Friday, May 20, 2011

The dangers of the arrogance of the empire

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)

I am among those who were enthusiastic about the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, especially coming after G. Bush Jr., a bellicose, fundamentalist, and not very bright president. The latter believed in the imminence of the Biblical Armageddon Bible and followed to the letter the ideology of Manifest Destiny, a script invented by the American imperial will to justify war against Mexico, according to which the United States would be the new chosen people of God to bring human rights, freedom and democracy to the world. This belief in its own exceptionalism translated into historical arrogance that made the United States arrogate to itself the right to impose its lifestyle and worldview on the whole world, through politics or weapons.

I was hoping that the new president was not yet hostage to this nefarious and imaginary divine election, since he announced in his program multilateralism and not hegemony, but I had my doubts, because behind the "Yes, we can", the old arrogance could be hiding. Faced with the economic and financial crisis, he proclaimed that the United States had shown throughout its history that it could do anything, and that it would overcome the current situation. Now, upon the assassination of Osama bin Laden ordered by him (in a state of law, which separates the powers, does the executive branch have the power to kill, or is it incumbent upon the judicial branch to order the arrest, prosecute and punish?), the mask has fallen. He was not able to hide the atavistic arrogance.

The president, of humble origin, of African descent, born outside the continent, first Muslim and then converted evangelical*, said plainly: "What happened on Sunday sent a message around the world:...when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," which is like saying: "terrorists around the world, we will kill you."

There, without mincing words, all the arrogance and imperial attitude of putting oneself above all ethics is revealed.

This brings to mind the words of a theologian who served twelve years as an adviser to the ex-Inquisition in Rome and came to sympathize with me when I was suffering through the doctrinal trial. He confessed: "Learn from my experience: the ex-Inquisition forgets nothing, forgives nothing, and takes everything. Be prepared." Indeed, that's what I felt. Worse happened to a moral theologian, beloved throughout Christendom, Germany's Bernhard Häring. With a throat cancer that almost did not allow him to speak, he was subjected to rigorous questioning in the dark room of that office of psychological horror because of some statements about sexuality. Upon leaving, he confessed, "this interview was worse than the one I suffered under the Nazi SS during the war." which means: the label doesn't matter -- Catholic or Nazi, every authoritarian and totalitarian system follows the same logic: it avenges everything, it doesn't forget and it doesn't forgive.

Barack Obama promised to do so and intends to carry forward the terrorist state created by his predecessor, keeping the Patriot Act that authorizes the suspension of certain rights and the preventive detention of suspects without even notifying their families, which turns into kidnapping.

Not without reason the Norwegian Johan Galtung, the man of the culture of peace, creator of two institutions of peace research and inventor of the Transcend method in mediating conflicts (a kind of win-win policy) wrote that such acts bring the United States closer to a fascist state.

The truth is that we are faced with an empire. It is the logical and necessary consequence of the alleged exceptionalism. It is a unique empire, based not on a territorial or colonial occupation, but on 800 military bases spread around the world, most of them unnecessary for American security. But they are there to frighten and to ensure its hegemony in the world. None of that has been dismantled by the new emperor, who did not close Guantanamo as he had promised and who still sent thirty thousand soldiers to Afghanistan for a hopeless war.

We may disagree with the basic thesis of Samuel P. Huntington in his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations, but there are noteworthy observations in it such as this: "the belief in the superiority of Western culture is wrong, immoral and dangerous." (p. 395) Moreover, "Western intervention is probably the most dangerous source of instability and a potential global conflict in a multi-civilization world." (p. 397) Well then, the conditions for such a tragedy are being created by the United States and its European allies.

The American people -- good, hardworking, and somewhat naive, who we admire -- are one thing, and the imperial government, which doesn't respect international treaties that are against its interests and which is capable of all forms of violence, is another. But there are no eternal empires. The time will come when it will be another number in the graveyard of vanished empires.

*Translator's Note: Leonardo Boff's description of President Obama is a little misleading. He was never a Muslim as an adult and though yes, he was technically not born in the continental United States, he was born in Hawaii, a U.S. state.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Where is liberation theology?

