De Rorate Caeli:
S: Professor Boff, were you surprised, ecstatic, or horrified when you heard about who was elected in Rome?
Boff: I had hoped that the new Pope would take the name Francis - and had predicted that it would happen this way. In this sense my reaction was one of great satisfaction, coupled with the hope that something would finally change in this catastrophically antiquated church. For this choice of name is programmatic: Francis of Assisi stands for a church of the poor and the oppressed, for environmental awareness and against great love of pomp and circumstance.
And you are not disappointed that Cardinal Odilo Scherer from Sao Paulo wasn’t elected at the conclave?
Boff: Good heavens! Anything is better than Ratzinger on the throne of Peter, to be sure, but Scherer is an arch-conservative who has adopted all the positions of the curia. The fact that the new Pope hails from South America, from the region with the most Catholics in the world, and not, as was customary, from Europe - that is something I am happy about. Christendom has long had its center in the Third World, and that is something that has now been taken into account by the election of a South American. But much more important than this is this other change: a shift towards the vision of an unassuming church, one of humility. And that is the kind of church the new Pope stands for.
Cardinal Bergoglio has criticized liberation theologians like you as too far left, too Marxist.
Boff: In Argentina, critical theologians have positioned themselves differently than my friends and I have in Brazil. Not a church of liberation, but a “church of the people”, even in times of the dictatorship. Bergoglio became known as the “cardinal of the poor” for a reason, after all. He went into the slums and spoke to the people there; he denounced social injustice. And he walked the walk. He only had a small apartment, cooked his own meals, never used an official car. He was always close to the people - I know this from my own experience.
Did you [ever] meet him?
Boff: Yes, a few years ago at a convention in Argentina. He gave a lecture there; we hit it off right away.
You sound surprisingly euphoric, even though the new Pope is an arch-conservative - he opposes contraception, allowing priests to marry, an expanded role of women in the church, homosexual marriage...
Boff: That’s something the Vatican decreed; all high-ranking dignitaries had to go along with it. Nothing was allowed to be questioned. That can change now.
You have reason to believe that Bergoglio is more liberal?
Boff: Yes. For example, a few months ago he explicitly permitted a homosexual couple to adopt a child. He kept in touch with priests who were expelled from the official church because they had gotten married. And no one could ever persuade him to change his position, which was: we have to be on the side of the poor, even if it means opposing the powerful.
But are there not accusations against him that during the time of the military dictatorship, he did not sufficiently protect, perhaps even betrayed, two of the Jesuits under his care?
Boff: I know about these accusations. I follow Adolfo Perez Esquivel on this matter, the Argentinian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who himself was tortured for being a dissident and is well informed. He said, yes, there were bishops who were abettors of the dictatorship, but Bergoglio wasn’t one of them.
This is contradicted by close family members of the victims.
Boff: So far there has been no concrete evidence of any wrongdoing. On the contrary, he is even said to have hidden a number of priests, saving them this way. I myself met Orlando Yorio, one of the two Jesuits who was allegedly betrayed by Bergoglio. He never mentioned any such accusations to me.
What advice would you give to Pope Francis? What should he do first?
Boff: There are a lot of things in the Catholic Church that need to be fixed; she is in deplorable condition. Benedict XVI was primarily concerned with consolidating Vatican power; he governed with fundamentalist rigor, [he was] an angel of death in the church. The nearly eight years of his pontificate were even worse than my expectations, which were pretty bad already. The new Pope should work through the scandals, should encourage open, democratic discussion, without any taboos - about celibacy, contraception, the role of women. He should spread an atmosphere of renewal. I am quite optimistic that he will in fact do so.
What steps would distinguish him as a reformer?
Boff: He must decentralize the church, must grant more decision-making power to the representatives of the individual continents and countries. A lot of problems are not noticed at all behind Vatican walls. Why not hold a synod in Asia or Africa? Why not move the center of human rights within the church to Latin America?
You, more than anyone, know about the paralyzing forces in the Vatican. Bergoglio does not have a lot of good connections within the curia - how could he penetrate their insular mindset?
Boff: He is the Pope now. He can do anything. You are in for a real surprise about what Francis will do. But this will require the breaking of traditions. Away from the corrupt Vatican curia, to a church that is universal. And to new, pivotal issues: the gap between the rich and the poor, the disparity of justice. What happened in Rome is revolutionary: a religious from Latin America is elected to the chair of Peter.
Do you believe that his predecessor will interfere?
Boff: Probably not. Ratzinger’s strength is exhausted; he will retire completely. He is busy with preparing for his great encounter with the Lord.