Maike Hickson

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The future Pope Francis (right) with Leonardo Boff (left) in 1972. Leonardo Boff / Twitter

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47-year-old photo shows future Pope Francis with dissident priest who helped engineer Amazon synod

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August 30, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – A 47 year-old photograph has surfaced showing the man who would become Pope Francis standing in a small group of people, one of whom is a Brazilian Liberation-theology proponent and priest who would become laicized and who is now widely credited for being the “theologian of reference” for the upcoming controversial Amazon synod. The picture takes on significance due to the claim of the laicized priest that Pope Francis remembered their meeting in 1972 and had recently sent him the photo. 

On August 5, Leonardo Boff placed on his twitter a picture from a conference that took place in San Miguel, Argentina on February 23-29, 1972 and that shows both Boff and then-Father Jorge Bergoglio, the later Pope Francis. Boff says that the Pope had just sent him this picture, recalling their time together. 

“In an exchange of letters, Pope Francis recalled our meeting in San Miguel-AR [Argentina] from 23-29/02/1972 and sent me this photo,” Boff writes.

This incident suggests that Pope Francis and Leonardo Boff have had a friendly relationship long before Bergoglio became pope in 2013. As a matter of fact, Boff claimed in 2016 – in an interview with the Kölner Stadt-Anzeigr – that Pope Francis is “one of us. He has turned Liberation Theology into a common property of the Church. And he has widened it.” 

‘You will be astonished what Francis will achieve’

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel days after Jorge Bergoglio's papal election, Boff revealed that he knew Bergoglio personally. “Yes, [I met him] a few years ago [sic], at a conference in Argentina. He made a wise presentation there, we liked each other immediately.” (It is not clear whether Boff refers here to the 1972 conference, which took place much earlier than only “a few years ago.”)

In that same 2013 interview, Boff announced: “He [Bergoglio] is now Pope. He can [do] everything. You will be astonished what Francis will achieve.” 

“But for that,” Boff continued, “there is needed a breach with traditions. Away from the corrupt Curia of the Vatican, toward a Universal Church. And toward new, central topics: the gap between the poor and the rich, the lack of justice. It is revolutionary what has happened there in Rome: a religious from Latin American is being elected onto the Chair of Peter.” 

Boff defends Pope Francis in the Spiegel interview against the suspicion that he is an “arch-conservative,” that he is opposed to contraception, married priests and a larger role of women in the Church. “The Vatican prescribed it that way, all high-ranking prelates had to file suit there. Nothing was to be questioned. But that can change now.”

Boff also predicts the longer-range agenda of Pope Francis, and does it just a few days after his election. When asked as to whether he had indications that Bergoglio “thinks in more liberal terms,” the liberation theologian answers: “Yes. A few months ago, for example, he explicitly permitted that a homosexual couple could adopt a child. He kept contact with priests who were rejected by the official Church because they had married. And he never let himself be distracted from his own line. And that was: We have to be on the side of the poor, and if need be, also in contradiction to those in power.”

Still in the year of 2013, Boff wrote a book about Francis of Assisi and Francis of Rome (i.e., Pope Francis), endorsing this Pope as someone who will “rebuild the Church” after an “ecclesiastical winter” and thereby inviting his followers to drop old disagreements of detail between his own Liberation Theology and the Theology of the People as it had been developed by the Jesuit Fr. Juan Carlos Scannone, among others, one of Bergoglio's important friends and teachers. 

‘I have given him my counsel’

Pope Francis, when visiting Brazil in July of 2013, was trying to meet with Leonardo Boff in person. In a German interview, Boff confirms this fact: “Yes, but only after he had concluded the reform of the Curia. In Rio, the Pope explicitly asked to receive a book from me. It was just published and is called  Francis of Assisi and Francis of Rome: a new Church spring? The Archbishop of Rio has given it to him.” Thus, Bergoglio reached out to Boff, not long after his election. Not long after that, the Pope asked Boff to help him write his encyclical Laudato si (published in 2015). Boff also says that Francis read some of his books: “More than that [reading Boff's books]. He asked me for material for the sake of Laudato Si. I have given him my counsel and sent to him some of what I have written. Which he has also used. Some people told me they were thinking while reading: 'Wait, that is Boff!'” 