By Paula Boyer (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Le Croix,

"Liberation theology is far from dead. Even though the institution has often tried to suppress it, it continues to exist in the minds and hearts of many people. Simply put, it remains a minority, then and now." The Frenchman Xavier de Maupéou, 75, bishop emeritus of Viana (Brazil) is one of the few bishops who still call themselves "true followers of liberation theology."

However, he insists, many bishops are "open" and the bishops' conference, the CNBB (1), published a text in 2008 that takes up, cautiously, several elements dear to liberation theologians, including the option for the poor and the organization into Basic Ecclesial Communities. This text was written in the wake of the one adopted in 2007 by the Latin American bishops.

A text that was a little watered down, however, between the vote on it at Aparecida and its publication after a rereading at the Vatican. "If there was this turn-aound," says Fr. François Glory, "it's that the Church has realized it needs to go out on a mission to really evangelize."

Sign of vitality

Since then, new Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) have been created. "Fewer than expected," as was admitted at the CNBB. A sign of vitality, though. Because, in the mid-1980s, after fresh criticism from the Vatican, liberation theology seemed doomed to disappear.

Not only did the Church oppose it with its classic social doctrine, but it had taken up on its own the option for the poor while making it clear that the proclamation of the gospel should not exclude any social class.

In addition, the new bishops appointed in Latin America, mostly very conservative, were working to marginalize the supporters of this theology. And to clip the wings of the BECs, as was seen in Recife, when Msgr. José Cardoso succeeded Dom Helder Camara. At the risk of leaving the turf to the evangelicals by deserting the struggle alongside the poor and the reading of the Bible.

Anyway, the end of the USSR and the communist bloc on the one hand, the decline of Latin American dictatorships on the other hand, changed the situation. With the return of democracy and the economic boom in many countries, the political involvement of priests and nuns became rarer. Yet poverty remains pervasive, inequalities and injustices as well.

A more diverse image of "the poor"

Could liberation theology have run its course? Opinions are mixed. In any case, these theologians have evolved; some, like Gustavo Gutierrez, have qualified their thinking. Most have updated their message by putting forward a more diverse image of "the poor" -- in addition to the exploited of the Latin American subcontinent "the poor", explains Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara, have taken on the face of other victims of injustice: the indigenous, black people, women, dalit (untouchables) and most recently...the earth, threatened with destruction by human activities.

Hoping to find a linkage with new social movements, these theologians now usually gather on the sidelines of the World Social Forum, as in Dakar in February 2011. Obviously, having become more pragmatic, they no longer dream of a structural change by political parties or ideologies to which the era no longer lends itself. Moreover, their theories have had an amazing influence. In the United States, in rather conservative intellectual and ideological circles, the importance of thinking in terms of ... community has assumed a new relevance.

(1) CNBB : Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil (National Brazilian Bishops Conference)

Translator's note: It's too bad Paula Boyer did not pursue her last point further (about the influence of liberation theology on American conservatives). I can't say I understand how she can draw that conclusion and would have hoped for some evidence to back it up.

Photo: Members of a Basic Christian Community in Brazil study the Bible.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Maiobão: liberation theology in action

By Paula Boyer (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Le Croix,

This Saturday night, the pubs are full. The evangelical churches too. Outdoors in the Luiz Fernando district, Fr. François Glory begins the first of six Masses he will celebrate this weekend. For two and a half years, he has been the pastor of Maiobão, a bedroom community of 100,000 inhabitants, close to São Luis Maranhão, on the northeast coast of Brazil.

There, as everywhere, the takeoff of the economy makes insolent wealth rub up against vast and extreme poverty, corruption hampers public action and infrastructure renewal (in Maiobão, the streets are impassable when it rains), while unemployment, drugs, alcohol and violence are rampant...

Seated on plastic chairs, some sixty faithful begin the opening hymn. Some men turn up. However, the attendance is mainly composed of women and children. Earlier, when Father Glory asked everyone to introduce themselves, many spontaneously confessed to being young single mothers, without employment or resources ...

Which doesn't prevent them from -- on the contrary -- keeping the faith, or confiding, as most Brazilians do: "For me, God is everything!" This is the first time that Father Glory has come here. The people of this working class and still rural neighborhood have recently organized themselves into a base ecclesial community (BEC).

