A liberal Brazilian theologian condemned by the Vatican to a term of "obedient silence" for writings criticizing the Roman Catholic hierarchy has spoken out in a new book on the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

Franciscan friar Leonardo Boff was ordered to withdraw from public life last May, after an inquiry by the Holy See, for "divergent" theological teachings and advocacy of the activist Christian doctrine known as liberation theology, which has a wide following in Latin America.

Since then, Boff has spent most of the last six months in seclusion near here in the mountain town of Petropolis. He has turned away reporters and even photographers in respect for the "convenient period of silence" imposed by the Vatican.

A spokesman for the Brazilian bishops conference denied that Boff's new book, "Francis of Assisi, Man of Paradise," an illustrated children's tale, violates the silence imposed by the Vatican. However, despite the allegorical tone, Boff's portrayal of St. Francis is unmistakably an ode to the critical theology that has raised Rome's ire.

Admirers lined up in a Rio bookstore to solicit Boff's autograph, which he gave without comment.

"St. Francis," said Nelson Porto, the book's illustrator, "always defended the poor and, who knows, maybe he was the first liberation theologian."

According to the terms of his silence, Boff may not grant interviews, attend conferences or speak in public. He is permitted to say mass, teach and pursue pastoral duties. The "penitential silence" does not prohibit him from writing but some church figures have challenged his right to publish. Rio's auxiliary bishop, Karl Josef Romer, even suggested that Boff "could have suspended sales" of his many books.

Conservatives were especially piqued by Boff's trip in September to Nicaragua, where he preached to Sandinistas that "God is there, fighting alongside the poor."

His supporters counter that Boff satisfied the Vatican's regulations by obtaining the imprimatur of a superior in the Franciscan order, Bishop Adriano Hipolito, before releasing his book.

Its publication comes near the culmination of the extraordinary synod of bishops in Rome, where many in the church hierarchy have sharply questioned liberation theology and criticized attempts to stray from papal authority. The day Boff's book was released, Cardinal Eugenio Sales, the conservative archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, declared in Rome, "There are those professors who teach their own doctrines and opinions and not the doctrine of the church."

Yet Edgar Orth of the publishing house Editora Vozes said the book was not meant as a challenge, and that the timing is "mere coincidence."

"The book was meant to be distributed to stores in time for Christmas," Orth said.

In his new book, Boff's St. Francis loves the poor and downtrodden so that he is "transported to Caninde," a town in Brazil's poor northeastern region.

The book refers to a certain Friar Paulo "who always defended the poor and knew to keep account of the tortured and the 'disappeared' so never again would there occur such an offense against God."

The book also salutes a Friar Aloisio who "sat in simplicity with the poor and let himself be taught by them."

Cardinals Paulo Arns and Aloisio Lorscheider are fellow Franciscans, and both flew to Rome in support of Boff when he was questioned at the Vatican before the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Keeping a monastic silence, Boff smilingly declined to answer questions about the book. Sources in Petropolis say he maintains a rigid routine, teaching at the Sacred Heart of Jesus seminary and ministering in the Favela do Lixo, a shantytown whose residents live off the goods they collect from the town dump.