Leonardo Boff: The Pope’s Radical ‘Ecotheologian’

Why has Pope Francis been so willing to draw on the thoughts and words of a man whose radical ideas and actions so comprehensively contradict Catholic teaching?

Leonardo Boff
Leonardo Boff (photo: Manuela D'Avila / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally billed as an international gathering at Assisi, last month’s event “The Economy of Francesco” was held online due to coronavirus restrictions. Involving dozens of speakers and hundreds of participants under the aegis of Pope Francis, the event presented itself as an historical watershed: it aimed at changing the economy of the planet by changing the very mentality of contemporary man, proposing a “new integral human development.” Judging by ratings and media coverage, it looks like the event missed the mark by a full mile.

The conference, however, worked as a launching pad for some radical schemes. One keynote speaker was Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, who is appearing more and more like a sort of presumed spokesman for Pope Francis with some of his most audacious proposals. He claimed to be a major contributor to the encyclical Laudato Si.

But who exactly is Leonardo Boff?

For many years, still a Franciscan friar, Boff maintained an unclear relationship with his assistant Márcia Monteiro da Silva Miranda, a divorced mother of six children and a militant within Brazil’s radical left movements. In 1992, faced with new disciplinary measures, Boff chose to leave the Order of Friars Minor. Without ever being granted the required dispensation, he declared himself detached from the order and civilly married Monteiro da Silva, usually presented as his “companion.”

Leonardo Boff is best known as one of the foremost representatives of the radical variants of “Liberation Theology” that were condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984. This theology starts from the analysis of the current revolutionary processes, specifically those that lead towards Communism. For this purpose it resorts to Marxist analysis. “What we propose is not to put theology into Marxism, but to put Marxism — historical materialism — in theology,” wrote Boff in his 1980 book Marxism and Theology. 

Boff’s Marxist commitment led him to support Communist dictatorships. In 1985, a trio of liberation theologians went to Cuba — brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, along with the Dominican Friar Betto. Their impressions of the Fidel Castro regime were reported in an unusual “Theological Letter on Cuba,” written on behalf of the trio by Friar Clodovis: “Although the presence of the Church is very weak, that of the Kingdom is very strong.... The Kingdom of God is written into the Cuban structures.” Unable to deny the extreme poverty besetting the former “Pearl of the Antilles,” they tried to give it a spiritual character: There is great sobriety and austerity. We liked life reduced to essentials. For us, austerity is an ideal of social life...Cuba seemed an immense community of religious living evangelical poverty.” 

The Theological Letter on Cuba” was followed by an equally bizarre Theological Letter on the USSR,” resulting from a 1987 journey by the same trio to the Soviet Union. There, too, the liberation theologians saw “values ​​of the kingdom.” To complete their tour of communist dictatorships, the trio also went to China and praised the “modest and restrained life” of the Chinese under socialism. 

As shocking as Boff’s socio-political positions may be, his ecclesiology is even more so. In 1985 it was formally condemned by the Vatican: “The options of L. Boff analyzed here endanger the sound doctrine of the faith.”

Boff proposes an ecclesial revolution that would lead to the end of the Catholic Church as we have known it for two thousand years and to the emergence of a new Church: “We are seeing the rising of a new Church, born in the heart of the old Church,” he wrote in his 1986 book Church: Charism and Power (which the Vatican censured). “Reinvention” is the buzzword used to describe this immense upheaval. Boff wants nothing less than to “reinvent” the Church: “The best conceptualization of this experience is the expression ‘reinvention of the church.’ The Church is beginning to be born at the grassroots,” he wrote in the 1986 book Ecclesiogenesis, the Base Communities Reinvent the Church.

In that work, Boff starts from a Modernist thesis that “during his life Jesus did not found a Church” — thinking formally condemned as heretical by Pope Pius X. To buttress his thesis, Boff does not hesitate to call upon the excommunicated Alfred Loisy: “Alfred Loisy, the modernist, stated the problem well when he wrote, somewhat disconcertedly, ‘Christ preached the kingdom of God, and the Church appeared instead.’” According to Boff: “Essentially, the Church replaces the Kingdom. The Church as institution is not based on the incarnation of the Word but rather on faith in the power of the apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit.” It is thus basically a human institution that can be changed at will.