Excesses denounced by Rome in 1984

Abandoned for a time by the official Church after Rome denounced its excesses in 1984, liberation theology and its expression in the field, the BECs, are experiencing a gradual comeback since the meeting of the Latin American bishops held in Aparecida in 2007. "In the aftermath, the Brazilian Bishops' Conference, the CNBB, published a text promoting them," says Father Glory.

In Luiz Fernando, the celebration has been entirely prepared by the laity, who are very independent. Only one improvisation: during the homily, Fr. Glory invites, as he usually does, two young people in the congregation to act out the text that is being commented. This "staging of the word of God" -- an "old scout trick!" -- seduces those assembled.

As Fr. Glory, who is overwhelmed, can't visit them every week, the BECs organize, betweentimes, liturgies of the Word, prayers, songs, catechism, Bible study. They are also attentive to the real problems of their members -- here a single woman with children, there young people who are adrift, elsewhere, the lack of a clinic.

At the "Mother Church", the central church, Alcemar, the general coordinator of the parish, struggles valiantly to put young offenders back on the right track by giving them vocational training. He also circulates a petition to prevent the municipality from setting up shelters draining a dubious clientele that consumes drugs and alcohol, two steps from the catechism rooms.

Enthusiasm and commitment

In Maiobão, meetings occupy the evenings and weekends of many of the faithful. No doubt about it, this way of being Catholic together every day, in a small community where everyone knows each other and experiences the same hardships, arouses enthusiasm and commitment. To wit, what one man, though he had gone over to the evangelicals, confided after a very fervent Mass in the community of Nazareth: "It was...marvellous!"

For Padre Chico (as they call Father Glory here), "there is no question of staying locked in his church." He wants to "proclaim the Good News wherever people live and suffer." He adopts the stance of "coordinator" and encourages his followers to take care of themselves.

On the one hand, his parish is very large. On the other hand, a strong supporter of liberation theology, he believes that the BECs can give a stronger voice to the poor, recognizing them for who they are, giving them access to responsibilities, making a more vibrant, more participatory church emerge and, beyond that, helping transform the world.

"The Church," he adds, "isn't a priest and some faithful; it's a community that gathers to commemorate the Lord, to celebrate the risen Christ, and that changes everything."

"Staying in touch with reality instead of sinking into a disembodied spirituality"

A member of the MEP (Missions étrangères de Paris), François Glory, who comes from France, arrived in Brazil in 1976. For twenty years, he has created base communities in the vast parish of Uruarà along the Transamazonian road. "I've made quite a few Christians out there," he says, referring to the 600 annual baptisms and the extraordinary welcome in the BECs which he only visits two or three times a year.

Here in Maiobão, the parish has 22 BECs. "We need twice as many! There are neighborhoods where the Catholic Church does not exist," laments Father Glory, who plans on creating others. This will also allow the Church to "counter the evangelical groups" whose proximity and warmth have made them successful.

So the pastor of Maiobão devotes countless nights and days to training lay people, be they catechists, animators of communities, of liturgies of the word, etc...

The Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Hyacinthe, a Canadian order deeply involved in the education of disadvantaged youth, give him a helping hand. "Our church must answer the call of Aparecida," Sister Silva asserts. "Staying in touch with reality of the place instead of sinking into a disembodied spirituality is a challenge, a daily call to conversion."

Specific results

A few days in Maiobão allow one to measure the specific results on the ground. "Many of my parishioners know more than the seminarians that I teach in São Luis," says Father François Glory, after an evening of Bible study with the laity.

This Tuesday, it's 11 p.m. and after commenting on the story of Genesis, the small group is sharing a plain meal. Many will rise at dawn, anyway. Indeed, though Alcemar, the general coordinator of the parish, and Magnolia, the treasurer, are retired (the first was a laborer, the second, a university professor), Hilda, head of the catechists, Marila, Joelma and Luiz Fernandez, will catch a bus at six o'clock to go to work in São Luis.

The succession is being prepared anyway. Jadson Borboso, 26, a seminarian in São Luis, plans to take over after Fr. Glory. "The BECs allow us to share the word of God and reflect together on the realities of life. It's a way of living one's faith that speaks a lot to me," he says. This son of a notary was, indeed, "born in a BEC."

What answer to violence?

