Leonardo Boff, born in Concórdia (Santa Catarina, Brazil) in 1938, is one of the founding fathers of Liberation Theology and a leading exponent of eco-theology. For 22 years he held the Chair in Systematic and Ecumenical Theology at the Franciscan Theological Institute of Petrópolis in Brazil. He then received his doctorate in philosophy at the State University of Rio de Janeiro where he taught ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophical ecology. Condemned in 1985 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the ideas expressed in his book Church: Charism and Power – Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, he left the Franciscan order in 1992 (which he entered in 1959), and pursued his activity as a lay theologian. He won the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize (Right Livelihood Award) in 2001 and was given honoris causa laureates from various universities as well as one in political science from the University of Turin, handed to him by Norberto Bobbio. He has written about 100 books in the areas of theology, philosophy, ethics, spirituality, and ecology. We are enormously grateful to him for agreeing to respond to the following questions.
Alberto Deambrogio: In Italy, every day we are stunned to read the data on infections and deaths due to coronavirus in Brazil. In reality, it is not only that these numbers are shocking; they are also unacceptable because we know that behind them there is a conscious political choice made by the president of the country. Can you summarise the crisis that Brazilian society is undergoing, its fascisisation intended and constructed by Jair Bolsonaro?
The current president Jair Bolsonaro, whose grandparents come from northern Italy, is a military man who was forced into retirement because he was considered psychologically disturbed. He accomplished nothing as a three-time parliamentarian. He was elected president through a massive campaign of fake news and defamation – which was undisguised hate speech and a clear defence of military dictatorship against democracy. The wealthy strata of our society have never accepted anyone as president who came from the lower class, from the popular strata like Lula. They have been and still are great allies of Bolsonaro. To avert Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) and its candidate somebody had to become president: Bolsonaro is of the extreme right and has said that he had no political project other than dismantling everything that had been done in the last 50 years in terms of social rights, opening up to the poor and black population, for the university, as well as other conquests achieved by the organised people. He directly preached policy against the indigenous peoples, homosexuals, and against gender issues. When he came into office, he considered Covid-19 a simple cold. He opposed science and all vaccines. He propagated the idea of curing the virus with chloroquine, in contradiction to science. He waged an open campaign against physical distancing and the use of masks and encouraged gatherings of people. His choice was mass contamination to reach herd immunity from the virus. This policy cost the lives of thousands of people who would be alive but for this choice. In Manaus in Amazonia this lethal policy was field-tested – it was a veritable massacre with hundreds of fatalities. Bolsonaro never showed empathy for the victims and never visited a hospital. He named a military man as minister of health, a person who knew nothing of medicine and of the virus. The result is that now we have about 560,000 dead and 20 million who have been infected. A parliamentary commission was formed to indict this negligence and other crimes against the health of an entire people. It is very probable that Bolsonaro will be condemned here in Brazil and charged before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for crimes against humanity.
In the last weeks, huge popular demonstrations have shaken the country. Once again the Brazilian movements have shown their vitality, their organisational autonomy and capacity. Can you tell us how they confronted this difficult period of the pandemic? Have they had to change their modes of action and expression? Is there an effective connection between movements of different inspiration (labour, environmental, indigenous, LGBTQ+, citiziens’) able to create a convergence among common struggles?
Our problem is that we have an extremely weak and right-wing parliament with state institutions contaminated by corruption and insensitive to collective suffering. President Bolsonaro has opted for the economy and not for the life and health of the people. He has promoted work in the large companies that do not respect health-safety measures, allowing life to go on as if everything were normal. The demonstrations were not sufficiently strong to create a true anti-government opposition, especially because of the danger of viral contagion. A kind of national trauma was created that impedes demonstrations – with everyone hostage to fear, especially of losing a job. Today there are 16 million people without work. There is famine and poverty as never before in our history. There is a climate of despondency and of overall inertia to the point that people cannot see light at the end of the tunnel of this tragedy. There are no prophetic voices being raised in the Catholic Church as there were at the time of the military dictatorship, with bishops like Helder Camara and Cardinal Arns of São Paulo. Bolsonaro has militarised the most important government posts – there are more than 6 thousand military men in the most important offices of the administration.
All of us in Italy hope that Lula can become president of Brazil again. After the long, unjust, painful purgatory in which he has had to patiently bear the weight of an illegal act (as did Dilma), now he seems to have fully returned to the political stage and regained the trust of many activists and citizens. His stature is beyond dispute and is seen, once again, when he insists that responsibility be taken to vaccinate the whole world against COVID. I cannot forget, however, that you yourself, before the Brazil Olympics five years ago, had very precise and critical words for the government then in power. You said, if I remember well, more or less: ‘Be careful, with your decisions you are one step away from changing your nature!’ How do you see Brazil’s political future, the possible new election of Lula? What are the lessons of the past that ought not to be forgotten by a possible new government that liberates Brazilians from Bolsonaro?