Boff, in a 2013 interview with El Pais, insists that Jorge Bergoglio himself is a liberation theologian: “Francis is a liberation theologian elaborated by Scanone, who was the one who somehow sustained some attitudes of Peronism,” Boff then explained. He reminded his interlocutor that Bergoglio had been Scannone's student in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

As a matter of fact, Scannone himself happens to be in the same picture at the 1972 conference in Argentina which Pope Francis had just sent to Leonardo Boff. (We owe this information to Giuseppe Nardi from Katholisches.info in Germany.) Scannone was at the time the rector of the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology at the Jesuit College of San Miguel, Argentina, which explains his presence in the photo. 

Scannone is counted as one of the founders of the Theology of the People, and in an interview also shortly after Bergoglio's election, in May of 2013, he said about Bergoglio that “in Argentina, he defended what I call the 'Argentine line of liberation theology,' called by some 'Theology of the People,' and I assume that he will continue to promote it, without ignoring other theological orientations.” 

Also Bergoglio's own long-term theological adviser, Father Carlos Maria Galli, has just published, in July of 2019, a book together with Boff and other liberation theologians – among them Paulo Suess who is one of the key figures at the pre-synodal council for the upcoming Amazon Synod. This  new book, which is titled The Winds Blow from the South, is about how the missionary spirit of the Southern Hemisphere – especially Latin America and the Carribean – is now changing the Church. The book intends “to look at the world from another perspective (from the periphery) and to break with Eurocentrism,” as an announcement of the book expressly states. The time has come for the “new churches” of the Southern Hemisphere, churches “with a new face” that has been formed by the “creative reception” of the Second Vatican Council. 

For the authors of this new book, with the election of Pope Francis, and from the very beginning, the winds have been “blowing from the South and forging a new ecclesial situation.” There is a “strong and disconcerting wind” which shows itself “in bold initiatives, such as the reform of one's own house, the Roman Curia.”

Galli, therefore, does not seem to have any difficulties to co-authoring a book with Leonardo Boff who, in 1985, was silenced by the Vatican. But that was then under another pontiff, and under the influence of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who at the time as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith met with Boff in Rome in 1984 in order to challenge his theological views. “What I can say is that the dominant tendency in the Vatican under this pontificate [of John Paul II] is highly fundamentalist,” commented Boff still in 2001.

Boff accused Pope Benedict of ‘fundamentalist rigidity’

Boff also has some strong denunciatory words about Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI: “A Cardinal like J. Ratzinger who publishes an official [Vatican] document in which he says that the only true Church is the Catholic Church and that the rest are not even churches, that the only legitimate religion is the Catholic religion and that the others have no faith (they are only convictions and beliefs) – he commits religious terrorism and is in grave theological error, as well.”

Some ten years later, in 2012, Boff retained his critical views of Ratzinger who had then become Pope Benedict XVI. Speaking then once more with the Spiegel, the theologian says that he would, if he could, tell Pope Benedict to “stop spreading fear among the faithful, stop your fundamentalist rigidity! Do not perceive yourself as doctrinal teacher, but, rather finally as a shepherd, as someone who encourages the faithful, because that is your main task as Pope!” At the moment of Benedict's election in 2005, Boff explains, “I said: it will be difficult to love this Pope. In the seven years that he has exercised his office, I have found nothing that would encourage me. It all only became worse.” “Discipline, nothing else than discipline,” he comments. Boff also claims that Benedict “is mainly interested in fortifying the power apparatus of the Vatican.”

Boff further complains that Pope Benedict “repeated on his trips the same old story, preaches his no to contraception, his no to women in the priesthood, his no to homosexuality. He misses the real theological problems.”

