

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      I worked as an “underling” in the British Civil Service for 20 years before becoming a priest. If my experience is anything to go by, all the Pope (or a Government Minister) has to do to ensure that a particular letter gets to him is to make that clear to his officials/underlings, or to instruct the sender to address it to his private secretary. I suspect that Fr Boff’s account – if it is true – has less to do with the realities of how correspondence is handled in the Vatican than with his wider ideological narrative.

      1. @Fr Richard Duncan CO:
        Thanks for sharing your experience, Richard. I think there is more to it than that, however. The Vatican environment, for all its similarities to other bureaucracies, is still caught somewhere between the modern world and the world of court intrigues — witness the Vatileaks scandal. I think it unlikely that Boff made up the story.

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        Fr Boff may not have made up the story, but it is quite possible that he took seriously something that the Pope only intended to be taken in jest. I just happen to think that Pope Francis is a more complicated character that either his supporters or detractors make him out to be and that, therefore, attempts to claim him as “one of us” are likely to be somewhat wide of the mark.

        You may be right about the Vatican, but “court intrigues” are as much a part of the functioning of a modern bureaucracy as a mediaeval court. Its just that the characters wear suits and ties instead of collars, ruffs and swords. The current British Government is notable for its (relative) cohesion, but that is only because the Prime Minister hasn’t been in power very long. I would expect President Trump’s administration to manifest such intrigues very quickly given his instability and lack of experience in government.

  4. In the years that I have been ‘involved in’ liberation theology, since the early 1970s, Boff has always been one of the Prophets in my eyes. The essence of Lib Theol is that Roman Theology enslaves, whereas Lib Theol preaches a freedom, God who intervenes (constant present tense) in human history to break down structures of injustice. Moreover, a theology which cannot be effective in the lives of people is no theology. From the get-go, Francis has espoused the cause of Oscar Romero, vigorously opposed by many in the Vatican who still regard Lib Theology as Marxist. An interesting sidebar is that Marx’s dialectic is in the same vein as Thomas Aquinas’ via media. The voice of Lib Theol speaks life and promise and vibrancy and hope for the marginalized, while Roman Theology promulagtes theses and moral judgements. I know which side of the Atlantic I stand! I have applied Lib Theol to maintain that Liturgy must likewise be effective in the lives of people, or it is merely formalism and incapable of nurturing life. Somebody stop me before I get started……

  5. Conversion is an ongoing process. The Holy Father continues to evangelize all – those very near and those far. His methods and techniques of evangelizing are appropriate for our times. God bless the Pontiff with good health and stamina.

  6. So many priests have had their active, recognized ministry curtailed through their marriage conflicting with a rigid Church structure that has denied the reality of their sincerity in wishing to remain to offer and share the Eucharist with the people.
    How good to read in the last two paragraphs of this interview that others put the needs of the people first.
    “Boff says that a decision to readmit former priests would not affect him personally, for he already ministers as a priest. He baptizes, he buries, and when he comes to a community lacking a priest, he celebrates Mass with them. So far, no bishop has objected or forbidden this of him. Bishops in fact rejoice and say to him, “The people have a right to the Eucharist. Continue on without any worries.”
    Boff reveals that his theology teacher Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who died recently, was very open about this. When the cardinal saw married priests in the pews during Mass, he called them up to the altar and celebrated the Eucharist with them. He often did this, and said, “They are indeed priests forever, and they remain priests!”
    We would do well to ensure that this interview is widely read, especially by those bishops who resist change without appreciating the needs of the people, refusing even to discuss the circumstances that we now face. What a pity, how sad that we find ourselves in this position.

  7. Regarding: “Asked about the lack of concrete church reforms under Pope Francis, Boff maintains that Pope Francis is more interested in the survival of humanity and the future of the earth than he is in the church and its inner workings. ”
    – Perhaps the greatest reform is already happening — people, cleric and laic, are talking about substantive issues in the church, and about the church in the secular space — rather than simply quoting their favourite archbishop of Rome.
    – Another reform is that instead of worrying about causing scandal or the appearance of scandal, we are looking to how to evangelize in ways that speak to were the good news needs saying – the secular world.

  8. Is laicization reversible if it was voluntarily requested, and not the result of a crime? If so, could Pope Francis allow for the readmission of married but not active priests purely on a judicial level?

    I ask this because I agree with Leonardo Boff’s sentiment that even laicization does not remove the desire to minister. Certainly, there are many married but not active priests who could be welcomed back to ministry (and for many, with open arms). I would guess that the ruling to reverse the status of married not-active priests would arrive with a decision to ordain married men to the secular presbyterate.

    I suspect, but without real basis, that Pope Francis has not permitted even the ordination of married men to the priesthood because he fears the schism of traditionalists. Ut unum sint. It is very sad that the issue of marriage and ordination is so heart-wrenching for the Church, clergy and laity both.

  9. I would be careful when using the British Government as an example of relative cohesion @Fr Richard Duncan #13.
    It was an attempt to keep the Tory party happy that led to the recent referendum and the coming months of confusion.

    Leonardo Boff has been around for a long time, consistent in his argument and although treated badly by Rome, remains faithful. Courage comes in many forms, his life being one of them.

    Maybe it’s time to listen.

    1. @Chris McDonnell:
      You may be right, but the current Tory government is a model of unity when compared with the 1997-2010 Labour government, which was dominated, and ultimately destroyed, by the Blair/Brown split. The backstabbing and “court intrigues” that went on then were something to behold.

    2. @Chris McDonnell:

      In this interview at least, Leonardo Boff comes off as extremely vain, entitled and uncharitably gossipy. And I agree with this observation: http://ilsismografo.blogspot.com/2016/12/brasile-mistero-boff.html

      This is not the first time he tried to take credit for Laudato Si, or use the Pope to boost his own ideas. That is not faithfulness and it certainly is not courage. That’s just his ego talking.

      He is, of course, hardly alone in doing that. A real shame, if you ask me.

  10. Ambitious men stop at little to reach their ends, inside the church or outside. They love to wield their little bit of influence.
    That is why the Pope is not in favour of them among the clergy.

  11. Tony Barr :The essence of Lib Theol is that Roman Theology enslaves, whereas Lib Theol preaches a freedom, God who intervenes (constant present tense) in human history to break down structures of injustice.

    I suspect this captures pretty well the views of Boff, but I’m dubious that someone like Gustavo Gutiérrez would concur with this.

    Boff’s theology has always reminded me of someone trying to play piano with mittens on.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Yes. Wonderful analogy, Deacon Fritz.

      When you have mittens on, the most important thing is to first realize that you are wearing mittens. Next, you have to play really really sparsely.

      You’ve reminded me of parody line to the jazz standard “But Not For Me”…
      (They’re writing songs of love, but not for me…. )

      “….. I’m wearing boxing gloves, but have to pee…”

  12. @ Fritz Bauerschmidt:

    … someone trying to play piano with mittens on.

    @ Agman Austerhauser:

    “….. I’m wearing boxing gloves, but have to pee…”

    I don’t get it. What does either of these mean? That “someone/I” is an incorrigible idiot?

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