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LATIN AMERICA: ‘Christians Should Take Poverty and Justice Seriously’

Interview with Leonardo Boff

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 26 2008 (IPS) - Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff arrived in El Salvador on Easter Sunday, the eve of the 28th anniversary of the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero by a sniper on Mar. 24, 1980, while he was celebrating mass.

 Credit: Leonardo Boff&#39s blog

Credit: Leonardo Boff's blog

Boff participated in events held to commemorate the murder of Romero, known to Roman Catholics in El Salvador as “the voice of the voiceless.”

A former Franciscan priest born in 1938, Boff said his visit to San Salvador was “a debt I owed to Monsignor Romero,” who was archbishop of this diocese.

“Oscar Romero died because of his love for the poor. He initiated a kind of martyrdom for the sake of justice, arising from a deeply committed faith. Basically, he imitated the deeds of Christ,” he said.

The U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission concluded in 1993 that the late Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, the founder of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), ordered Romero’s killing. ARENA has governed El Salvador since 1989.

The Vatican has initiated a process of beatification for the late Salvadoran archbishop.

In 2000, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) blamed the Salvadoran state for violating Romero’s right to life and failing to investigate his murder.

Last October, the government rejected responsibility for the crime, and refused to follow the IACHR’s recommendations.

One of the founders of Liberation Theology and the author of 60 books, Boff’s views, summed up in “Church: Charisma and Power – Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church” (1985), were frowned on by the Vatican, which exercised disciplinary measures against him in the 1980s and 1990s.

Joseph Ratzinger, who was then head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is now Pope Benedict XVI, imposed several of these sanctions on him, including periods of enforced silence, during which he could not celebrate mass or speak publicly about doctrinal questions.

Boff finally left the Franciscan order in 1992 and devoted himself to teaching and writing.

In his view, Romero has become “an icon, not only for the Church, but for another kind of humanism that seeks dialogue, sides with the most vulnerable, and involves salvaging the dignity of human beings and demanding changes to guarantee that dignity.” “That was seen as subversive, and therefore he was sacrificed,” Boff said.

He spoke to IPS correspondent Raúl Gutiérrez in San Salvador about human rights and religious affairs in Latin America.

IPS: What do you think is the main obstacle to clearing up the assassination of Monsignor Romero?

LEONARDO BOFF: Society has to cleanse its memory. That’s the only way that justice can be done. Human relations cannot be based on lies and impunity.

It is essential for society itself to demand that the perpetrators be identified and that the law be enforced. Unless that happens, there will always be an open wound, and people will continue to demand that the spilt blood be atoned for.

IPS: Those in power say that this would reopen the wounds of the past.

LB: That’s a profoundly selfish view, because those who died continue to belong to humankind. Human history is made up of the dead, their dignity and their actions.

The memory of the victims must be preserved, because without it, society loses the human beings who have gone before. The dead have another kind of life and presence. They are on the other side of life.

IPS: Monsignor Romero was a bishop who was appreciated and loved all over the world. In several European cathedrals, statues have been erected in his memory. Why is it that here, in El Salvador, those guilty of his murder cannot be brought to justice?

LB: Oscar Romero is a unique martyr. He died for justice and for his love of the poor. He is a kind of saint that is uncommon in the history of the Church. He initiated a kind of martyrdom for the sake of justice, arising from a deeply committed faith. Basically, he imitated the deeds of Christ. That is why I understand that the religious powers-that-be have difficulty reading this new sign; they don’t know how to interpret it.

IPS: In decades past, the ties between the Catholic Church and the people of Latin American were considered to be intense, close and strong. How do you view them now?

LB: Almost half of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. That, in itself, is a strength. But the Latin American Church’s capacity for recreating a new liturgical face, better adapted to people’s cultures, is also the Catholic Church: a Church that cherishes the memory of the wisdom of indigenous and Afro-descendant cultures. This Church is still in the process of being born.

So far it has been an appendage, a reflection of the European Church. Now it is increasingly a strong Church that is consolidating its own identity.

IPS: Protestant churches have been gaining ground in Latin America, and the Catholic Church has lost members. What do you think is the reason?

LB: It’s the Church’s own fault that it’s losing members, through being too authoritarian and centralised. It hasn’t got enough priests because they are not allowed to marry, and this is a growing cause of permanent internal crisis.

This Church is not open to change, as others are. Even Judaism has opened its doors to women’s ministry. If the Catholic Church does not open itself up, its flock will continue to shrink.

In spite of that, the Catholic Church is illuminated from its base, from Bible study groups, social pastorates for land, and Afro-descendants’ and indigenous people’s organisations, which is where its vitality lies.

IPS: Is there any connection between the loss of members and the Catholic liberation theology movement, which was very strong three decades ago, but lost momentum and saw its leaders removed?

LB: Studies show that the Church is growing where liberation theology is alive. Where it is absent, charismatic churches and sects gain ground. This has been statistically demonstrated.

Nor is it true that liberation theology has driven people out of the Catholic Church. I think there have been attempts to demoralise adherents of liberation theology and to deny the movement legitimacy, and therefore many Christians who do not understand how the pope and the bishops can be on the side of the oppressors and the rich, and not on the side of the poor, have become discouraged.

IPS: What are the challenges that liberation theology faces in order to reawaken its dampened spirit?

LB: At the recent World Forum on Theology and Liberation in Nairobi, which attracted representatives from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the United States, we saw its immense vitality and growth. But it is not as visible, nor as controversial, as it used to be. Liberation theology is present wherever the churches take poverty and justice seriously.

The movement began with the experience of listening to marginalised people: the poor, indigenous people, Afro-descendants and women, and it is still as relevant as it was decades ago, because the poor are still crying out to God to hear them. A gospel that does not lead to liberation is no gospel at all.

I don’t care about criticism from the powerful of the world and from the Church. What I care about is that there are Christians who take the issue of justice seriously.

Liberation theology has not made poor people an object of reflection. It has walked with them, and shared the same persecutions, slanders, tortures and murders that they suffer. A theologian has one foot in extreme poverty and the other foot in reflection, and by walking on both, arrives at liberation.

And now we must pay attention to the cry of the gang members and young people who have no place in society, the unwanted ones, who are neglected by public policies: drug addicts, those caught up in violence, the wretched of the earth.

But we must also heed the cry of the earth, the water, the forests and the animals, threatened by an insensitive and merciless culture, which may bring about a crisis in the web of life and cause hundreds of species to disappear.

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