by Natasha Pitts (English translation by Rebel Girl)
August 8, 2014
For some time we've been talking about a crisis in liberation theology (LT), a theological current founded 42 years ago, which is characterized by a preferential option for the poor and for the struggle for social justice. In the words of Fray Clodovis Boff -- a religious of the Order of the Servants of Mary who, with his more famous brother Leonardo Boff, was one of the leading LT theologians -- this mode of theologizing "gave what it had to give," that is, it raised awareness about the Church's preferential option for the poor. Nonetheless, "it no longer has a future in the Church" and therefore is losing more and more ground within it.
Even having participated in the founding of LT, Fray Clodovis says he already had reservations because of the lack of theoretical rigor and the prioritization "of politics at the expense of faith." Over the years, seeing that this priority wasn't changing but was being increasingly asserted, he decided to voice his criticism. Today, the religious brother argues that by disappearing into the mainstream of Christian theology, liberation theology is fulfilling its historical mission. ADITAL spoke with Fray Clodovis about the matter. Read the first of a special series of interviews that will be published every Friday by Adital.
Forty-two years later, is liberation theology still alive? Does it still have meaning today?
Fray Clodovis N. Boff: Yes, there are liberation theologians who gather and write. But its decline as a separate trend is undeniable. In my view, liberation theology "prescribed" historically. It gave what it had to give. It raised the Church's consciousness about the preferential option for the poor. Now, that has been basically incorporated, without further discussion, into the normal discourse of the Church. Thus the liberationist current has finally reentered the mainstream of Catholic or universal theology, strengthening and updating what was always an asset of the Church --preferential love for suffering people of all kinds. Liberation theology may even remain as a specimen of the "theology of the genitive," a necessarily partial theology, as when one speaks of the "theology of grace," the "theology of marriage" or even the "theology of St. Paul." Those particular theologies are just elaborated themes of aspects of faith. It was in that sense, as a partial theology in harmony with the whole of the faith, that liberation theology was declared by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to the Bishops of Brazil (4/9/1986) as "timely, useful and necessary" (n. 5). But while liberation theology is claiming to be a complete theology, it no longer has a future in the Church. In fact, it's losing more and more ground within it.
"We want to show here that liberation theology began well but, due to its epistemological ambiguity, it ended up misdirected -- it put the poor in Christ's place. That fundamental inversion led to a second mistake -- the manipulation of faith "for" liberation. Fatal errors, because they compromised the good fruits of this timely theology." (article, 8/16/2008). At what point and why did you become one of the great critics of liberation theology?
Boff: I've always had reservations about liberation theology, whether because of its lack of theoretical rigor or due to its ideological propensity to prioritize politics at the expense of faith. Although in my doctoral thesis Teologia e prática ["Theology and practice"] published more than 40 years ago (Voces, 1978), I would have already clearly established the priority of faith over politics (especially in Section 2, Chapter 1), I imagined that the priority given to the political would be something transient, whether due to the very urgent social problems we were experiencing in those difficult times (dictatorship and savage capitalism), or by proving to be like a childhood illness, normal for any new historical movement. But when, with the passing of time, it dawned on me, unfortunately, that that priority, instead of ebbing, was asserting itself more and more with serious damage to the identity of the faith, the Church's own mission, and the ultimate destiny of human beings, I decided to explain my criticism openly.
On which points do LT theologians differ?
Boff: The differences aren't minor but fundamental, touching on the very principles of the faith. Who is Lord of the Church? Who occupies His thoughts? Christ or the poor? If we say "Christ", it's guaranteed in principle that the poor will have their "eminent place" in the Church, in Bossuet's words. But if we say "the poor" then Christ can be easily dismissed from society and life, as happens with Marxism.
In some texts you talk about the erosion and crisis in LT. How can this "way of theologizing" face the crisis and stay strong?
Boff: As I said earlier, paradoxically, by disappearing into the mainstream of Christian theology, liberation theology fulfills its historical mission. It's like the sugar cube that only exists to be dissolved in the coffee -- it's still present there, sweetening all the coffee but invisible. Or, in a more biblical metaphor, it's like John the Baptist said, "He must increase and I must decrease," as opposed to the Jews who, called to accept the Messiah, refused to be what they ought to have become. They should have done like Saul, who only fulfilled his destiny by becoming Paul. Such should also be the end point of liberation theology -- becoming just Christian theology after having contributed to its enrichment.
The liberation theologians are growing old. Do you believe in a renewal?
Boff: When one reads the current works by the so-called "liberation theologians," one notes that the discourse is repeated ad nauseam. They're "variations on the same theme" -- the socioeconomically poor and their social liberation. I insist: Liberation theology, like any other type of theology, is only possible on the condition of beginning and also ending on the transcendental horizon of faith. Beyond that, liberation theology will only yield "more of the same". And, just as Pope Francis says that a Church without unconditional faith in Christ is a "pious NGO", so too liberation theology (or any other one) without that same principal faith in Christ, is a religious ideology, competing or collaborating with other ideologies. With that, it makes itself more and more irrelevant, since the world today is tired of ideologies.
Could the opening Pope Francis has been giving to the LT theologians help reinvigorate it?
Boff: The speech and even more, the example of the current Pope could serve as an example for a Christianity that doesn't need ideology, even under a theological label, to deal seriously with the poor. Liberation theology can only be reinvigorated within the Church, within its theological diversity, hence as one particular theology.
How should liberation theologians work on and think about controversial issues like abortion, diversity (homoaffective unions), and women's participation in the Church?
Boff: Just like the issue of the poor, which is central to liberation theology, all these other questions should be dealt with by any theology based on the perennial principles of the faith. But clearly -- and this is the proper role of theologians in the Church -- those principles must be well understood and put up against the experience of history, which has much to teach the Church, as Vatican II recognized in Gaudium et Spes (see GS 44).
And in the case of the Catholic Church, what are its current challenges in the face of so many social, political, and economic demands?
Boff: Certainly, the Church is already doing a lot in the social field and it should do more. But it's necessary to be clear: this is not the Church's "proper" original mission, as Vatican II expressly repeated (see GS 42,2; and also 40,2-3 and 45,1). The social mission is a secondary mission, although necessarily derived from the first, which is of a "religious" nature. This lesson was never understood well by lay thinking. It was the Illuminists who wanted to reduce the mission of the Church to a merely social role. Hence they committed the crime -- cultural as well -- of destroying famous monasteries and forbidding the existence of religious orders, because they believed all that was something completely useless, a mentality that's still going strong in society and even within the Church. Now, if we ask what the Church's greatest challenge is, we must answer that it's man's greatest challenge -- the meaning of his life. It's a question that transcends both societies and time. It's an eternal question which, however, in post-modern times, has become particularly anguishing and widespread. It is first of all to this deeply existential and, today, characteristically cultural question that the Church must respond -- as must all religions, on the other hand -- since they are, based on their essence, "specialists in meaning." Anyone who doesn't see the seriousness of this challenge, both existential and historical, and insists on seeing the social issue as the "big issue", doesn't have his antennas up either in theology or in history either.