An answer to everything and for everyone? Even a strong proponent of liberation theology such as Fr. Glory doesn't go that far.

The middle class -- a minority here -- sometimes better understands the language of the charismatic movements, which he takes care to associate with his church activities, when appropriate. And then, he adds, "liberation theology, in the current state of thinking, doesn't bring a relevant answer to the violence in Brazilian society."


Messing with the Wrong Woman: The Bishops and Elizabeth Johnson

UPDATE 7/14/2011: Dr. Johnson's congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who met this week to celebrate the 175th anniversary of their order, issued a statement supporting her and commending "her integrity and dedication to the ecclesial vocation of theologian","her spirit of collaboration, cooperation and mentoring" and "her unselfish and untiring efforts to share her theological reflection and insights with the dear neighbor everywhere."

UPDATE 6/7/2011: In a detailed letter to the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson responds to the bishops' criticism of Quest for the Living God and vigorously defends her work.

I usually start these columns by reminding readers that the best defense against the Church's attempts at theological censorship is to buy and read the book in question. This time the book is Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007), Fordham University Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ's examination of how God is perceived from a variety of theological and faith perspectives. Through the lenses of liberation theology, feminist theology, various minority theologies (Black, Hispanic, etc...), and ecumenism, she challenges us to broaden our image of God beyond the white, male, patriarchal, omnipotent and distant God of traditional theism. In short, the book is a summary of how different groups of people have explored ways of depicting and naming God to make Him/Her more meaningful to them. The book presents a simplified overview of each theology but Dr. Johnson buttresses each chapter with an ample bibliography for those who want to go further down any particular road.

You would think that a theologian with Dr. Johnson's credentials -- a PhD from Catholic University, more than 20 years of teaching theology, honorary doctorates from 13 universities and schools of theology (most of them Catholic), former head of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, numerous publishing credits and many awards for her published works -- would not be a likely target for the Church's doctrinal police. So Catholics in general, and the theology world in particular, were shocked when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine issued a condemnation of Quest for a Living God, accusing Dr. Johnson of "theological and methodological inaccuracies" and finding that "many of [the book's] conclusions are incompatible with authentic Catholic teaching." The Committee had the temerity to further suggest that Dr. Johnson should have sought an imprimatur from her bishop (who probably has a fraction of her theological expertise) prior to the book's publication, even though they also admitted that she was not required to do so.

One has to wonder why a book that was published in 2007 is suddenly coming under scrutiny in 2011. We are told that "several bishops" -- anonymous, of course -- had expressed concerns to the Committee on Doctrine that the book deviated from authentic Catholic teaching. Why these bishops could not simply bring their issues directly to Dr. Johnson is the first question. The Committee then pursued its investigation into the book in complete secrecy until it issued its public statement of condemnation.

Dr. Johnson was never afforded the opportunity to discuss the issues being raised about her book with the Committee. She was not given a chance to respond to the charges against her and says in her statement in response to the condemnation that she "would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points." As a result of this failure to dialogue in a respectful, collegial way with her, Dr. Johnson states that "in several key instances [the Committee's] statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote. The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops."

The Committee has not called for any disciplinary actions against Dr. Johnson such as banning her from teaching or publishing but the mere suggestion of faulty methodology and theological inaccuracy would be enough to tarnish Dr. Johnson's professional reputation and possibly have a chilling effect on sales of her book, especially for use in theology classes in Catholic institutions. And yet Dr. Johnson was never given the courtesy of being allowed to respond before the investigation was concluded and its outcome published. Could it be that the members of the Committee on Doctrine did not feel intellectually up to the task of debating with this extremely competent sister theologian? That it was easier to sucker punch her? Or is it just the typical arrogant attitude of our hierarchy that the non-ordained in general and women in particular are not worthy of being listened to and that they are above having to explain themselves to anyone? Dr. Johnson's response is remarkably professional and restrained, given the level of disrespect she has been shown.

So what's the criticism? First, the Committee on Doctrine alleges that Dr. Johnson is representing a modern theistic notion of a distant, lordly, law-giving male God as the Catholic teaching on God. Having read Quest for a Living God, I beg to differ. I believe the Committee is making assumptions based on their mistrust of a Catholic doing theology from the base rather than the top down theology they might prefer. They are defensive and reading what they think she's saying rather than understanding that she is just reflecting on a very common distorted image of the Divine that has evolved primarily in Christianity and that explains why people have begun to seek other images. At no point does she say that this is specifically Catholic Church teaching.

