When Archbishop Romero met Leonardo Boff (1938-present), the Brazilian Franciscan and early champion of Liberation Theology, at the Latin American bishops conference in Puebla, Mexico in 1979, Romero reportedly invited: “Father Boff, help us to develop a Theology of Life.” (Greenan, 2010.) Some may see that as a critique of the existing official Church response to the situation of the poor as being inadequate. But also implicit in Romero’s proposal is an assessment that Liberation Theology—including, Boff’s scholarship—had been insufficient. A year earlier, Romero had warned that, “very profound revisions of the Christological doctrine as well as revisions in Liberation Theology,” would be required. (July 23, 1978 Homily.)
Romero gave Boff what he believed to be the appropriate framework for the required theology. He told Boff, “God is the Creator of life. He sent His Son so that we would have life in abundance.” (Greenan, supra.) Romero’s framework coincides with the one set forth by Blessed John Paul II, who told a conference on the “Theology of Life” that, “such a theology must start with and make constant reference to our Lord Jesus Christ, who ‘came that we may have life and have it abundantly’.” (Address to the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, February 15, 1996—the reference is to John 10:10.) In his conversation with Boff, Romero lamented the atrocious human rights abuses in El Salvador and said, “We need to protect the minimum, which is God’s greatest gift—Life.” (Greenan, supra.) John Paul agreed, saying that the “proclamation of the Gospel includes not only the defense of human life as such, but also the obligation to promote everything that favors the development of human life and dignity.” (Bossey, supra.)
Romero’s differences with Boff are revealed upon comparing the criticisms that the Vatican made of Boff’s work, with Romero’s stances on the same subjects. In a 1985 «Notificatio», the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), in a document signed by its prefect, the then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, criticized four aspects of Father Boff’s work:
1) The CDF criticized Fr. Boff’s views on the structure of the Church, charging that he inverted the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the primacy of the Catholic Church vis-a-vis ecumenism: Fr. Boff, “derives a thesis which is exactly the contrary to the authentic meaning of the Council text,” the CDF states, because Boff maintains that “the sole Church of Christ … may also be present in other Christian Churches,” while the Council teaches that, “one sole ‘subsistence’ of the true Church exists”—within the Church—and that “outside her visible structure only … elements of Church … exist.” («Notificatio», ibid.) While Archbishop Romero often spoke in the language of inclusion that emphasized the ecumenical sense of the Council teaching, he nonetheless was very clear that Catholics “possess the fullness of the means of salvation;” that “This is the Church that is the depository and the witness of the resurrection.” (April 15, 1979 Sermon.) Accordingly, he preached that, “Those who want to belong to this People of God, organized by Christ and called the Catholic Church, must accept these conditions.” (June 5, 1977 Hom.—the conditions he referenced were the unity of the faith, the sacraments, and the church’s structure.) “If they do not accept them, if they willingly reject them,” he said, “then they are schismatics, destroyers of the Church and have morally excommunicated themselves.” (Id.)
2) The CDF criticized Fr. Boff’s views on dogmas and revelation, condemning his argument that dogmas are good only “for a specific time and specific circumstances” and that their texts must “give way to a new text of faith proper to today’s world.” («Notificatio», supra.) Archbishop Romero had occasion to preach on the nature of dogma on his 60th birthday, which coincided, as it always does, with the Feast of the Assumption, and marked the anniversary of the “ex cathedra” proclamation by Pope Pius XII of the dogma that Mary was bodily ascended into Heaven. “The Assumption of the Virgin, body and soul, into heaven is not a pious opinion,” Romero declared: “It is a dogma of faith.” (Aug. 15, 1977 Hom.) He recounted how, “The great Pontiff, Pius XII,” made it a mandatory belief of the Church. The Pope “proclaimed as a dogma of faith … that Mary, after having concluded her life here on earth, was assumed, was taken up, body and soul, by God,” Romero recalled. The consequence of this is that, “we have an obligation, as Catholics, to believe this,” he affirmed. “Did Pius XII invent the fact that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven?,” Romero asked. “The Pope does not invent dogma,” he asserted. “The Pope places his seal of authority and the seal of his teaching on certain beliefs and thus guarantees the faithful that this specific truth is contained in Divine Revelation.” He concluded, “We believe this truth, not because the Holy Father has spoken, but because God has spoken, and revealed this to us in Sacred Scripture and the living tradition of the Church.” (Ibid.)
3) The CDF criticized Fr. Boff’s views on the exercise of Church power, disapproving of his use of a Marxist production analysis of sacramental practice: “The sacraments are not 'symbolic material',” the CDF railed, “their administration is not production, their reception is not consumption.” Instead, “The sacraments are gifts of God, no one 'produces' them, all receive the grace of God in them, which are the signs of the eternal love.” («Notificatio», supra.) Romero, by contrast, taught that, “This community of faith lives a sacramental life,” (Apr. 2, 1978 Hom.), and he defended the administration of the sacraments under the existing hierarchy: the sacraments “are means of salvation that have been established in the Church, in the visible body that is united to Christ,” and “This Christ rules the Church through the ministry of the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops, as well as through the bond of the profession of faith, the sacraments, the government of the Church and ecclesiastical communion” (Oct. 15, 1978 Hom.—One is also reminded about how Archbishop Romero scolded activists who chanted political slogans at a funeral mass, chastising them to take it outside so as not to interfere with the liturgy and sacraments—Cavada.)
4) Finally, the CDF criticized Fr. Boff’s views that prophetic denunciation was not exclusive to the Church brass and could come from outside the hierarchy. The CDF agreed, but cautioned that, “prophetic denunciation in the church must always remain at the service of the Church itself,” and that it “must it accept the hierarchy and the institutions” and “cooperate positively in the consolidation of the Church’s internal communion.” («Notificatio», supra.) Romero preached that individuals might indeed experience a call to prophesy: “But this is not enough because this vocation has to be affirmed by the hierarchy that then unites us with the authorized teaching of the Church.” (May 13, 1979 Hom.) He added that his own preaching was subject to confirmation by the Supreme Pontiff. (Id.) Revelation might come to humble subjects such as St. Bernadette of Lourdes or St. Juan Diego, Romero preached, “But the hierarchy is needed to analyze and validate this inspiration and order all these things for the building up of the Kingdom of God.” (Sept. 30, 1979 Hom.)
Oscar Romero and Leonardo Boff both dream of a Theology of Life that addresses the suffering of the poor and promotes their liberation. But Oscar Romero believes that the poor would be better served if that theology was in line with the orthodox teaching of the Church. Leonardo Boff left the Franciscan order and the priesthood in the 1990s.