Neither silenced by the pope nor scolded by the Vatican's theologians, the Rev. Leonardo Boff has survived his Roman holiday. Boff is the 44-year-old Brazilian Franciscan priest who has written extensively -- and powerfully -- on liberation theology in Latin America.
In September, Boff was called to the Vatican to meet with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's authority on doctrinal orthodoxy. Before the summoning, the cardinal had released a lengthy text titled, "Instructions on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation."
When the inevitable media headlines followed, a drama appeared to be unfolding. Ratzinger was cast as the heavy or the hero flushing out controversy, depending on who was telling the story. Boff was seen as the latest victim or rascal getting the eye from the Vatican.
None of this was happening. The church that gave the world the Inquisition, was erecting no stake on which to burn Boff's thinking.
As the nonconfrontation fades, liberation theology itself is not vanishing from the scene. Two weeks ago in Santo Domingo, Pope John Paul II spoke of it in a sermon to 30,000 people.
"The primary liberation that man must obtain," the pope said in remarks that were consistent with past statements, "is liberation from sin, from social evil that rests in his heart, and which is the cause of 'social sin' and of oppressive structures."
Liberation theology has been a major social force for the last 15 years in Latin America.
The pope's visit to Santo Domingo was his second, the first coming in January 1979 while en route to Puebla, Mexico, for a conference of Latin American bishops, where liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez were advisers to progressive bishops, Cardinal Paulo Arns of Sao Paulo, Brazil, among them.
Arns told the meeting that "the church has . . . begun to preach that three elements are responsible for the marginalization of the people: land and industry concentrated in the hands of less than 5 percent of the population; political power concentrated in 1 percent of the population, and the almost total dependence of Latin America on the First World. In my city alone, three million people are without housing, food, schools; without participation in the city's life, or the possibility of practicing their religion in a free and integral manner."
Nothing in Ratzinger's text says that Rome is about to muzzle thinkers like Boff. No names are mentioned, no books are cited and no anathemas issued. If anything, the Vatican wants to continue supporting liberation theology as long as all the players understand what the term means. The definition in the text is both broad and precise: liberation theology "refers first of all to a special concern for the poor and the victims of oppression, which in turn begets a commitment to justice."
The Vatican worries that liberation theology is too close to Marxism. In generalizations, Ratzinger warns that "for the Marxist . . . there is no truth but the truth in struggle of the revolutionary class." The term "class" appears to be an unsettling one to Rome. To a Vatican guided by European minds, class struggle has the ring of upheavals and godless communism. To a Latin American mind, the phrase has a much different context.
"We should not be overawed by the need to maintain public order," Archbishop Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, has written. "Let us examine this public order. It is no exaggeration to say that it is not order but established disorder. We should not be frightened of communist infiltration. The danger of communism will become imminent if we have not the courage to attack structures of slavery and if people continue to call anyone a communist who demands social justice, even if he is manifestly anticommunist. Let us not forget that while people are dying in the name of communism or anticommunism, the capitalist and communist empires are perfectly able to agree when their interests demand it."
Activists like Camara always have recognized that overlaps occur in Marxism and church people working in the field.
If both Christianity and Marxism can converge on some points, it is illogical to conclude that the crosses atop the churches in Latin America are being replaced by the hammer and sickle. Priests such as Camara have not replaced their breviaries with rifles. Even if they were, the question remains: Why do critics of liberation theology become outraged when the poor, in up-against-the-wall desperation, opt for violence when the assaults of the powerful are much bloodier and better organized.
This double standard was discussed by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) In a speech last month, he said that "as far back as 1935, Catholic bishops spoke to the real cause of violence in the revolution in this world when they said: 'The real authors of violent and bloody revolutions in our times are not the radicals and communists but the autocratic possessors of wealth and power, who use their position to oppress their fellow men."
Liberation theologians are committed to a nonviolent revolution, and as long as that commitment remains, no amount of overlap between Marxist analysis and the Gospel is a doctrinal threat to the church. As some of the Latin American theologians have been saying in their less reverent moments, the Vatican's historical record on understanding intellectual complexities is mixed. From the astronomy of Galileo to the psychiatry of Freud and the paleontology of Teilhard de Chardin, the Vatican's won-loss record is 0 for 3.
One of the origins of the current problem is more with the European-influenced theologians in Rome than with thinkers like Boff, who not only write theology but live it among the poor. Boff said recently that the "great fear that liberation theology provokes is not caused by its use of Marxist analysis but by its demands that the church break its ties with the oppressors."
The Latin American church, or at least its most faithful part, has begun that break. Its leaders expect a blessing from Rome, not a scowl.