Meet the Radical “Eco-Theologian” Behind the Economy of Francis

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Meet the Radical “Eco-Theologian” Behind the Economy of Francis
Meet the Radical “Eco-Theologian” Behind the Economy of Francis

It is a well-known tactic, already explored by Machiavelli. It consists of using a trusted intermediary to launch borderline ideas and trends that dazzle by their extremism. The trusted man plants a flag beyond the boundaries of the acceptable or even the reasonable. He provokes, unsettles and knocks things down.

If the majority rejects him, the protagonist can always wash his hands, saying: “Forget it… he’s a good person, but perhaps just a bit too idealistic.” Meanwhile, the plotter proposes comparatively less revolutionary schemes, which appear moderate and easier to accept.

Radical movements play a vital role in the march of a revolutionary process, even when rejected by the majority,

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Noted Catholic thinker Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira writes:

It might be said that the more rapid movements are useless, but that is not the case. The explosion of these extremisms raises a standard and creates a fixed target whose very radicalism fascinates the moderates, who slowly advance toward it. Thus, socialism shuns communism, which it silently admires and tends toward.

Even earlier, the same could be said of the communist Babeuf and his henchmen during the last flare-ups of the French Revolution. They were crushed. Yet, little by little, society treads the path along which they wished to lead it. The failure of the extremists is, then, merely apparent. They collaborate indirectly, but powerfully, in advance of the Revolution, gradually attracting the countless multitude of the ‘prudent,’ the ‘moderate,’ and the mediocre toward the realization of their culpable and exacerbated chimeras.1

The international event, “The Economy of Francesco,” has just ended. Originally programmed as a vast international gathering at Assisi, Italy, it was held online due to coronavirus restrictions. Under the aegis of Pope Francis, dozens of speakers and hundreds of participants participated in what was presented as a historical watershed event. Its purpose was to change the economy of the planet by modifying the mentality of contemporary man, proposing a “new integral human development.”

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Judging by the numbers, the event appears to have missed the mark. By a long shot.

The conference meetings were broadcast live to 120 countries employing remarkable technology, including simultaneous translation into many languages. Yet, the audience was not proportional to the magnitude of the event. The pope’s message garnered a meager 5,000 clicks, which means not so many people are listening to Francis. The media coverage was also below expectations, given the notoriety of the organizers.

However, the conference did have its extremist: Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, who is increasingly appearing like Pope Francis’s trailblazer. He inspired (some say co-authored) the encyclical Laudato Si’. He has always been very close to the current pontiff, serving as a mouthpiece for some of his most audacious proposals. The former Franciscan friar was a keynote speaker at “The Economy of Francesco” event.

Who is Leonardo Boff, or rather Genézio Darci Boff?

One should condemn sin, not the sinner. However, when introducing a figure who the Vatican presents as a mentor of ideas and trends that should be a model for an “integral human development,” it is legitimate to lift the veil of private life.

For many years, the then-Franciscan Friar Boff maintained an equivocal relationship with his assistant Márcia Monteiro da Silva Miranda. The divorced mother of six children was a militant in the movements of the Brazilian radical left. In 1992, Friar Boff chose to leave the Order of Friars Minor rather than face disciplinary measures. Without ever getting the required dispensation, he declared himself disconnected from the Order and married civilly Mrs. Monteiro da Silva, usually presented as his “companion” and not as his “wife.”

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Leonardo Boff is best known as one of the foremost representatives of that brand of “liberation theology” condemned by Pope John Paul II in 1984.2 This theology analyzes current revolutionary processes that lead to communism. Thus, it resorts to what is called Marxist analysis.  Leonardo Boff explains: “What we propose is not to put theology into Marxism, but to put Marxism—historical materialism—in theology.”3

This analysis must be done from within the revolutionary processes. According to Boff, the liberation theologian must actively participate in the revolutions. This crucial experience of a revolution is called the “primacy of praxis,” another concept taken from Marxism. The theologian comments that The liberation theologian is not an armchair intellectual. He is an ‘organic intellectual,’ a militant theologian who places himself inside the struggles of the People of God…He keeps one foot on reflection and the other in the life of the community. The latter, indeed, is his right foot.”4

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Because of his Marxist commitment, he overtly supported many twentieth-century communist dictatorships, beginning with Cuba. In 1985, a trio of liberation theologians comprised of brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff and Dominican Friar Betto went to Cuba. Friar Clodovis reported the trio’s impressions of the Fidel Castro regime in an unusual document titled “Theological Letter on Cuba,” It read: “Although the presence of the Church is very weak, that of the Kingdom is very strong…The Kingdom of God is written into the Cuban structures.”5