The liberal theologian claims that the Pope did not understand Liberation Theology. “Had he [Benedict] read a little bit of Marx and less Augustine and Bonaventura, then he would have better understood the suppression of the poor and Liberation Theology,” Boff said in an April 2010 interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

In line with these many critical thoughts about Pope Francis' predecessor, Boff even goes so far as to call Benedict an “angel of death” (“Würgeengel”): “He [Benedict] has ruled with fundamentalist rigidity, an angel of death of the Church.” 

Boff’s support of Pope Francis

But now, with Pope Francis, Boff is full of support. On 14 October 2017, he published, together with other liberation theologians of the network Amerindia (which is involved with preparing the Amazon Synod), an open letter to Pope Francis. 

“We are theologians from Latin America and the Caribbean, convened by Amerindia, a network of Christians committed to the processes of resistance and hope in our continent,” they state. They had gathered in Puebla, Mexico, working to “contribute to the processes of transformation and liberation of our peoples,”  and “emphasizing the mystical-prophetic and methodological resorts of Liberation Theology.”

They go on to state that they wish to express “our support for giving centrality to the cry of the Earth and to the cry of the victims of the anti-life system that sacrifices millions and millions of impoverished brothers and sisters.” These theologians further show sympathy with Pope Francis when they write that they “sympathize with you for the suffering imposed on you by this prophetic and pastoral attitude that concerns not only the Church, but all of humanity at this dramatic moment in history.”

This closeness to Pope Francis could also be seen in Boff's own interview with the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in December of 2016. “He [Pope Francis] has sought a reconciliation with the most important representatives of the Liberation Theology: with Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, and likewise with me,” Boff then said. 

But he also reveals that he cautioned Pope Francis as to whether he is prudent to seek such a reconciliation while Pope Benedict is still alive. “I have said to him with respect to Pope Benedict – that is to say, Joseph Ratzinger – 'But that other is still alive, after all!' He [Pope Francis] did not accept this. 'No,' he said, 'Il Papa sono io' – 'The pope, that is me!' We were welcomed to come. That is where you see his courage and his decisiveness.”

Being asked in 2016 as to what he expects Pope Francis to do, Boff answers: “Perhaps a diaconate for women, after all. Or the possibility that married priests may be again engaged in pastoral care. That is an explicit request from the Brazilian bishops to the pope, especially from his friend, the retired Brazilian Curial Cardinal Claudio Hummes. I have heard that the pope wants to meet this request – for now and for a certain experimental period in Brazil.”

Boff, who in 1992 left the priesthood and then entered the married state, says in public that he still says Mass. “I personally do not need such a decision [of admitting married priests]. It would not change anything for myself because I still do what I have always done: I baptize, I give Christian burials, and if I happen to come into a parish without a priest, then I also celebrate Mass together with the people.”

When in the mid-1980s, Rome silenced Boff, he turned his energies into the field of ecotheology, laying the foundation for his ideas that then were later included by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato si’. Boff said in an interview in 2016: “The imposition of “silentium obsequiosum” in 1985 by the Vatican forbade me from speaking and writing. That is when I began to study ecology, Earth science, and their relation to human activity. This coincided with an invitation to participate in a small, international group convened by Mikhail Gorbachev and Steven Rockefeller to explore universal values and principles essential for saving Earth from the multiple threats she faces.” 

After describing his work with prominent public figures, Boff then goes on to speak about his work with Pope Francis: “I had the opportunity to meet leading scientists while actively participating in drafting a text that significantly inspired Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. I was determined to ensure that the views of the Earth Charter would be based on a new paradigm incorporating the interdependency of all creatures—indeed the whole living fabric—and the need for mutual care.”

Boff’s decades-long ties to Pope Francis along with the Liberation-theologian’s influence on the Amazon Synod do not bode well for the synod’s outcome with respect to Catholic teaching on celibacy and male-only ordination. 

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.