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Thursday, September 20, 2007

James Alison on Leo Boff

Looking through the archives of the journal New Blackfriars, I came across an article about liberation theologian Leonardo Boff by British theologian James Alison, back when he was a Dominican - Leonardo Boff: Complicity and Criticism (Volume 66, Issue 779, Page 239-246, May 1985) ... I don't have a subscription to the journal, but William was kind enough to get the article for me. I like both Fr. Alison and Leo Boff, and with Fr. Alison having studied theology in Brazil I thought that even with the article being old, it might be worth it to post a little of it.

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He begins by introducing Boff and two books of his that prompted controversy - Church: Charism and Power (CCP) and Saint Francis: a model for human liberation (SF) ......

Leonardo Boff, a 47 year old Franciscan from Brazil, has become one of the best known names in Catholic theology owing to the controversy surrounding his book Igreja: Carisma e Poder (Ed Vozes, Petropolis, 1981). The close coincidence in time of Boff's interview with Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome about the book, and the publishing of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's criticism of some aspects of liberation theology, has caused some misunderstanding about the issues at the core of the controversy ......

First of all, it was not - this time - Rome that made the first move. On the contrary, Boff had appealed to Rome. When his book was attacked by Dom Romer, Assistant Bishop of Rio de Janeiro and President of the Archdiocesan Commission for the Doctrine of the Faith, he turned to the Vatican ..... Secondly, and more importantly, the book does not in fact appear to be about liberation theology specifically .....


Fr. Alison then goes on to describe the dismal translation job done on the books, and gives many examples of how the translation errors lead to a misunderstanding of Boff's views as more radical than they really are. He then writes of Church: Charism and Power ....

A bit of background is necessary if CCP is to be understood at all. The thirteen essays presented here are a disparate bunch published together in Brazil in 1981..... Boff has chosen a pneumotological approach as the one giving him most room to advance his case within a Catholic understanding of the Church. He, and the many who share his concerns, have a huge task on their hands: Boff himself uses the language of the birth of a new Chuech (ecclesiology). He is attempting the radical reconception of ecclesiology which is to be fair to the richness of base community experience, which solves the problem of class conflict while being committed to the poor, which is within the incarnational Catholic tradition, and which is institutional and hierarchical without being clerical and legalistic in its understanding of diakonia. Certainly this is too vast an undertaking to be the work of one man, and is likely, in its development, to throw up some dead ends. It appears to be the aim of the C.D.F. ..... to point out just such dead ends .....

One of the dead ends of which he writes is a point that recently came up when the Pope announced that Protestant Churches are not real Churches ... Boff writes in CCP that the Church can subsist in other Christian Churches. Fr. Alison attributes Boff's pov to a desire to reconcile the idealism of St. Francis with the reality of today's Church. He then goes on to point out what he feels are weaknesses in CCP......

Meanwhile, however, there are a number of points in Fr. Boff's essays which call for comment ..... His idea of what the Church has been over the last 1500 years suits the purpose of an argument about power structures, but does not take into account the ambiguity of Church/State relationships since Constantine and the reasons for centralization since the Middle Ages ...... Secondly, Fr. Boff appears to use sociology when it suits him, not when it does not ..... The same is true of Fr. Boff's treatment of syncretism where he criticizes the Church for finding it "easier to expand the reigning ecclesial system rather than allow and prepare for the birth of another." Yet the early Franciscan experience in Mexico ..... was that it was exactly expansion of the reigning ecclesial system which enabled some elements of indigenous political systems and freedoms to be saved from destruction by the Spanish ......

Fr. Alison's last criticism of Boff has to do with what he sees as a choice of Franciscan mysticism over rationalism, yet when Fr. Alison winds up his article, it is a similarity between Boff and St. Francis that he sees as redeeming Boff's supposed flaws ....

It is in the last chapter of SF that Boff touches on what is, at least for this reviewer, at the core of CCP ..... Boff presents us with a St. Francis who integrated the negative, who was both critic and accomplice in our Christian endeavour, without losing the salt of his flight from the established order. It is Boff's movement towards integration of criticism, complicity, and radical Christianity which often makes him rewarding reading.

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I'm kind of disappointed - I was hoping Fr. Alison would like Leo Boff's book/theology more. I know there are issues concerning liberation theology but it's hard (for me) not to be attracted to something so idealistic. As it turned out, btw, Boff did not find a way to be both critic and accomplice - he left the Franciscan Order.


2 Comments:

Blogger Jeff said...

Crystal,

You and I seem to be the only ones who care about old Leo. :-)

I wouldn't worry about Alison giving "qualified" support to Boff's book. I think it's common for theologians who respect each other to throw some criticism in there with the praise.

Not long ago I was reading The Silencing of Leonardo Boff by Harvey Cox. He was saying how, at the colloquy in Rome, Boff was startled and taken aback when Cardinal Ratzinger started grilling him on the "subsists" issue. He didn't think that was what the conversation was going to be about. Boff did think that the Church could subsist in other churches, but he was surprised that this was the focus of the discussion, because it wasn't the point of his book, or the the main theme of his work in general. He was also surprised that Cardinal Ratzinger took a different view from it's meaning than was presumably held by other council fathers like Rahner, Willebrands, Koenig, and Congar.

The real sad thing about this is that not only did Boff leave the Franciscans, but Alison left the Dominicans. Like Sandalstraps said, the institutional Church is eating its own children by silencing some of its best minds.

4:17 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yep, it's just you and me :-)

That was partly what Fr. Alison wrote in his article - that the book wasn't really about liberation theology per se, but that the bad translation made it seem more radical than it was.

I get the feeling that Fr. Alison misses very much being a Dominican. In one of his books he wrote ...

" ... there was the gift of being associated with a religious order which took me in when I was on the brink of despair, taught me theology and gave me the basic theological tools which set me free to discover that faith is not given us so as to enable us to 'belong to the Church' but so that we may understnad and love being human .....

Then as courage grew, there was the gift of being repudiated by the South American brnch of the religious order with which I lived .....

I have stumbled, at first with dismay, and gradually with delight, into adult life, into being unemployed, trying to find work, holding jobs and losing them, having a bank account, falling into debt, working my way out of it, attempting to settle in a country, being unable to, trying again. They are years in which I have tried to learn how to be faithful to a theologian's vocation without any institutional belonging, academic or ecclesiastical. Years in which I have tried to imagine what it is to exercise priesthood in exile ..... "

7:54 PM  

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