by Viviane Hewitt in Rome and Cristina Odone
ONE OF the founding fathers of Liberation Theology, Brazilian Franciscan Fr Leonardo Hoff, has announced that he will leave the priesthood.
Fr Boff, who was sentenced to a year of "devoted silence" by Rome in 1985 for his "controversial" theology, said in a letter made public this week that he could no longer tolerate the restrictions the Vatican was imposing upon him.
In his letter of resignation, sent to his provincial superior in April but only released this week. Fr Hoff pointed to his friction with the Vatican, with its "boxing-in of intelligent theology", as the reason for his resignation.
The subjective experience that I collected in these 20 years with the doctrinal power," Fr Boff writes, "is this: it is cruel and without pity."
A leading scholar of Liberation Theology in Britain. Fr Gilbert Markus OP, told the Catholic Herald that although he greeted the news of Fr Boff's retirement with "sadness", Liberation Theology would not be affected. The movement, said Fr Markus, "was not invented by theologians: it is a Christian response to difficult political and economic problems, and to violence."
Fr Markus also pointed out that Fr Bars critics were not all in the Vatican: many members of the Brazilian hierarchy had called for the silencing of the Franciscan by the Vatican.
Fr Boff's troubles with Rome began in 1971, when Liberation Theology, which emphasises ministry for the poor even if it means clerical participation in government, was taking shape.
The Vatican was particularly concerned at the spread of Liberation Theology in Latin America, where in some countries priests became government ministers in Marxist regimes in the 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1984, Fr Boff was invited to Rome to engage in "dialogue" with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Bavarian-born Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was ordered that all Fr Boff's writings be subject to a dual censorship, by the Franciscan order and by his local bishop.
The following year, Fr Boff was sentenced to a year of "devoted silence" for his book on Liberation Theology, which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judged to be verging on heresy. He was forbidden to teach in any Catholic faculty, and removed as editor of a Brazilian ecclesiastical review.
Fr Markus said that the Vatican "has, in fact, some sympathy for Liberation Theology, but sees dangers inherent in it, such as questioning of Church authority, and a tendency for theologians to say 'unless you agree with us, you are one of the oppressors.'" Fr Boff's resignation comes within days of the Pope's statement that constructive criticism of the Church is welcome. A top Vatican official said recently that Rome was taking a "wait-and-see" attitude about Fr Boff and his work.
In his letter of resignation, Fr Boff writes: "No one can say I did not collaborate. I answered all the letters. I negotiated twice my removal from my teaching post."
He said he accepted the silence imposed on him by the Vatican, preferring to "journey with the Church rather than alone with my theology". He said he would not abandon the "tender, irrational" dream of St Francis of Assisi and that he would continue as a theologian "of the Catholic, ecumenical stamp".
In Rome, a top Franciscan official said the order must respect Fr Boff's decision. Fr Kurt Schweiss, assistant to the minister general, said this week that the Franciscan headquarters had not been informed directly by Fr Boff of his intention to leave the order.
Fr Boff has told the Brazilian press that he plans to continue his work with the poor.