The most controversial aspect of his ecclesiology, however, is the proposal of a “pneumatic” or “cosmic” Church, “identified with the Spirit, rather than in terms of the carnal Jesus.” The “pneumatic Church” would be a fluid assembly of people who receive inspirations directly from the “Spirit” in the form of certain internal movements and “charismas.” These stirrings, shared by the community through certain rituals, would be the source of authority and ministry in the new Church. The “pneumatic Church” would know no limits, possess no fixed doctrine or established liturgy, structure or visible authority. To belong to this Church it would suffice to follow the inspirations of the Spirit that blows anywhere it wills. One would no longer need to obey any hierarchy, believe in certain dogmas, nor — it seems — even be baptized.

According to the Brazilian theologian, again writing in his book Church: Charism and Power, the “cosmic” Christ is an immanent presence undistinguishable from the universe, an energy flowing inside all things. The Church, then, has the dimensions of the pneumatic Christ, that is, it is boundless: “If the pneumatic — risen — Christ knows no limitations, neither may his body, the Church, confine itself to the limitations of its own dogmas, its rituals, its liturgy, or its canon law. The Church has the same boundaries as the risen Christ; and these dimensions are cosmic in nature.”

Like so many of his liberationist confreres, after the fall of the USSR and the consequent end of the revolutionary praxis that had inspired him for decades, Leonardo Boff had to recycle himself. Leaving behind his communist militancy, in 2013 he proclaimed himself an “ecotheologian” and launched the Ecotheology of Liberation: “To the cry of the poor we must now add the cry of the Earth.” To understand this ecotheology we must say a word about its doctrinal core.

Boff starts from the Marxist concept of “alienation,” according to which any distinction generates a hierarchy and, consequently, the subjection of the inferior to the superior. And this is evil. The only way to be “free” is to get rid of any “alienation.” And this can only come about by erasing any and all traces of hierarchy in the universe. According to this conception, medieval Christian civilization marked the apex of alienation in every field. Since then, through a revolutionary process of progressive emancipation, mankind has been moving towards ever more free and equal forms: “This libertarian craving is the strongest impulse in modern culture,” wrote Boff in his 1982 book, St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation.

In that book, the Brazilian theologian claims that this libertarian process took place in various stages: from humanism (liberation of reason from “religious totality”), Protestantism (freedom from the “dictatorship of the papacy”), idealism (freedom from the rigor of logic), as well as the French Revolution (political liberation), Communism (liberation from bourgeois oppression). Nietzsche proclaimed liberation of the instincts, and Freud liberated the human psyche, while Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School of philosophy proclaimed a total liberation: “Marcuse launched the manifesto of the liberation of the industrial man, reduced to only one dimension by assembly-line production.”

After having “liberated” man from all intellectual, religious, social, political, economic, moral, cultural and psychological constraints, one wonders if there are still traces of hierarchy in the universe that require “liberation.” The Brazilian theologian replies affirmatively: we must “liberate” the Earth from the “oppression” of man, and the universe itself from the “oppression” of natural laws. Boff does not shrink from calling this position “utopian” in an essay that anticipated his speech in “The Economy of Francesco.”

Boff’s utopia includes developments that go very far. Exposing his concept of the “Kingdom of God,” he states that it implies “the total and global transformation of this old world, which, through divine intervention would become the new world where sin, illness, hatred and all the alienating forces that affect human life and the cosmos are overcome.”

For the Brazilian theologian, the advent of the Kingdom of God presupposes the destruction of all “alienations,” that is, of the factors that produce hierarchy and dependence, not only among men but also in the cosmos. What does he mean by this reference to alienations that produce hierarchies in the universe? Isn’t this a consequence of God’s will? God created a hierarchical universe. He subjected all creatures to His law, and the lower creatures to the higher ones. What does this liberation of the cosmos preached by Boff imply? How can it characterize the Kingdom?