Unable to deny the extreme poverty besetting the former “Pearl of the Antilles,” he tried to give it a spiritual character: “There is great sobriety and austerity. I liked life reduced to essentials. For me, austerity is an ideal of social life…Cuba seemed an immense community of religious living evangelical poverty.”6

The “Theological Letter on Cuba was followed by an equally bizarre “Theological Letter on the U.S.S.R. The same trio also saw “values ​​of the kingdom” in their 1987 journey to the Soviet Union. The letter reports: “We find values ​​of the Kingdom in Soviet real socialism…The Holy Spirit shows his presence in revolutionary processes of liberation, such as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.” They also emphasized poverty: “It is impossible not to compare the Soviet Union to an immense monastery where people live a sober life.”7

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To complete their tour of communist dictatorships, the trio also went to Mao’s China and praised the “modest and restrained life” of the Chinese under socialism. “Socialism is not to be seen as synonymous with wealth,” they remarked.8

While Leonardo Boff’s socio-political positions may be shocking, his ecclesiology is even more outrageous. The Vatican formally condemned his teachings in 1985, declaring that “The options of L. Boff analyzed here endanger the sound doctrine of the faith.”9

Boff proposes an ecclesial revolution that would lead to the end of the Catholic Church as it has been known for two thousand years and replace it with a new Church: “We are seeing the rising of a new Church, born in the heart of the old Church.”10 “Reinvention” is the buzzword used to describe this immense upheaval. Boff wants nothing less than to “reinvent” the Church: “The best conceptualization of this experience is the expression ‘reinvention of the church.’ The church is beginning to be born at the grassroots.”11

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Boff bases his ideas on a Modernist thesis formally condemned as heretical by Saint Pius X: “During his life, Jesus did not found a Church.”12 To buttress his thesis, Boff calls upon the excommunicated French theologian Alfred Loisy: “Alfred Loisy, the modernist, stated the problem well when he wrote, somewhat disconcertedly, ‘Christ preached the kingdom of God, and the Church appeared instead.’”13

According to Boff, the Apostles instituted the Church when it became clear that the “kingdom” would not come in their time. The Church was a transitory substitute for the original design of Jesus. Thus it was a historical accident without its own raison d’être and could be changed at will. Leonardo Boff states, “[Christ] did not preach the Church but rather the Kingdom of God…In his preaching and practice of the Kingdom of God, Christ introduced elements that later would form the basis of the Church, such as the gathering of the twelve Apostles, the institution of baptism, and the eucharistic supper. But these elements do not constitute the entire reality of the Church. The Church exists only because the Jewish people did not accept the Kingdom, and Jesus was rejected by them. If the Kingdom preached by Christ had been realized, there would be no need for the Church. Essentially, the Church replaces the Kingdom. The Church as an institution is not based on the incarnation of the Word but rather on the faith in the power of the apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit.”14

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The most controversial aspect of his ecclesiology is the proposal of a “pneumatic” or “cosmic” Church.

After strongly rejecting the Church’s Magisterium and particularly criticizing the encyclicals Satis Cognitum, of Leo XIII, and Mystici Corporis Christi, of Pius XII, Leonardo Boff writes: “The expression of the Church as the body of Christ must be carefully defined…The Church must be thought of in terms of the risen Christ, identified with the Spirit, rather than in terms of the carnal Jesus. The Church has a Christological origin; it also has, in particular, a pneumatological one (pneuma = Spirit)…it has a dynamic and functional dimension; it is defined in terms of energy, charism, building the world.”15

The “pneumatic Church” is understood as a fluid assembly of people who receive inspiration directly from the “Spirit” in the form of certain internal movements and “charisms.” The community shares these pentecostal stirrings through certain rituals similar to those in vogue in New Age ambiances. These stirrings are seen as the source of authority and ministry in the new Church. The “pneumatic Church” knows no limits. It possesses no fixed doctrine or established liturgy, structure or visible authority. To belong to this Church, one only needs to follow the inspirations of the Spirit that blows as it wills. One would no longer need to obey any hierarchy, believe in certain dogmas, or—it seems—even be baptized.

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In his work titled “The Cosmic Church as the Body of the Risen Christ,” Leonardo Boff explains his doctrine on this point: “The pneumatic character of the church is best seen by analyzing the expression ‘The church is the body of Christ.’ What does this formula mean? As we have said, the expression leads to theological confusion if the term ‘body’ is taken in its carnal sense rather than in its pneumatic meaning…Christ became spiritual, rather than carnal, through the resurrection, that is, his nature of body, soul, and divinity is no longer limited to a particular place.”

