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Future of liberation theology at stake in Vatican inquiry

''I am sure everything will work out just fine,'' declared Leonardo Boff before leaving Brazil for the Vatican to answer questions about his latest book, ''Church: Charism and Power.''

For two weeks beginning Sept. 7, Friar Boff will defend his book, which accuses the Roman Catholic Church of elitism and of failing to take a firmer stand on human rights. Friar Boff, a Roman Catholic theologian, is a proponent of liberation theology, which is a point of controversy between conservatives and progressives within the church.

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The future of liberation theology is at stake.

Liberation theology unites Marxist-sociological views and liberal Catholic doctrine in Latin America in an attempt to combat the region's widespread poverty and oppression.

''Church: Charism and Power'' appeared a couple of years ago and has been studied by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who is to direct the inquiry by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in former centuries called the Inquisition.

The Cardinal held a press conference in Rome on Monday to release a document called ''Instructions on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation.' '' The report, which reflects Pope John Paul II's uneasiness with liberation theology, called on priests to reject Marxism in their efforts to aid the poor and oppressed.

Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, Edward Schillebeeckx of the Netherlands, and Hans Kung of West Germany have also had problems with the Vatican in the past few years on various theological issues.

''And therefore we support each other very much,'' Boff says. ''Very recently I was in Europe and met almost everybody I had to meet on this topic. So far I have received more than 20,000 signatures in support of my theories.''

This reporter met Leonardo Boff in Petropolis, a town where the former Brazilian emperor used to reside and where what is left of the actual Brazilian nobility meets socially. Boff waited in the convent of the Franciscans.

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''My mind about going to Rome is tranquil,'' he said. ''I have the impression that they interpreted my work badly.''

But the controversial churchman qualified this remark by saying, ''If the Holy See prohibits me from writing and making official statements I will accept that judgment, but I will continue my pastoral work as a priest.''

''The best thing members of the Vatican could do,'' Boff says, ''is to come over to Brazil and other Latin American countries and see our daily life. ...

''It is the difference between the theory and the practice of life. Just like how we don't understand the hearts and the minds of those who are in the Vatican guiding the church, they don't know about our sufferings here. That is the heart of the misunderstanding. But we will talk openly in Rome and resolve the problem.''

Boff says the church could make a serious mistake if it decides to listen only to the bishops and not to priests and laymen.

''That would mean that they would not be able to hear the voice of those who bring life to the church. And Rome would have to reconsider questions of why the churches remain empty and why there is such a tremendous opportunity in the religious market.''

He pointed to the vast number of fundamentalist sects in Brazil (the Brazilian Conference of Bishops counts more than 4,000), which came for the most part from the United States.

According to the figures of the Brazilian Bishop Conference, more than 10 million Brazilians no longer hold the traditional Catholic beliefs about baptism , marriage, and death.

The conference also notes that Afro-Brazilian cults are making inroads.

Investigation of his writing began in 1973, when his work caught attention in Rome. In 1974, he was called to explain some references in his book called ''Jesus Christ, Liberator.''

At that time, it was alleged that his work would lead believers and scholars down a wrong track.

In March 1974, Cardinal Ratzinger published his first attack on liberation theology in the Italian publication ''Trinta Giorni.'' He accused followers of this theology of mixing Marxism with the evangelical message.

Later, in June 1983, Boff defended himself against Vatican accusations of being too liberal in his interpretation of modern theology. (His 30 books portray the situation of the poor and oppressed in Latin America.)

But the Vatican did not accept his responses at that time, because they were in writing.

Boff is supported by people from all over Brazil, but a former teacher, Boaventura Kloppenburg, has sent the Vatican a letter stating that Boff has turned into an enemy of the hierarchy of the church by stating that church dogmas are not eternal.

Boff says there are people who are not able or willing to see how the church has changed over the last 20 years.

''Therefore I speak about the schism between the hierarchy of the Vatican and the institutional church of the poor and the humble in society.''

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