Lula patiently suffered more than 500 days of unjust imprisonment. I was the first to have visited him in jail and could see his will to continue in his mission to liberate the poor from the neo-colonial domination still in force in the country. This has deepened his perspective, and, now liberated, he has gained everyone’s respect, even that of his enemies. He is now travelling throughout the country to raise hope and create the popular conditions for a government able to recuperate all that has been systematically destroyed. According to polls, Lula is widely favoured, leaving Bolsonaro 30-40 points behind. He will surely be elected if there is not some sort of military intervention to prevent it or a move on the part of the world system of accumulation, which sees in Lula an alternative to the world dominion of capitalism. He has added to his discourse something that was not very present in his government: the ecological question, as a strategic issue for humanity and Brazil’s important function due to its abundant natural resources, particularly potable water and the biodiversity of its Amazon region.
Edgar Morin has said that ‘an end has to be put to that arrogant humanism that continued to believe that we are the subject of the world and that, ultimately, the world was created for us’. He then highlights how a new idea of knowledge, of science, is needed as well as critical education. I would like to ask you, who in your spiritual path have highlighted an original and precious union with science – the science of the earth and cosmology in particular –, what idea to you have of its role in our society? What are the possibilities and dangers that it presents to us?
I see myself not as a pessimist or an optimist but as a critical realist. I clearly see that we need to change the paradigm of civilisation if we want to continue to live on this planet Earth. For me this was very much emphasised by Pope Francis in his encyclical Fratelli tutti. According to the encyclical we need to effect a radical change in human society: to pass from the human being as dominus (boss and lord) of the earth in which we do not feel ourselves to be a part of nature, and we need to become a frater (brother/sister) together with all human beings and all the other creatures, whether in Saint Francis’s mystical sense or in the modern sense that has demonstrated that all living beings have the same biological basis, from the original cell of 3.8 million years ago, going through the dinosaurs and arriving at us humans. We form the great community of life, in the same Common Home. We urgently need to change from a culture of accumulation of material for senseless consumption and of wealth for a small group, toward a culture of human-spiritual goods founded on solidarity, collaboration, people’s caring for others and for nature, toward a culture whose centre is life and social love. Without this paradigm shift the words of the Pope in Fratelli tutti hold true: We will save all of us or no one will be saved. I strongly doubt that the capitalist and neoliberal system has sufficient political will and the wisdom to take this step. I suspect that we are headed in the direction of an enormous ecological-social tragedy that can put the survival of human life and other forms of life at risk. But, as a believer, I hope that God, in the words of the Book of Wisdom (11,26), is truly the ‘lover of life’ who will not let humanity come to an end in such a miserable way. All depends on our relation to Mother Earth and with nature: whether it is an amicable one respectful of its rhythms or one of devastation. We are living within the seventh destruction of lives in the new era of the anthropocene. Let us change the mode of life in our Common Home or the Earth may no longer want to have our human species, which is so destructive in the face of all the other forms of life.
The Theology of Liberation has continued to be an inspiration for very many men and women in Latin America and the world even in years of extreme difficulty for its effective practice and development. Now that general conditions seem more favourable, can you tell us what the goals and new developments are toward which the Theology of Liberation wants to evolve? That is, what are the most promising seeds of a theology that has for too long been marginalised and yet is so fertile and has so much to offer?
We should not forget that for 34 years we have been under the ecclesiastical direction of two conservative popes: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They have never understood the fundamental intuition of this type of theology, which was and is absolutely evangelical: the option for the poor, against poverty, for social justice and the liberation of the poor. Both of them were hostages of the dominant ideology of anti-communism, dominant in the West during the Cold War period. Today, with the increase in world poverty, especially now with COVID-19, liberation theology indubitably fits the times. It asks everyone to have compassion for those who suffer in this world, the hungry and the desperate who have lost what they love. As long as one poor person exists, a victim of oppression, who cries out, there will always be someone who in the spirit of Jesus will hear this cry – also the cry of the Earth – and will work for that person’s liberation. Today the most urgent challenge of this theology is to simultaneously hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth. Both are being crucified; we have to let them come down from the cross and live.
And finally: You who from the beginning of his pontificate have had positive, promising, and encouraging words to say about Pope Francis – what judgement do you feel you can give now, at this point, on the straight path of Bergoglio? I am asking you especially from the social and pastoral point of view.
For me, Bergoglio, appointed Bishop of Rome and thus Pope of the whole Church, with the name of Francis, is a gift of God, not only for the Church but for all of humanity. The name Francis is an entire programme in itself: to listen to the human poor and the crucified Earth, to indict those responsible for the ecologically dramatic situation of the world, a system that kills natural and human lives, an assassinating system. This type of world has to end. Not the world but this kind of world. I believe that COVID-19 has given a sign and offered a lesson. We cannot continue with the usual, old normality because it is too cruel and merciless. We have to operate a radical ecological and social conversion if we want to have a future. Otherwise, the Earth will send us a whole spectrum of new viruses, perhaps more lethal than the coronavirus itself. Pope Francis, despite this tragic situation, is sparking hope in the capacity for transformation that human beings have and in particular hope in the living God, who through the Man from Nazareth has assumed our humanity, who through his resurrection and the assumption of Mary, with all of his humanity, are already at the heart of the Trinity. Something of ourselves has already been eternalised. For me, Pope Francis is the most important leader of humanity and of Christianity, especially in view of the lack of prophetic voices in society and in world politics.
originally published at the website of transform! Italia