Leonardo Boff

New York: Crossroad, 1982.
Translated from the Spanish by John W. Diercksmeier.
ISBN # 0-8245-0488-7.
178 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2005

I first read this book in 1983, one year after it was published in English. I had gotten to Leonardo Boff and Liberation Theology via the works of non-liberation theory writers, Ivan Illich and Paulo Friere. Then when I came across this book, centered on the life of one of my key moral models, Francis of Assisi, I was immediately attracted.

In my intensive reading in 1983 I outlined the book in detail and wrote a great deal of commentary on it. I have no idea where all that work disappeared to. However, in the intervening 22 years I have often brought up this book and especially used the material of the preferential option of the poor, discussing it in relation to classical Marxist doctrine of class warfare.

However, earlier this month I read Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel St. Francis and was somewhat troubled by his curious mix of fact and fiction – which, of course, one expects in fiction – so I decided to return to the Boff book.

Leonardo Boff is attracted to St. Francis since he is a model of what Boff and other liberation theologians are looking for – a way to be inside the Roman Catholic Church, yet one that serves, unites and embraces the poor. He says:

The Church carries within itself constant tension; it proclaims what can never be put into practice, the utopia of the kingdom and radical fraternity amoung the people. It was precisely these values that Francis lived: the man of the Gospel, sincere, simple and authentic, but radical to the greatest degree, which always allowed him to be obedient to the church of tradition as well as to the church of the poor.

It’s easy to see how Boff would not only see St. Francis as a model of human liberation, but as a model for Liberation Theology as movement.

Boff is perhaps a bit generous in his assessment of what is and what is likely to be. I understand and admire his call to not hesitate in embracing a utopianism of aim that includes a “radical fraternity among people…” But, aiming at utopia is one thing, proclaiming it to be at hand is another. One a hope and quest, the other a description of fact.

His optimism extends to his own Franciscan order which Francis was reluctant to found at best, and one of the few religious orders to have survived the destructive weight of time, and even then, survived with less Francis visible in it than Francis himself is likely to have wished.

I will make a few comments following the book in chronological order and invite discussion with anyone who chances on these notes.

Chapter 1 – St. Francis: A model of gentleness and care -- 3-47

Boff’s first chapter recognizes a slight tension in his using Francis as his model. There is a significant difference in their approaches to the world. Francis leads with his heart, intuition and feeling. Boff and his 20th century colleagues certainly have great compassion and care, but they lead with intellectual analyses of modern cultures, politics and economic systems. They are driven by reason.

Boff and the Liberation Theologians are closer to Descartes’ centrality of reason: I THINK therefore I am. But Boff takes time to reveal this tension. For Francis the central reality is: I FEEL therefore I am.

However, Liberation Theology is not so locked into reason that it cannot recognize serious dangers. Science and technology have brought us face to face with the apocalypse and our modern economic world divides the classes dramatically and human misery compounds.

Boff’s emphasis, however, is radically different from Francis in one important regard: For Francis the problem of sainthood and perfection is a problem of the individual. We humans are weak and sinful. We need to shape up to earn eternal salvation and be pleasing to God. For Boff and the Liberation Theology folks, the problems of suffering and inequality are first and foremost structural.

The crisis that we are all suffering is structural in nature and concerns the basics of our system of life together. This is the reason for its dramatic and undeniable character. The crisis of the global system derives from the crisis specific to the ruling class, the bourgeois class that has directed our history for the past five centuries. The ethos of this class, that is, its practices and the meaning that is given to them, the forms of relationships that consecrated and gave rise to the rest of the social classes, shows itself more or less incapable of assimilating, within its own structure, new and emerging forms, just as it is meaningful for everyone. We find ourselves at the end of one era and at the beginning of a new one. Within this context, the figure of Francis is a highly appealing one.

Later on Boff says:

the Christian utopia in which one refers to goods and services is not based on either poverty or wealth, but rather on the just measure granting privilege to being over having, and solidary uses over individualistic consumerism.”

Yet Francis’ view of his utopian world was a sort of madcap individualism of those committed to a radical notion of gospel simplicity, dedication to God, and peaceful co-existence with other living beings, human and non-human alike. However, that vision didn’t really survive the first generation of Franciscans.

Throughout the book I find a serious tension between these two approaches – perfection via structural reform (Boff) and perfection by individual sainthood and “modeling.” (Francis). Boff will address this more head on in chapter two, but even in his introduction he is clearly aware of the centuries-old attraction that Francis the saint, the radical individual, God’s fool, has held for the world.