The Committee's statement is another chapter in the ongoing debate about the balance between God's transcendance/immanence and Jesus' divinity/humanity which has been raging for decades between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the more progressive theologians. The hierarchy has a vested interest in a transcendant God and a (mostly) divine Jesus for whom it can be the intermediary and which doesn't demand real involvement in the material lives and needs of the faithful. Progressive theologians, who are doing theology starting from the people and their actual relationship to the Divine, tend to posit a God/Christ who is near, who walks and suffers with the people, especially the poorest. Dr. Johnson is faulted by the Committee for detracting from God's transcendance.

Dr. Johnson's suggestion that it is time for some female images of God and names for the Divine as well as more inclusive language is again taken negatively and the Committee summarily rebukes her, accusing her of substituting her own insights for "divine revelation" (presumably the exclusive prerogative of the Magisterium) and asserting that "the names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment." The patronizing tone is unmistakable.

The Committee and Dr. Johnson also differ significantly on Dominus Iesus. Dr. Johnson gives an accurate summary of what this declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says and then explains why people of other faiths find it so offensive and why it is even, in some places, illogical. Where Dr. Johnson is merely pointing out the problems with Dominus Iesus, the Committee levels the startling criticism that "Sr. Johnson undermines the uniqueness of Biblical revelation and even denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word." Again, a careful reading of Dr. Johnson's words doesn't support this extreme conclusion.

Speaking of "undermining", Dr. Johnson's assertion that "the intent of this trinitarian symbol is not to give literal information but to acclaim the God who saves and to lead us into this mystery" provokes the Committee to assert that her position "completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel, for it supposes that the Church does not proclaim what is actually true, but only the symbolic expression of what ultimately cannot be known..."

Maybe I'm broader minded than the members of the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, but my faith in the Gospel is not "undermined" by being exposed to other theological perspectives on God via Quest for the Living God. On the other hand, my faith in the Church IS undermined by these clumsy, patronizing attempts to censor and control freedom of theological investigation. The first question that should come to any believer's mind is: "Why doesn't the Church want me to read this? What is it afraid that I'll discover? What is it hiding from me?"

In the end, while Dr. Johnson has not chosen to engage in a public battle with the bishops over her book, her colleagues have been springing to her defense. Rev. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, the president of Fordham University called Dr. Johnson a “revered member of the Fordham community,” and 186 of her fellow faculty members at the university signed a statement echoing those sentiments. The board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement criticizing the bishops' failure to follow their own procedures in this matter as set forth in a document called "Doctrinal Responsibilities" which calls on bishops and theologians to attempt to settle disputes privately before going public, and affirming that "Professor Johnson is a most esteemed member of our Society. She is a person of the highest character, a respected theologian and teacher who pursues her theological vocation as service to the Church." The College Theology Society seconded CTSA's procedural concerns and described Quest for a Living God as exemplifying "a compelling style of Catholic theology that engages many different kinds of undergraduate students...[Dr. Johnson's] theology is credited with plumbing the depths of the received Catholic tradition as found in diverse scriptural and historical witnesses of faith while investigating pressing issues and searching for ever deeper understanding. This book illustrates what has been a hallmark of all of Johnson’s work: a dedication to exploring the living faith of the Church as it is conveyed in communities in various cultures and contexts in the United States and throughout the world. Her gifts and talents as a highly effective theological educator are clearly displayed in this book."

Having picked on one of the nation's most respected Catholic theologians, the Committee is now being forced to backtrack. First, its chairman, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, put together a hasty defense of his Committee's decision to scrutinize Quest for a Living God and denied that the Committee wanted to "stifle legitimate theological reflection." Now, the Committee's executive director, Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, has written a letter to the Department of Theology at Fordham assuring the faculty that the committee never intended to tarnish Dr. Johnson’s reputation or impugn her honor or dedication to the church. He stated the doctrine committee “in no way calls into question the dedication, honor, creativity, or service” of Johnson. To put it in the vernacular: the bishops messed with the wrong woman.