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SÃO PAULO – Pope Benedict XVI’s death on December 31 was almost immediately politicized in Brazil, where the atmosphere remains charged more than two months after left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated right-winger Jair Bolsonaro.
On his last day in office, the former president lamented the pope emeritus’ death on social media and said that “in defense of the truth of the Gospel, he fearlessly criticized the errors of the so-called ‘liberation theology,’ which intends to confuse Christianity with Marxism’s equivocal concepts.”
Many on the left in Brazil recalled then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when he led numerous proceedings against Liberation Theology thinkers, including Brazilian Leonardo Boff.
A Franciscan priest and a renowned theologian, Boff was one of the leaders of the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America in the 1970s, with a great influence on the Brazilian church.
In 1985, his book Church: Charism and Power was analyzed by the congregation and several of its main topics were considered dangerous “for the sound doctrine of the faith.” Boff was silenced for a year. Seven years later, he left the priesthood but continued to be a well-known intellectual in Brazil.
Catholics inspired by Liberation Theology were a major force in the creation of Lula’s Workers’ Party in 1980. Boff remains a supporter of Lula, and has repeatedly criticized Bolsonaro’s administration over the past four years.
For many Brazilian Catholics, such context connects the 1980s-era controversy between Ratzinger and Liberation Theology to the current political landscape in the country.
In the opinion of Auxiliary Bishop Antônio Luiz Catelan Ferreira of Rio de Janeiro, an expert in Benedict XVI’s ideas and the secretary of the Ratzinger Society in Brazil, that politicization is “regrettable,” given that the late pope’s thought is complex and does not fit the usual cliches.
Ratzinger’s intellectual contributions, in that sense, are much greater than the Liberation Theology controversy, Ferreira said, even if fundamental topics of his theological reflection appeared in the dispute, he added.
“That was the case, for instance, of Ratzinger’s view of the Church’s role in the world, which for him was not limited to raising awareness or organizing the oppressed, but in fact encompasses the integral announcement of salvation,” Ferreira argued.
The sophistication of Ratzinger’s ideas can be felt, among other themes, in his reflections on modernism.
“On the one hand, he does not accept relativism, expressed in the idea that there are no dogmas, for instance. On the other, he considers that the language of how truth is announced may make progress,” Ferreira explained.
A professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, the bishop said that young generations of students have been manifesting renewed interest in Ratzinger’s thought over the past couple of decades, something that reveals the vitality of his ideas.
Sociologist and theologian Rudy Albino de Assunção, who founded a school dedicated to Ratzinger in Brazil, agrees with Ferreira, affirming that “his thought will bear fruits whenever the Church debates the Second Vatican Council.”
“It is impossible to reflect on the Second Vatican Council without taking into account the deep intuitions he had, especially as someone who experienced it firsthand,” de Assunção said.
Curiously, Ratzinger was broadly considered to be a progressive theologian during the Second Vatican Council and in the years that followed it, he said.
“Leonardo Boff himself praised his work in a few reviews back then,” de Assunção said.
“But in the post-Vatican II period, Ratzinger is accused of having left the progressive ranks, supposedly undergoing a conservative turn – especially with his performance as prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith,” de Assunção added, saying that the idea emerged that he became a conservative who, along with Pope John Paul II, planned a restorationist move in the Church.
That is why Brazilians have never been able to adequately understand Ratzinger’s theology, de Assunção argued.
“Major Liberation Theology champions have continually defended that idea. You cannot see Ratzinger in Brazil without the lenses provided by Liberation Theology,” he lamented.
Nevertheless, Liberation Theology is not a major subject in Ratzinger’s work, he explained.
“Ratzinger’s writings on Liberation Theology appear with others that deal with Eschatology. He tried to prevent a merely political reading of ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘People of God’ and combated the emptying of eschatology by utopia and the suppression of Christian charity in the name of justice”, he reflects.
Reactions to Benedict’s death among members of the clergy in Brazil, especially bishops, showed that his legacy is also vivid among them.
The reason is not only his intellectual contribution but also the fact that he ordained a third of Brazil’s active bishops, according to Fernando Altemeyer Jr., a lay theologian and a Religion Studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.
“Many of the current priests went to the seminary under his papacy,” he told Crux.
During more than three decades working side by side with Saint John Paul II or, after his death, as the pope, Ratzinger had a tremendous impact on the Church’s configuration, Altemeyer argued.
For him, Ratzinger should be seen as someone who gave great contributions to the Church, as the 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas est, but also as someone who had his limits, like his failure to understand theological propositions that were different from his own works.
According to Jung Mo Sung, a lay Catholic theologian and a Religion Studies professor at the Methodist University of São Paulo, the form of liberation theology combated by Ratzinger is, by now, a thing of the past.
Sung is part of a small group of intellectuals who displaced Liberation Theology’s focus from the Church to the so-called theology of capitalism, the idea that capitalism generated a theology of its own and became a religion in the current world order.
“The first generations of liberation theologians thought the Church should fulfil its role and liberate the poor. So, the Church was the target of their criticism. The Vatican reacted and began to blame Liberation Theology for all its problems. For us, the problem is the idolatry of money,” he explained.
In a book with that very title (Idolatry of Money and Human Rights, published only in Portuguese), Sung discusses Ratzinger’s vision of idolatry and compares it with Pope Francis’.
“For Ratzinger, idolatry was fundamentally an error on the truth of God. For Francis, idolatry is the cult to a god that requires sacrifice of human lives – and the true God is merciful and defends everybody’s lives,” he argued.
Francis’ view seems to relate to Liberation Theology thinkers such as Hugo Assman and Jon Sobrino, Sung said, while Ratzinger’s conception was attached to a distinctively Greek search for the real essence of God.
That may be an enduring contribution given by Ratzinger to future theological thinking, Sung argued.
“In this sense, for him the market cannot occupy the place of the absolute, only God can do so,” he said.