[News] Brazilian faces a Vatican inquiry over support for social activism

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Fri Apr 22 08:45:56 EDT 2005


Franciscan friar the Rev. Leonardo Boff, was interrogated
in Rome on September 7th 1984 by the office of the
office of the Inquisition, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger...

The New York Times - August 20, 1984

Brazilian faces a Vatican inquiry over support for social activism

By Alan Riding
Special to the New York Times

Petropolis, Brazil, Aug. 17  A leading Brazilian theologian has been
summoned to a formal interrogation at the Vatican to answer charges that he
committed serious doctrinal errors while defending the social activism of
important sectors of Latin America's Roman Catholic Church.

The theologian, Leonardo Boff, a 44- year-old Franciscan friar, is one of
the leading exponents of a radical interpretation of Christian teachings
known as the "theology of liberation," which has led thousands of priests
and nuns in the region to become deeply involved with the problems of the
poor.

The principal complaint of conservative prelates is that the theology of
liberation has used Marxist parameters to analyze current social conditions
and, in the process, has sought to legitimize a "class struggle" as the
only way of bringing about economic and political change.

Charges Stem From Book

Friar Boff is to be interrogated in Rome on Sept. 7 by a commission headed
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith. The unspecified charges relate to the contents of a book he
has written, "Church: Charisma and Power." But church sources here said
they believed the entire theology of liberation would in effect go on trial.

"I don't think I'm being called simply for this book," Friar Boff said in
a conversation at a Franciscan seminary here. "The book reflects the
direction being taken by the church, particularly in Brazil. Rome will judge
more globally the meaning of this direction. Rome is worried that it means
change, that this will expose its flank to conflicts with sectors of society
opposed to change."

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office, has
corresponded in recent years with several "liberation theologians" in
Latin America, among them Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru and Antonio Moser of
Brazil. But Friar Boff is the first to be ordered to appear personally.

Procedure Considered Unusual

This procedure is considered unusual and designed to draw public attention
to the purported doctrinal deviation. The last person to be summoned by the
Congregation was the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx in 1979. He was
cleared, but a Swiss theologian, Hans K"ung, who refused a request to appear
at the same time, was stripped of the status of Catholic theologian.

Friar Boff's summons has been given additional importance in the region
because it was disclosed soon after a Brazilian prelate, Agnelo Cardinal
Rossi, chief administrator of the Vatican Patrimony, announced during a
visit here that Rome would soon publish a document "putting the question of
liberation theology in its proper place." Cardinal Rossi has often attacked
liberation theology.

To date, Pope John Paul II has seemingly focused his attention on the direct
involvement of some clergymen in politics, particularly in Nicaragua, where
this month he ordered four priests to leave their jobs in the Sandinista
Government. He has also publicly scoffed at the idea of the so-called
People's Church, a Catholic group supporting the Sandinistas, and he has
ordered priests and other Catholics to obey their bishops.

But some students of church affairs here believe the Vatican has now decided
to make an example of Friar Boff to undermine the theological pillars
sustaining the social activism of many clergymen. Eugenio Cardinal Sales,
the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro and a critic of liberation theology, said
after Friar Boff's summons that "it is a normal attitude for the church to
watch over the purity of the faith."

Major Impact Seen in Region

Any doctrinal ruling by the Vatican on the validity of liberation theology
would nonetheless have a major impact on Latin America. "A document on this
subject will have to be very well written so as not to give arguments to
those who throughout history have oppressed the people," Friar Boff said.
"It would be sad if, in the eyes of the poor, the church were to side with
those who detain history."

Nowhere is church activism a more sensitive subject than in Brazil, not only
because the Catholic hierarchy played a leading role in denouncing human
rights violations during the last two decades of military rule here, but
also because four million Brazilians take part in 70,000 Christian "base
communities" that indirectly give the church a presence among labor unions,
Indian groups, slum organizations, militant feminist groups and peasant
movements.

Further, the majority of the 358 bishops in Brazil, the world's most
populous Catholic nation, are regarded as moderate or liberal. Some, like
Helder Camara, who is retiring as Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, and Paulo
Evaristo Cardinal Arns, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, have emerged as the
principal forces of social change in their archdioceses.

In his writings, Friar Boff has emphasized that with half the world's Roman
Catholics expected to be found in Latin America by the year 2000, the region
provides an opportunity for a "new cultural experience" for a church that
must inevitably seek greater autonomy from Europe.

"We're not interested in breaking with Rome or the Pope," he explained,
"but we must ask what place are we to give to mulatto, Indian, mestizo and
black Christians whose values have not been absorbed by a church that is an
expansion of the European church."

'Essays of Militant Ecclesiology'

His book comprises, in his own words, 13 "essays of militant ecclesiology"
written during the 15 years that he has been teaching theology at the
Franciscan seminary in Petropolis, a mountain resort 26 miles north of Rio
de Janeiro.

He said that when the book was first published in 1981 he was fiercely
criticized not only for those essays addressed to "base communities" but
also for his analysis of the power structures within the church, "from the
most feudal and aristocratic power to the most democratic grass-roots
power."

One essay, titled "The Question of Human Rights Violations Within the
Church," examines the interrogatory procedure that he will now face in
Rome. In it, Friar Boff noted that those called before the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith were neither allowed counsel nor informed of the
specific charges brought against them. "Everything is done in secret, which
feeds rumors harmful to the person and activity of the accused," he wrote.
After his own summons, he explained that his interrogation before the
commission would be recorded in a report that he and Cardinal Ratzinger
would sign before it is submitted to the full Congregation for a decision.
The ruling will then be presented to the Pope, he said. "If this is linked
to some punishment, I will accept it, although not without some
melancholy," he added.

Church sources here speculated that possible punishments could range from
withdrawal of the imprimatur for the book in question to reassignment of
Friar Boff from his teaching post here. But they said a verdict against the
theologian would be more important for the repercussions it would have on
the rest of the Latin American church.

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