What changes might the Pope introduce in the Church?: An interview with Leonardo Boff
By Leonardo Boff and Aline Rodrigues Imécio (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Leonardo Boff Blog (em português)
July 7, 2015

A few weeks ago, I gave an interview via e-mail to journalist Aline Rodrigues Imécio from Revista Época. For reasons unconnected to it, the magazine wasn’t published. As there are many people asking me similar questions to those she asked, I’m publishing it here. It might be interesting to some since the Pope is deliberately on pilgrimage these coming weeks through the poorest Latin American countries — Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.

1. Since Pope Francis took office, we have witnessed some changes in the traditional behavior of a Pope. Francis chose to sleep in a single room at the Casa Santa Marta, he uses a brass crucifix, he rejected the official Vatican car among other privileges. Do you think that Pope Francis might be able to change the image of the Catholic Church or at least the traditional image we have of the Pope?

LB: One should remember that the Pope comes from outside; he doesn’t come from old European Christendom, dying and with no future ahead. The European Church model is to have a pope as a kind of Roman emperor or pharaoh, with all the habits, vestments and titles it inherited from the Roman emperors, from the “mozzeta” (a little cape over the shoulders) — a symbol of absolute imperial power — to living in palaces and the habits that palaces impose. The Bishop of Rome, as he likes to be called — which is the oldest title — has depaganized the figure of the Papacy. He doesn’t live in the palace but in a guest house, Santa Marta. He renounced all symbols of power. He gave the famous “mozzeta” as a gift to his secretary to take home. This disappointed the Europeans in general and angered conservatives, as if the Pope had lost the dignity of the office. What guides the Pope is the tradition of Jesus which is prior to the Gospels (these began to be written 40 years after Christ’s execution on the cross, until around 90 A.D. with the Gospel of John). The Tradition of Jesus that is found between the lines in the four Gospels is the historical Jesus who raised great hope in the people, preaching the Kingdom of God (a crime of lèse-majesté because the only Kingdom was Caesar’s in Rome), telling stories full of lessons, favoring the poor and those considered public sinners, liberating people from formalism to make them free and available for the unconditional love and the inclusion of all with a total openness to God, called “Dad” (Abba). So these are the parameters that govern the Pope’s conduct. He certainly will inaugurate a new dynasty of Popes to come from the Third World, where almost 80% of Christians live. Christianity today is a Third World religion, although its origin was the First World. This Church of the Third World was considered peripheral, but it’s the one that is showing vitality, is growing and is presenting itself as a moral and political force in the definition of humanity’s destiny.

2. Another feature quite present in Francis — and that proved to be absent in Benedict XVI — is the matter of charisma with the public. Ratzinger, because of behaving more traditionally — although he surprised us by his resignation — was closed and was not a Pope who was very close to the faithful, while Francis makes efforts to ensure that at every moment he is close to Catholics and trying to understand what they expect from Catholic doctrine — his proximity to the Brazilians in the last World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro was proof of this. Therefore, my question is: Do you believe that the fact that this Pope is more mediagenic, that he is closer to the people, could make Catholicism win more followers over time?

LB: Pope Francis made it clear that he doesn’t want hear about proselytizing. He wants to win people though the seduction of the beauty, compassion and love without distinctions that stem from the message of Jesus. His first writing bears that title: “The Joy of the Gospel.” Because of this, he harshly criticizes the doctrinaire and dogmatic view of the Church that just drives the faithful away and hides what is best in Jesus’ practice and his message: a message of joy for all the people, as the Evangelist Luke says. “Gospel” in Greek means “Good News.” For many, the gospel and the Church became a nightmare, anything but joy. He wants to recover this original fact. As Cardinal in Buenos Aires, he was already living as he is today. He lived in a small apartment and not in the palace, made his food, renounced the official car, would ride a bus or subway and go up to the slums alone to have fun with the people, going into their houses and eating what they offered him. It was complete simplicity. From a young age, in high school, he had made the vow of poverty in the sense of giving centrality to the poor and living with the poor. So he chose the name Francis to refer to St. Francis of Assisi, the poverello and fratello, a simple brother to all creatures even the Wolf of Gubbio.

3. There are some Catholic Church doctrines that are closely linked to traditionalism and the target of much criticism. Failure to accept the relationship between homosexuals, divorce, and celibacy are some of them. But Pope Francis, since assuming his pontificate, has touched on these issues. He has said, for example, that celibacy can change because it is not a dogma of faith, he has been discussing better integration of divorced people into the Catholic Church, and he has said that homosexuals can not be judged or marginalized. Do you believe that these statements might signal a kind of change to the more traditional Catholic Church views? If so, how could he do that?

LB: Pope Francis is recovering common sense in the Church that has been lost largely through doctrinalism and traditionalism. This doctrinaire view leads to real scandals as happened in Africa when the Vatican demanded that the bishops prohibit condoms in countries where the population is even decreasing because of AIDS. This attitude puts principles above life, which is a theological error and inhumane. This Pope puts the individual at the center, with his problems, quests, deviations and hopes. The Church must accompany each group. In his words, “there shouldn’t be a customs guard who lets some pass and prevents others.” The Church shouldn’t be a closed castle, but “an open house for all that allows everyone to enter, no matter their moral or doctrinal state.” Moreover, “it’s like a field hospital” that tries to rescue the wounded, no matter whether they’re atheists, Muslims or Christians. He presents himself as a fully humane man, in solidarity with all other humans, beyond their ideology or religion. If they’re human then they are my brothers and sisters, especially the poor and those made invisible in society. This belongs to the tradition of Jesus which is first of all a way of living — more a spirituality than a set of truths, a spirituality made of humanitarian values of solidarity, care and love. This is the great revolution in and of the Church — shifting the center from the Church to the world and from the world to the poor. It’s very hard for the cardinals and bishops who, vain, consider themselves illegitimately “the princes of the Church.” The latter resist because power is always tempting for the personal advantages it confers. The Pope is well able to distinguish what is a mere discipline that can change such as celibacy, or the relationship with homosexuals of whom he has said that “they bring qualities and virtues that enrich the Church.” When and where did you hear that before? He is open to giving communion to divorced people because they are the most in need and to giving a blessing to their marriages, because their love counts before God. How could it not count for the Church that preaches that the true name of God is “love”?