In a somewhat esoteric language, he draws the last implications of this statement: “Now, as Spirit, he is free of all these earthly constraints and acquires a cosmic dimension, open to the totality of all reality. His is a spiritual body. As such, he is present in all things. He is ‘all in all things,’ and nothing that exists is alien to his presence. As an ancient text stated, ‘quoting’ the risen Christ: ‘lift a stone and I am under it; split a log, and I am within it. I will be with you always, until the end of time.’ With this, the risen Christ has opened all barriers.”

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According to the Brazilian theologian, Christ is not made of flesh but is instead “pneumatic” and “cosmic.” He is an immanent presence indistinguishable from the universe, an energy flowing inside all things. The Church as the body of Christ, then, has the dimensions of the pneumatic Christ, that is, it is boundless: “If the pneumatic—risen—Christ knows no limitations, neither may his body, the Church, confine itself to the limitations of its own dogmas, its rituals, its liturgy, or its canon law. The Church has the same boundaries as the risen Christ, and these dimensions are cosmic in nature.”

Who belongs to that cosmic Church? The liberation theologian answers, “All men who are saved and who live in the Holy Spirit should therefore feel as members of the church…No one is outside of the Church because there is no longer an ‘outside,’ because no one is outside of the reality of God and the risen Christ.”16

By a “pneumatic” or “cosmic Church,” does the theologian envision a Church that seems to embrace not only all men but even inanimate things? Is it a Church not governed by a visible authority but by an immanent power stirring within the community and not seen as a person? These extremely delicate questions remain unanswered. On the other hand, would this “pneumatic” Church still bear any resemblance to the Catholic Church?

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Like so many of his liberationist confreres, Leonard Boff had to change after the fall of the U.S.S.R. that brought an end to the revolutionary praxis that had inspired him for decades. He had to reinvent himself. Leaving behind his communist militancy, he proclaimed himself an “eco-theologian” and launched the “eco-theology of liberation” as the offspring and continuator of the Marxist one.

“To the cry of the poor, we must now add the cry of the Earth,” writes the former Franciscan friar. “The Earth is a living superorganism called Gaia,” which must be “liberated” from all forces of “oppression.”17 His new role as “eco-theologian” inspired some chapters of the encyclical Laudato Si’. In this capacity, he also participated in the conference “The Economy of Francesco.” However, details about his participation must be left for the next article.

(Julio Loredo is president of Tradizione Famiglia Proprietà)

Photo Credit: ©Cristina Conti —


  1. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, The American TFP, 2002, p. 27.
  2. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis Nuntius, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation,” August 6, 1984.
  3. Leonardo Boff, “Marxismo na Teologia,” JornaldoBrasil (Rio de Janeiro), April 6, 1980. Quoted in Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Gustavo Antônio Solimeo and Luiz Sergio Solimeo, AsCEBs,Dasquaismuitosefala,Poucoseconhece,ATFPasdescrevecomosão (São Paulo: Editora Vera Cruz, 1982), p. 147. For an in-depth analysis of the Theology of liberation, see my «Teologia della liberazione. Salvagente di piombo per i poveri», Cantagalli 2014
  4. Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Como Fazer Teologia da Libertação, Editora Vozes, Petrópolis 1986, p. 34.
  5. Clodovis Boff, Carta Teológica Sobre Cuba, São Paulo, Centro de Educação Popular do Instituto Sedes Sapientiae, 1987, pp. 62-63.
  6. Ibid., p. 5-6.
  7. Leonardo Boff, O socialismo como desafio teológico, pp. 52-53. Cf. Clodovis Boff, “Carta teológica sobre a URSS,” in Revista de Cultura Vozes, November-December 1987, no. 6, p. 13.
  8. Friar Betto, A Igreja na China, CEPIS, São Paulo 1988, p. 133.
  9. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Notification on the book “Church: Charism and Power” by Father Leonardo Boff O.F.M., 11 March 1985, Conclusion.
  10. Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power, Crossroads Books, 1986, p. 62
  11. Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis. The Base Christian Communities Reinvent the Church, Orbis Books, New York l986, p. 23. Condemning this position, at the general audience of March 10, 2010, Benedict XVI stated, “Indeed, we know that after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that everything was new, that there was a different Church, that the pre-Conciliar Church was finished and that we had another, totally ‘other’ Church an anarchic utopianism!”.
  12. Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis. The Base Christian Communities Reinvent the Church, p. 50.
  13. Ibid., pp. 49-50.
  14. Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power, p. 146-147.
  15. Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power, pp. 145-146.
  16. Ibid., pp. 151-152.
  17. Leonardo Boff, As Quatro Ecologias: Ambiental, Politica e Social, Mental e Integral, Mar de Idéias, Rio de Janeiro 2013, p. 33.

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