What most impresses modern humanity when faced with the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi is his innocence, his enthusiasm for nature, his gentleness with all beings, his capacity for compassion with the poor and of confraternization with all the elements, and all even with death itself. Rollo May states: “Innocence is the preservation of an infantile clarity at an adult age. Everything retains its freshness, its purity, its newness and color. It leads to spirituality; it is the innocence of Saint Francis of Assisi in his preaching to the birds.” And here is where all of the fascination with Saint Francis is found.

I find myself thinking that Boff is at times a revisionist of who Francis really was. At the end of this introductory chapter Book asks:

Francis has left us with a serious question: is it possible, as he tried to do, for any group to live the Gospel utopia of radical poverty as a way of achieving a real fraternity?

I think the question of that possibility is an intriguing question, but it seems very unfair to pin such a question on Francis for at least two reasons:

  1. Francis knew and caved into the answer: NO. He accepted that even in regard to the select few of his own order. He fought and lost that battle in his own lifetime. The Franciscans had adopted a weaker version of communal poverty than he wanted.
  2. But more importantly, Boff has subtly shifted tactics and goals. The aim of poverty for Francis was not “…real fraternity.” It was individual perfection and sainthood – the community was a tool for serving God and earning eternal life.

    Boff admits this and tries to excuse the Franciscan order:

    But we also know that the entire history of Franciscanism, starting with the last years of Saint Francis’s life, moved in another direction. More and more, poverty as identification with the poor and living by pure necessity were abandoned and became a conception of poverty as an ascetic and mystical identification with the poverty of the incarnate God who, being God, became human, and not a human god who voluntarily became poor.

    I am sympathetic with Boff’s analysis of both Francis’s role of charismatic leader and what the loss of his leadership meant, and to Boff’s notion of living in the wider historical moment into which one is thrown.

    However, this view is still at odds with FRANCIS as the model of human liberation and more suggests the (un-Franciscan) Franciscan Order as the model.

Chapter 2 – Preferential option for the poor: 48-80

This is my favorite chapter of the book. I am especially drawn to it since I see in this chapter a way to genuinely avoid the various “class warfare” versions of modern poverty which vilifies the rich in order to express outrage at the misery of the poor. Boff subtly, but critically, gives us a different way to put the needs of the poor to the fore.

However, before I jump into Boff’s “preferential option,” I want to frame a puzzle that nags at me throughout the book and is especially relevant at this point.

There is an ambiguous notion concerning freedom. The book, even, by title is about liberation. But liberation from what and for what?

Running throughout is the notion of freedom from poverty, suffering and lack of control over one’s own life – powerlessness. What is not so clear is how these are related.

Francis has few material things but he chooses his life form, and while he suffers hunger, thirst, the extreme cold and heat, he is free since he chooses his state with the (implied) notion that were he to wish it other he could achieve that too. He just chose his “blessed” poverty.

But the truly powerless and dispossessed are distinguished by their powerlessness and disenfranchisement. Boff constantly relates the two – material poverty and powerlessness. But Francis, his very model of liberation, suffers the first without the second.

Boff asserts his option for the poor. In the utopian and fraternal world we need to achieve – Boff’s Christian utopia – we each have obligations to each other, and we collectively have obligations to the whole of humanity. But the needs of all are not equal. Many are in greater need than others.

In some sort of vague and unexpressed sense, Boff assumes a rather attractive distinction – between necessities and non-necessities. The former take precedence over the latter. Among the necessities we seem to admit two main categories:

Perhaps some modern utopians following this line of thought might suggest some more internal needs, psychological needs, which Boff ignores, but it seems to me this is a very impressive list which embraces the fundamental moral premise that the needs of all should precede the non-needs of any.

I do think there are some serious logical questions with this principle but I won’t raise that here. I have expressed them in a paper available on my web page: See: MORAL OBLIGATIONS TO DISTANT OTHERS

What I find particularly valuable in this notion of the preferential option for the poor are:

Chapter 3: Liberation Through Goodness 81-104

Perhaps the tension I see between Boff’s desire to change fundamental social structures and his alleged use of St. Francis as model, comes most forcefully to the fore in Chapter 3 when Boff looks at the concept of Christian charity and contrasts it with his call for structural change in world economy.