4. With the trend towards the reform of the Church, Pope Francis has aroused the antipathy of some members of the Roman Curia. They say that the pressure could be such that Bergoglio’s former spokesperson in Argentina, Guillermo Marcó, has said it wouldn’t be surprising if Francis, like Benedict XVI, were to resign. Do you think the pressure of the Roman Curia on Francis could be great to the point that he feels the urge to resign?

LB: Those people don’t know who Bergoglio or Pope Francis is. He is tender and fraternal like St. Francis of Assisi to all, especially the most discriminated against. But he is a Jesuit. And as such, he is a man of excellent training, strategy, and wisdom in the management of power. Not for nothing did he send the apostolic nuncio in Santo Domingo directly to prison when it was unequivocally proven that he was a stubborn pedophile. He was called to Rome and the Pope then jailed him. He did the same with a high official (an archbishop, I think) of the Vatican Bank who came from Switzerland with a small plane with about 30 million euros, laundered money of the Mafia and some cardinals. From the airport, he went straight to prison. This Pope is not to be intimidated. He has endured death threats that have already been communicated to him. He smilingly replied: I did not ask God to make me Pope. So let Him protect me. And if they kill me, it is a sign that God has called me and I’m happy to fall into His loving arms as Father. Here we note the deep faith, as well as the total renunciation and determination of this Pope who experienced the barbaric repression of the Argentine military.

5. Among the reforms that Francis could make, do you believe that he might make more room for women in the leadership of the Church?

LB: He has said several times that it isn’t possible not to give more room to women. They are more than half the Church and have the right to participate in the decisions on the path the Church should take. The idea has even been put forward of making some women who are notable for their involvement in the Church, cardinals. “Cardinal” is a title that doesn’t require prior priestly ordination, as were Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin in France who were great politicians and laymen. And I would add an argument in favor of women. They are more than half of humankind and of the Church. They are the mothers and sisters of the other half, made up of men. So their importance is fundamental. Finally, they never betrayed Jesus, whereas the apostles fled and Peter denied him. They were the first witnesses to the greatest event of the Christian faith, Jesus’ resurrection. They were apostles to the apostles.

6. Last year, Pope Francis expressed interest in reading your book, Church: Charism and Power, in which the hierarchical nature of the Church is discussed. What kind of change do you believe that this might represent?

LB: What the Pope has been saying about the Church, its mistakes, his criticism of the conservatives, calling them “Ash Wednesday” people, people “sour as vinegar,” as sad as if they were at their own funeral, is much more serious than what I wrote in the book Church: Charisma and Power in 1982 that was adjudicated by the former Inquisition in 1984 in Rome. I tried to apply the principles of liberation theology to the internal relations of the Church. And then I realized how it, an an institution, is absolutist, authoritarian, doesn’t respect human rights in order to always uphold the “sanctity of the institution” (see the concealment of pedophiles when it could have acknowledged that there were some not only among priests, but also among bishops and even among the cardinals). If he had said [those things] in those days, he would have been condemned much more than me. Now we live in times of truth and freedom. This Pope loves transparency; he has renounced the exceptionalism of the Church as if it alone were the legitimate bearer of Jesus’ message. In ecumenism, the line has already been set: let’s walk together with our differences but all in the service of the people and the world. This mutual recognition and the common mission as service to others is the step that needed to be taken and he, just with common sense, took it.

7. Finally, what do you expect from Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in the coming years?

LB: If they don’t liquidate him (beware of the Mafiosi who were in Calabria, all excommunicated by the Pope and they are vengeful and are associated with people in the Roman Curia), I believe there will come a great revival of the ethical, religious, and political meaning of Christianity that is greater than the Church. It has already been suggested — and I did so by letter — that an assembly of all Christian faiths be convened to see how they can oppose globalization that is bad for the poor and at the same time open up a new space for people to meet and the possibility of coming into contact with the Christian message. He answered that he wants to do this, but only after putting the Church in order internally, with a reform of the Curia, that is, of the ruling power bodies of the Church. This isn’t easy because Catholics are a whole “China”, one billion two hundred million believers. How do you coordinate this huge cast of faithful? Only through decentralization, with a small corps of experts in religious power that oversees communities to maintain a minimum of unity in diversity. For this, the Church must be deconcentrated, declericalized (make celibacy optional), give more space to women (who knows, maybe even access to the priesthood as several very close Christian denominations such as the Anglicans have done), depatriarchalized in the sense that only men have access to religious power, and include more laymen and laywomen not just in mere participation — something they already do — but in specific decisions on which path to take in this globalized world. After that would come a meeting with all religions and spiritual paths so that together they might maintain the sacred flame that burns within each person and drives them to do good, love the truth and overcome all divisions and exclusions. That would be the glory. And deep down that’s what everyone expects of Christians and religious people and I think corresponds to what Jesus wanted deep down when he walked among us.