Saturday, April 30, 2011

José Comblin: a challenge to academic intellectualism

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

On March 27, the liberation theologian José Comblin died at age 88 near Salvador (Bahia). Belgian by birth, he chose to work in Latin America, as he realized that European Christianity was in its twilight years and saw in our subcontinent room for creativity and a new test of Christian faith joined with popular culture. He embodied the new way of doing theology, launched by Liberation Theology, which is having one foot in poverty and the other in academia. Or, to put it another way, articulating the cry of the oppressed with the liberating faith of Jesus' message, always starting from the contradictory reality, not doctrines, and collectively finding a liberating way out, starting with the people.

He lived poor and dispossessed in northeastern Brazil. And even there, where it is assumed there are no conditions for high-level intellectual production, he wrote dozens of books, many of them of great erudition. Naturally he took advantage of the times he spent in his home university of Leuven, to renew himself. Thus he wrote one of the best books on the ideology of national security, two volumes on the theology of revolution, a detailed study of Neoliberalismo: Ideologia dominante na virada do século ("Neoliberalism: the dominant ideology at the turn of the century"). And dozens of theological, exegetical and spirituality books, among which are Tempo de ação ("Time for Action"), Cristãos rumo ao século XXI ("Christians toward the 21st century") and Called for Freedom. He was an adviser to Dom Helder Camara in his fight for the poor and Don Leonidas Proaño, bishop of the indigenous people in Riobamba (Ecuador).

Because of his ideas, he was expelled from Brazil by the military in 1972. He went to work in Chile, from which the military also expelled him in 1980. Back in Brazil, he began to give shape to his deep conviction that the new Christianity in Brazil must be born of the people's faith. He created several popular evangelization initiatives that are known as the Theology of Azada. He was inspired by Father Ibiapina and Father Cicero, the great missionaries of the Northeast who, more than administering the sacraments and strengthening the institutional church, ministered by counseling and consolation to the oppressed, both of which they were seeking most.

He is one of the best representatives of the new type of intellectual that characterizes the liberation theologians and pastoral workers who are on this path: making the exchange of knowledge, that is, taking seriously the lore, "created through experience", soaked in blood and sweat but rich in wisdom, and articulate it with academic knowledge, critical and committed to social change. This exchange enriches both. The intellectual passes on to the people a knowledge that helps them move forward, and the people force the intellectual to think about the hot issues and take root in the historical process. Academic intelligence has a huge social debt with the poor and marginalized. The universities are largely macro-apparatuses of reproduction of society, which is characterized by inequality, and factories forming cadres to operate the existing system. But it should be acknowledged that, despite their limitations, they were and are a laboratory of rebellious and libertarian thought.

But there has not yet been a profound encounter between the university and society, making an alliance between academic intelligence and popular misery. They are parallel worlds and university extension services will not cover the gap that separates them. There must be a genuine exchange of knowledge and experience. Ignorant is he who imagines that the people are ignorant. The people know a lot and have discovered a thousand ways to live and survive in a society that is adverse to them.

If there is any merit in liberation theologians (who exist here and around the world; Rome has been unable to destroy them) it is in having made this union. So one can not think of a liberation theologian if he is not involved in both worlds, in order to try to bring into being from this union a more egalitarian society that, to put it in the Christian dialect, has more assets of the Kingdom which are justice, dignity, rights, solidarity, compassion, and love.

Father José Comblin left us the example and the challenge.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fr. Michael Pfleger Suspended a Divinis

UPDATE 5/22/2011: Just in time for his birthday, Fr. Pfleger has reached an agreement with Cardinal Francis George in which his priestly faculties have been restored and with the understanding that he will prepare and present a transition plan for St. Sabina by December of this year, You can read statements from Fr. Pfleger and Cardinal George here.

UPDATE 4/30/2011: Fr. Pfleger has not given any interviews to the mainstream media since his suspension but he did talk to a young journalism student, Cassandra Norris. In the interview, Fr. Pfleger called the proposal that he take over the presidency of Leo High School "disaster in motion." He stated that he wants to remain a Catholic priest and pastor and that he intends to remain in the African American community. “If they say leave tomorrow, I’ll get up and leave tomorrow. But right now, I don’t know what the future is. Right now, I want the church to decide what they want," Fr. Pfleger, who is rumored to have hired canon lawyers to fight the suspension, concluded.