Ecotheology gives us a first answer. In the name of the rights of animals, and even those of plants, this theology rejects man’s dominion over nature as an inadmissible oppression, an “imperialism of the species” as unbearable as the socio-political and economic imperialism denounced by the more primitive forms of Liberation Theology. Boff proclaims the liberation of the cosmos that would put an end to this dominion. In fact, if the entire cosmos is animated by a single, immanent life force, it becomes imperative for man to treat nature as an equal, a sister, and not try to subordinate it to his own ends: “[We must seek] a new, tender and fraternal relationship with all human beings and with all our brothers and sisters in nature,” he wrote in November this year. 

Just what is this “liberation” of nature? What are its implications for the modern industrial society? Should man renounce the industrial exploitation of natural resources and revert to some type of more simple life, perhaps inspired in primitive tribal models, as Boff himself suggests?

At least as a working hypothesis, can we imagine even more radical “liberations”? How long will it take before some extreme version of ecotheology raises the problem of “mineral rights” and proclaims some sort of “liberation” in this realm? Unthinkable? A few years ago the mere idea of “animal rights,” let alone of “plant rights” would have been scoffed as extravagant. Today, even authoritative international agencies promote them.

This, after all, lies within the levelling logic of Leonardo Boff. After having “liberated” all living nature, “alienation” would still remain in a realm: inert matter. By subjecting things to their rule and establishing order in the universe, the laws that govern matter are instruments and symbols of the Supreme Legislator and Governor. Would they also have to somehow yield to some “liberation” process? But then, what would become of the universe if even these basic elements of order were obliterated? What would this radical nihilism mean if not the ultimate destruction of any image of the transcendent God in creation?

The Brazilian theologian seems to imply just this when, commenting on Pope Francis, he lashes out against all dominations: “Domination of the other, of social classes, peoples, cultures of Africa, Asia and the Americas, of nature down to subatomic particles such as the Higgs boson, and of the very source of life such as the genetic code.”

What on earth can the Brazilian theologian mean when he says that the Higgs boson (the one that gives mass to fundamental particles) and the genetic code suffer “domination”? From whom? From the laws of physics? Will the Brazilian theologians take his iconoclastic frenzy to such an extreme? It is not that far-fetched since extreme currents in modern thought, to which he always refers, propose a transmutation of nature that leads to the ultimate fusion of all beings, erasing all distinction among them and hence the very possibility of any “alienation.” Behold the old Gnostic dream rising to the forefront of modern thought. Once again we ask, what are the final implications of the liberation proposed by Leonardo Boff?

One thing is clear, we are speaking of a radical change in paradigm: “Today we are witnessing the end of the economy of the Logos,” he wrote in St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation. “Everything points to the fact that today we are arriving at the end of this long process, not at the end of reason, but at the end of its total rule. ... In this sense [we are] at the beginning of a new cultural dawning, we may dream of the beginning of a new reign, that of Eros and Pathos. … The Greek Logos is at the root of our culture, and the Cartesian Cogito at the root of modernity. [But] reason does not explain or touch everything. … From below there emerges something deeper, more elementary and primitive: affectivity, as an experience beyond the concrete . … gratifying feeling, sympathy and tenderness.”

To speak of the end of the civilization of the Logos and the return to “more elementary and primitive” structures is the very essence of the Gnostic pantheist utopia: “Ancient man, before the hegemony of reason, lived in a mystical union with all realities, including God, he felt umbilically linked to the surrounding world and with his own intimacy. … He lived the true archaic structures of life.” Again: what are the last horizons of the “liberation” proposed by Leonardo Boff?

I close by apologizing to the reader if, on more than one occasion, perhaps I gave the impression of writing nonsense. When it comes to Leonardo Boff, however, it is inevitable. The question is: How could such a person manage to become a spokesman for Pope Francis?

Julio Loredo is president of Tradition, Family and Property in Italy.

Sunlight illuminates a tree in full bloom as New York City celebrates Earth Day at Governors Island on April 20, 2024 in New York City. Earth Day originally started in 1970 as a way to celebrate and raise awareness about environmental issues facing the planet.

5 Catholic Ways to Celebrate Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day and in response to the Holy Father’s message urging the faithful to take action in protecting the environment, here are five ways Catholics can celebrate Earth Day.