In the third chapter Boff address the question of Francis’ state which appears to be a case of the individual advocating and practicing Christian charity. But Boff claims that Catholicism is now changing from the perspective of Christian charity toward social liberation – a political perspective.

Boff acknowledges up front that his communal utopia is to be rooted in JUSTICE, whereas Francis’s ideal was CHARITY. He makes a persuasive case that Francis offered to people a form of life which was a radical change from the standard form of social relations of his time and that his order was the most successful of the cluster of revolutionaries who rejected the status quo in favor of a new system of social relations in which the poor were not the unfortunates to aid, but the beloved of Jesus to join with.

There is an optimism in third chapter which now, twenty years after publication, seems a bit exaggerated. Boff argues that the dominant mode of Catholic-Christianity (which in this issue is not much different from the rest of Christianity) toward the poor is one of charity, dealing with alleviating individual needs while basically leaving intact the social and economic relationships toward production.

But Boff is convinced an important, even revolutionary, corner has been turned within Latin America, especially within Liberation Theology and he points toward the documents of Puebla (1979) and the writings of South American bishops.

Since 1982, however, the Vatican has significantly cooled toward the movement and even the fervor within Latin America is in serious question. Liberation Theology is far from dead, but it is not all a clear direction of the whole Catholic Church and never was.. [note added in May 2005: This “cooling” is likely to be even more pronounced now that Boff’s former theology professor, Professor Joseph Ratzinger, the man who silenced Boff for a year, is now Pope Benedict XVI.]

This is a special difficulty for someone like me in reading and assessing Leonardo Boff’s views. He is a man of faith. I, on the other hand, am not from a “faith based” perspective, but come out of an atheistic Existentialist position. Have no doubt, my position, too, has its non-argued faith base, but not one that includes God, religion, or any objective values or afterlife. Since many of my chosen social and personal values overlap with Boff I find him challenging and a delight to read. Given, too, that like Boff, I find the historical person of Francis of Assisi (or at least his legend) to be one of highly admirable person whose life is worthy of reflection and imitation. I find these faith differences matter relatively little in regard to the book under consideration.

However, three things in Boff’s assumptions bother me:

  1. His assumption that there is an obvious moral obligation to all other humans, especially the poor and dispossessed.

    I find myself deeply moved by the plight of the poor and dispossessed and have tried over many years to work on their behalf both at the level of personal charity and systemic change of society.

    But, I approach such acts as personal choices of value and self-imposed obligations, not of objective values and certainly not as mandates of some superior power. See essays on moral obligations to others.

  2. However, even within Boff’s system his conclusions are in no way obvious. Suppose, with Boff, one analyzes the world system of power, ownership and modes of production, and announces on the basis of such analyses that there are definite systemic causes of poverty and dependency. I even find such an analysis quite persuasive

    What then follows? Suppose I share enough of Boff’s values to WANT to effect some change (note: WANTING to effect a change is not quite the same as Boff’s obligation, but hold that minor difference).

    What is one to do? Is acting on principle the key or is effectivity the key?

    If, for example, one’s historical-political analysis is that radical or revolutionary changes are unlikely to succeed at one’s historical moment or place, then perhaps old fashion charity might be the most effective action or smaller-scale development within the existing system, but in a mode less oppressive to the worker. Wouldn’t such non-systemic change be more effective?

    I worry that Boff is so moved by his theological-political analysis, rooted so deeply in his religious faith, that he allows himself a revolutionary optimism far beyond what reason and history support.

    I’m prepared to listen and be made to believe that such revolutionary optimism is rational, but despite his deeply appealing position, I think in the end Boff doesn’t do enough to address the world as it is rather than the world as he wishes it were in some utopian moment.

    Francis, Boff’s alleged model, seems more humble. He seems to have recognized that he and his order would not change the world and end the distinction between rich and poor, and level all human power relationships, but that the Franciscan commitments to charity, love, peace and poverty could bring about SOME changes they would value in a world less perfect than they might wish

    Perhaps with what I’ve characterized as Boff’s utopian revolutionary dream and Francis’ more humble personal options, there may be little difference in what one does in the world. But I’m not convinced of that.

    There is a war-like militancy in Liberation Theology that I don’t see in Francis of Assisi’s humble sainthood.

