Brazilian theologian lays down global environmental challenge

By Stephen Brown
January 26, 2009

Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, once a thorn in the side of the Vatican, is now on a mission to convince humanity of the desperate need to change its relationship to the environment.

"We cannot go on. We have to change," Boff, a 70 year-old former Roman Catholic priest, said in a keynote address on 22 January 2009 to the 3rd World Forum on Liberation and Theology, meeting on the theme "Water, Earth, Theology - for another possible world", in Belém, northeast Brazil.

"The issue is the kind of change we mean, so that it is not just a question of more consumption, production, exclusion, aggression," said Boff, one of the initiators of the forum, which first took place in 2005, and met again two years later.

Boff came to prominence in the 1970s as a proponent of liberation theology, a movement that coupled criticism of the status quo with a belief in the need for political activism to change society.

In 1985, the Vatican suspended Boff from religious duties for pointing in one of his books to the need for a "new Church" of the poor. He was reinstated the following year, but in 1992 he renounced his activities as a priest, saying he had, "promoted himself to the state of laity".

Boff now lives with human rights activist Marcia Maria Monteiro de Miranda, in Jardim Araras, a wilderness area in the municipality of Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro.

Ecology has, in recent years, taken a central role in Boff's activities and writings, as illustrated in his 1997 book, "Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor", which focuses on the threatened Amazon, the region where the Belém meeting is taking place.

With others concerned about the state of the earth, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Boff was a member of the Earth Charter Commission, which in 2000 presented a statement of principles for "a just, sustainable, and peaceful" global society.

"This model that has been there for 400 years has gone into a crisis, a terminal crisis. This system no longer has the ability to sustain life because we have reached the limit," Boff said in his speech in Belém. There is a need, he added, to recapture an awareness of the sacred, "a deep feeling of respect and reverence" towards the earth.

In 2001, Boff was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes dubbed an "alternative" Nobel Prize, for his work integrating "human spirituality, social justice and environmental stewardship".

In his address to the theology forum, Boff declared himself a supporter of the Gaia hypothesis of scientist James Lovelock, which maintains that the earth functions as a kind of self-regulating super-organism. "Ecology should be understood, not as a technical procedure of resource management, but an art, a new paradigm of the relationship of human beings to earth and nature," Boff said. "Otherwise earth will go on, but without us, without human beings."

Visit Leonardo Boff's website:

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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