Yesterday, Fr. Michael Pfleger, the long time pastor of St. Sabina, an African American parish on Chicago's south side, was suspended a divinis by Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago. In the letter, the Cardinal indicated that the primary reason for the suspension was a radio interview that Fr. Pfleger gave on the nationally syndicated "Smiley & West" program in which, in response to a question about the Cardinal's attempt to transfer him to another assignment at Leo Catholic High School located a few blocks from his parish, Fr. Pfleger replied: "I want to try to stay in the Catholic Church. If they say you either take this principalship of a high school or a pastorship there or leave, then I have to look outside the church. I believe my calling is to be a pastor. I believe my calling is to be a voice for justice. I believe my calling is to preach the gospel. In or out of the church I’m going to continue to do that."

The response, which was picked up across local and national media, was stunningly lackadaisical. According to previous media accounts, Fr. Pfleger had not been offered a principalship, but rather the presidency of the high school, a much different role. He didn't even care about the offer enough to get the title right. It was also not the first time Fr. Pfleger had suggested he might consider leaving the Catholic church (the theme of forming his own storefront church has come up more than occasionally in his videotaped homilies), but this was the first time he had articulated it in such a large forum.

Vince Clark, Fr. Pfleger's personal assistant, claims that the St. Sabina community was "blindsided" by the suspension and didn't see it coming. Isadore Glover Jr., chairman of the parish council called the decision "totally a shock to the faith community of St. Sabina" and Kimberly Lymore, a member of the pastoral staff, called the letter "unfair" and "an ambush". Yet the decision should not shock anyone with any familiarity with the institutional Catholic church. It was a logical, and even a mild response to Fr. Pfleger's ongoing provocative words. You cannot keep on pulling the lion's tail and expect him to ignore you indefinitely.

There appears to be controversy over whether or not Fr. Pfleger had really indicated a desire to leave St. Sabina, as the Cardinal's letter states in its opening paragraph. Fr. Pfleger has repeatedly said to his congregation that he wants to stay at St. Sabina but on a recent appearance on "Roe and Roeper" on WLS, he alluded to the succession plan St. Sabina is putting into place. "I don't want to stay here forever", Fr. Pfleger said. Thus it is disingenuous for Fr. Pfleger and his followers to accuse Cardinal George of misinterpreting Fr. Pfleger's position on remaining at St. Sabina.

Ironically, Cardinal George's action puts St. Sabina's succession plan, projected to be carried out over a 5-6 year period, on a fast track. The plan was to promote associate pastor Fr. Thulani Magwaza, a South African priest, to pastor. The Cardinal has appointed Fr. Magwaza parish administrator during Fr. Pfleger's suspension. The Cardinal has allowed Fr. Pfleger to continue to use the title "pastor" while he reflects on whether or not he wants to continue to be a Catholic priest and hence work respectfully with the Cardinal.

Cardinal George has also asked a young African American priest, Fr. Drew Smith, a former cop who is a native of south side Chicago, to move in and help at St. Sabina. Fr. Drew, who was ordained in 2009, is currently the Associate Pastor of St. Ailbe Catholic Church, another predominantly African American parish. He is the author of From the Gun to the Pulpit.

Fr. Pfleger is concerned that the Cardinal wants to turn St. Sabina into a traditional Catholic Church. I suspect this fear may be exaggerated. I doubt that the Cardinal cares too much about whether or not the sanctuary looks Afrocentric, what kind of music is sung or whether or not there are liturgical dancers. I'm quite sure he doesn't want to undermine St. Sabina's social ministry, for which he has always expressed admiration. He probably does want to keep people like Dr. Cornel West and other non-priests and non-Catholics out of the pulpit on Sunday mornings. It doesn't mean that St. Sabina can't have these speakers at all -- just not within the context of what is supposed to be the liturgy.

Change will come to St. Sabina and, if the community is able to embrace it maturely, they may find that it is change that they can live with. After all, if St. Sabina is really a successful model, its survival will not depend on the presence of one man nor will it be undermined by that man's departure.