    In one place Boff says:

    If, on the one hand, Francis is radical in his option for Poverty and simplicity, on the other he is profoundly free with himself and with others. He dresses extremely poorly and eats what the others leave him, but he remains free of all envy or interior Pharisaism. Because of this, he exhorts the brothers “not to scorn or judge those who wear colored and fancy clothes, who eat and drink fine foods, but rather that each one judge and scorn himself.” In this way, he admonishes them not to think ill of the rich in spite of the profound ambiguity of all wealth. In this way, he is free to frequent the houses of the powerful of this world, that “they offer and even impose upon him their hospitality” as he himself says; but not even in this way to the scandal of Cardinal Hugolino does he accept to eat with them, going out to beg alms and making it clear that his basic option is for poverty; he is present among the rich, but from the poor.

    And one half page later adds:

    Again, what determines relationship is goodness and not the spirit of vengeance. One does not honor the Creator by cursing his creatures. Francis does not want to speak over much of human miseries, in order that, with our reason, we do not come to be unjust with God.

    This is in radical contrast to the version of Liberation Theology expressed by Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide (later president of Haiti), in his 1990 book In The Parish of the Poor:

    The rich of my country, a tiny percentage of our population, sit at a vast table covered in white damask and overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen and countrywomen are crowded under that table, hunched over in the dirt and starving. It is a violent situation, and one day the people under that table will rise up in righteousness, and knock the table of privilege over, and take what we have all been working for for all these years in the parishes of the poor." (p. 23). Aristide, Jean-Bertrand. IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990.
  3. There is one last argument I want to raise, not so much as a criticism of Boff’s 1982 book which I am discussing above, but one that relates to newer developments in the early 21st century thought that brings more relative equality of value to other animals and to planet and the cosmos itself.

    Standard human thought (Francis of Assisi being one of the rare exceptions) values the human species beyond any obvious reasonable demand. Even the mythology of Christianity (or the faith of Boff’s views) makes the God a god-MAN.

    But reason and observation seem to me less kind to humans. The planet, the cosmos is a delicate system in which species and other entities (planets, stars, even the galaxies) come and go.

    How is one to value such things? That’s not an easy question, but is our own time more serious thinkers seem to be toning down their enthusiasm for the absolute uniqueness for the human species and developing more concern for more peaceful and harmonious relationships among species, encouraging us humans to be less species-centric and more cosmic-centered.

    For more on this line of argument see: See essay: WELL-FED CATS AND HUNGRY CHILDREN

Chapter 4: Creation of a Popular and Poor Church – 105-129

In chapter 4 on the popular church, Boff again works at the level of systemic change, not the personal changes of the smaller group as Francis did with his order and with Clare’s sisters.

There is no question that Boff’s analysis is correct. From even before the time of Francis the church had become the church of priests, male hierarchy, worldly and secular power. The Protestant Reformation brought some diminution of priestly and central power, but many revisions in that reformation have taken place in the past centuries and even Protestant Christianity struggles with a rather similar notion of church.

Francis tried to reverse patterns begun at the time of Constantine, achieved by Gregory VII to Innocent II’s time (Francis’s time 1200s.), but he was unable to succeed. It remained a church of priests and hierarchy, worldly and sacred power.

The really serious attempt in modern times to reverse this trend was The Second Vatican Council which took place from 1962 to 1965

Chapter 5: Integration of the Negation: 130- 154

Boff argues that St. Francis constantly wants to emphasize the diabolic in himself and integrate it into his spirituality.

It seems to me the excessive humility might well leave one without a sense of self-confidence or any sense of power. Without it, rather than be motivated to harder efforts as Boff supposes, one might well give up and retreat from action all together. Boff’s reply to this line of argument is to argue:

The following discourse by Francis is illustrative of his inclusion of the negative: “I know that you will never he a Friar Minor if you could not be in the situation that I am about to describe: being superior of the brothers, you go to the chapter room to, say, admonish the friars and, instead, they say to you: ‘An illiterate and despicable man does not fit our company. So, we do not want you to rule over us, because you do not know how to speak, you are simple and an idiot.’ In the end, you are ashamed in front of everyone, despised by all. I say to you, if you do not hear these words with the same affection, with the same inner joy, with the same desire to be holy, you will never be a Friar Minor.’’

Is Francis’ defense against what happened to him?

However, Francis himself was not crippled by this negativity. I suspect many other would be. Using the argument I made one might well respond in much the spirit I respond to Boff, that my argument is an argument to justify self-aggrandizement and seeking power as Boff explains in the details of his argument, Francis tailored his spirituality to his own person and situation.

I suspect such individual tailoring is appropriate to all people who are seriously thinking folks taking responsibility for their own lives. The more universal prescriptions, which one may well read into Boff’s position, seem to me only appropriate to the relatively unthinking, those who prefer someone to impose a universal spirituality on them – something which obviously Francis resisted to the core of his being.

Boff continues this defense of the negative with the Enlightenment argument:

The highest expression of this integration is found especially in the legend of perfect joy, already mentioned in connection with our discussion of liberation. It is a direct report by the historical Francis, as modern critics have ascertained. In the lighthearted story of the Fiorerri, it becomes clear that perfect joy does not reside in the positive, or more exactly, from the religious point of view, does not reside in what represents the possible, but rather in the negative accepted with love. Perfect joy or perfect liberty does not reside in being a famous saint, or in being an important miracle worker, or a burning charismatic, or a brilliant academician, or a missionary who converts all of the infidels to the Christian faith; but it does reside in accepting joyfu1ly the rift in a fraternity, at being thrown out by the porter of that same community, recognizing as true that which is said to him, in the name of God: “You are two vagabonds who cheat the world and rob from the poor”; perfect joy or perfect liberty lies in welcoming, with pleasure, every kind of symbolic violence that demoralizes the interior convictions, and finally, in supporting with joy physical violence, “to be struck to the ground, thrown in the snow and hit with a stick… The conclusion is clear: “Above all of the graces and of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering of self and of freely out of love accepting work, injury, impropriety, and insult, because in all the other gifts of God [the positive] we cannot glory because they are not ours but God’s ... but in the cross of tribulation of each affliction we can glory in that this is indeed ourselves.

Note, however how carefully he backtracks: “welcoming every kind of symbolism, violence that demoralizes the interior convictions.”

In Francis’ own version of this I think there is no reason to suspect he accepted only symbolic violence, It’s not that I argue for such acceptance, rather, again I argue one needs to know the options and meanings, then choose and construct one’s own appropriate spirituality. A one-of-a-kind-for-all seems to me not to fit the thinking responsible individual.

An addendum to my analysis of the section on the acceptance of the other’s and one’s own negativity, is that it brings Boff down squarely against the notion of a class warfare, the rejection is clearly seen in the choice of language of a “preferential option for the poor,” rather than a class warfare. However, while not so in Boff, much of the rest of Liberation Theology seems to me to mouth the notion of the preferential option toward the poor, but to encourage actions which amount to class warfare. I’m not sure the “preferential options” makes much practical sense unless the wealthy and powerful are forced to change. The position Boff suggests is hard for me not to view as rather utopian.

Another aspect of negativity was Francis’s acceptance of death. This gives rise to an obvious comparison with Freud. Both saw death as part of life. Freud suffered but remained cordial to all in the face of death. Francis sang with his death.

Boff suggests his belief in God and after-life gave him some positivity toward death not quite possible for the rationalist who may be well resolved but still is likely to have stoicism and resignation.

I’m not convinced.

Conclusion: 155-157

Boff celebrates Francis for the level of saintly achievement, arguing that Francis, in his relentless pursuit of perfection does not alienate those of us who share his vision of the good, but rather pushes us toward a greater actualization of our own lives. And Boff argues Francis as no fanatic.

I am in great sympathy with Boff on his first argument. Francis of Assisi is a moral model for many of us, perhaps not always in the same way for all. Boff and I share much in our adulation of Francis’s life and being motivated to express more of that life form than we might otherwise express because of the life and model of Francis. Yet Boff embraces much wider respect for Francis’ life than I since Boff with Francis embraces God and life after death.

But I do not accept Boff’s notion that Francis was not a fanatic. Boff’s argument that he is not is essentially that Francis is not a fanatic because he embraces true values. However, no evidence is given that this is so.

I find saints (as I name them) and fanatics (as I name them) share much in common with their ability to devote themselves to their life values with such an intensity and consistency than most of us do that the saint and the fanatic stand out. A saint becomes a saint for us when we embrace the same values, and the fanatic becomes a fanatic for us when we reject those intense values.

Thus within my understanding Francis like every saint I know of is both saint and fanatic depending upon where one’s values intersect and where they are at logger heads with our own.

In either case both the saint and the fanatic are important for us. As saint the moral model, as Boff says of Francis, stimulates us to have more courage to act toward that saintliness. As fanatic the moral model aids us in avoidance and repressing acts when the values are ones we reject.

Bob Corbett


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