Saint Sabina has put a number of documents on their Web site including:

  • The April 28th Statement from St. Sabina Leadership about the suspension of Fr. Pfleger

  • A March 11th letter from Fr. Pfleger to Cardinal George in response to the proposed transfer to the presidency of Leo High School in which Fr. Pfleger offers a counterproposal that would involve bringing the high school under St. Sabina's aegis and continuing as pastor while also administering the school which, under Fr. Pfleger's plan, would undergo a complete reorganization.

  • A letter signed by 14 priests at other predominantly Black Catholic parishes encouraging Cardinal George to make Saint Sabina's transition as smooth as possible. Signatories include Fr. Matthew S. Eyerman, who had been proposed by the Cardinal as a possible successor to Fr. Pfleger, and Fr. Andrew Smith, who has now moved in to St. Sabina to assist Fr. Thulani Magwaza, the appointed parish administrator, while Fr. Pfleger is suspended.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The neurotic American presidential security

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Many of us have known what the ideology of national security has meant under military dictatorships in Latin America. State security was the first value. In fact, it was about the security of capital so that it could continue with its business and its logic of accumulation, rather than specifically about the security of the state. This ideology, basically, assumed that every citizen was a real or potential subversive. Therefore, they would have to be monitored and eventually arrested, interrogated and, if they resisted, tortured, sometimes to death. Thus the bonds of trust, without which society loses its meaning, were broken. One lived under a heavy veil of mistrust and fear.

I say all this with respect to the security apparatus surrounding the visit of the president of the United States, Barack Obama, to Brazil. There the full security ideology -- not national, but presidential -- was operating. There was no confidence in the capacity of Brazilian organizations to ensure the safety of the president. The whole U.S. security apparatus accompanied him. Immense helicopters that were so monstrous in size that there were few places where they could land, armored limousines, and soldiers lined with so many technological devices that they looked more like killing machines than human beings, came. Special shooters were positioned on rooftops and in strategic places along with intelligence personnel. Every corner through which the "imperial court" would pass, the neighboring streets, houses and shops, was monitored and reviewed. For security reasons, the speech he was going to give to the public in downtown Rio, in Cinelandia, was canceled. The people invited to hear his speech at the National Theatre had to first pass through a thorough review.

What does such a scenario show? That we're in a sick and inhumane world. Before, the forces of nature, against which we did not have much defense, threatening demons and vengeful gods were feared. Today we are afraid of ourselves, of weapons of mass destruction, of wars of tremendous destruction that some central countries are waging. We are afraid of the assaults on the street. We are afraid to go to the mountains where poor communities live. We even fear the street children wo might threaten us.

What are we not afraid of?

And the classics taught that the laws, the organization of the State and public order exist basically to liberate us from fear and so that we can live together peacefully.

Formalizing the thinking, we can first say that fear is part of our existence. There are four basic fears: fear that our individuality will be taken away and that we will be made dependent or merely a number; fear of being cut off from relationships and that we will be punished through loneliness and isolation; fear of changes that may affect the profession, health, and, at the limit, life itself; fear of inevitable and final realities such as death. The way we face these existential fears marks our process of individuation. If we do so with courage, overcoming difficulties, we grow. If we run away and try to avoid them, we end up weakened and even ashamed.

Despite all our science that creates the illusion of omnipotence, we become afraid of the Earth and its forces. Who controls the collision of tectonic plates? Who stops an earthquake and slows down a tsunami? We are nothing in the face of such uncontrollable energy, exacerbated by global warming.

Fear, then, is part of our human condition. It becomes pathology and neurosis when one seeks to avoid it in a way that disrupts the entire social reality and makes space a kind of battlefield, like the one put together by U.S. security forces. If a president visits a country and its people, he should bear the risks that are part of life. Otherwise, better the authorities on both sides should meet on a ship at sea, safe from fear and danger. The security strategies only reveal what kind of world we live in: people are afraid of other human beings. We are hostages of fear and, therefore, without freedom and the joy of living and welcoming a visitor.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sr. Teresa Forcades' "La teología feminista en la historia" now available in Spanish

Benedictine nun and theologian Sr. Teresa Forcades' book, La teología feminista en la historia ("Feminist Theology in History"), which was originally published in Catalan in 2007, has just been translated into Spanish and published by Fragmenta Editorial.

In the video below, Sr. Teresa talks about her book and feminist theology.

[Fragmenta] Teresa Forcades habla de 'La teología feminista en la historia' from Fragmenta Editorial on Vimeo.