Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor

An interesting phenomenon of recent years has been the relative ease with which many former Communist parties around the globe have successfully reinvented themselves as “social democrats,” often with strong “environmentalist” stances. What is disturbing about the political comeback of the cadres is that they are preaching essentially the same illiberal, anti-humanistic, and anti-entrepreneurial message, albeit this time under the banner of “scientific” environmental responsibility rather than Marxist historical imperative. This is disconcerting particularly when one recalls Pope John Paul II’s incisive analysis of communism in his 1991 encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus: that its “fundamental error” was “anthropological in nature.”

Thus it is not so surprising that some of the theological apologists for discredited Marxist radicalism would likewise attempt a comeback by promoting a newfound radical green “spirituality.” Such is the case with former Franciscan friar Leonardo Boff–once Brazil’s most influential exponent of the so-called “liberation theology” that tried to couple Christian salvation with Marxist class struggle–as witnessed in his latest book, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Unfortunately, a careful reading of the teachings of Boff the eco-spiritualist unveils–under a thin veneer of junk science, paganism, and bad anthropology–the same tired political and economic agenda espoused by Boff the liberation theologian.

The first part of the book pretends to be scientific and objective. In actuality, Boff rehearses (and cites) the same “population bomb” alarmism that the Club of Rome and others propagated in the early 1970s and that, for all but the willfully ignorant, the late economist Julian Simon put to rest. And why is an increasing population so dangerous? Because it offends Gaia, the interconnected and sentient planet we inhabit. In fact, Boff informs his readers that “the Earth is not a planet on which life exists … the Earth does not contain life. It is life, a living superorganism, Gaia.” Or so goes a theory that Boff, at least, finds “very plausible.”

With such “science” behind him, Boff moves to the second, theological– or, more accurately, pantheistic–part of his book. For if earth is Gaia with her “force fields” and “morphogenetic fields,” God is “that all-attracting Magnet, that Moving Force animating all, that Passion producing all.”

Having laid this foundation, Boff proceeds to “connect all our experiences and help us establish a new covenant” in the third part of Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, where he proposes what he calls an “eco-spirituality.” Actually, for something described as “new,” it does not sound much different from the old revolutionary Boff:

A revolution is successful only when it is the response to an urgent need for changes; unless those changes are made, problems will continue, crises will deepen, and people will lose hope and meaning in their lives … a new spirituality, one adequate to the ecological revolution, is urgently needed…. The conventional spirituality of the churches and of most historic religions is tied to models of life and interpretations of the world (worldviews) that no longer suit contemporary sensitivity.

For Boff the environmentalist, as for Boff the liberationist visionary, religion’s worth is measured by its utility to the revolutionary cause. Faith “cannot enclose religious persons in dogmas and cultural representations. It must serve as an organized place where people may be initiated, accompanied, and aided” in expressing the “spirit of the age” that assures us that “despite the threats of destruction that the human species’ destructive machine has mounted and uses against Gaia, a good and kind future is assured because this cosmos and this Earth belong to the Spirit.”

What are the practical implications of all this? First, Boff calls for the teaching of a new cosmological vision that downplays any anthro-pocentrism. Man is not Homo sapiens, man the wise, but, according to Boff, Homo demens, man the deranged, who is relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. In fact, without explaining how his newly minted “citizens” would express themselves in the civic process, Boff proposes that in his new “ecological and social democracy, it is not just humans who are citizens but all beings…. Democracy accordingly issues in a biogracy and cosmocracy.”

Interestingly, everything that John Paul said earlier in his critique of Marxism’s fundamental anthropological error thus applies to Boff’s eco-spirituality: “Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the socioeconomic mechanism.” Sure enough, Boff’s solution to the challenge of environmental questions is to remove them altogether from individuals working at the local levels for concrete solutions to specific problems and instead to subordinate the whole process to “global bodies, such as the United Nations and its eighteen specialized agencies and fourteen worldwide programs.” So much for subsidiarity. And in his encyclical, John Paul went on to observe that “from this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of the law … and an opposition to private property.” Almost on cue, Boff proposes, as follow-up to his globalization scheme, a new economic order based on collectivizing natural resources.

This difficult, tortured treatise reaches its crescendo in Boff’s appeal to Saint Francis of Assisi. However, while Saint Francis envisioned a natural fraternity of man with creation, his approach was neither pantheistic nor political. Rather, it was rooted in the Christian faith that God, absolutely free in creating the cosmos, created a universe contingent upon his sovereign will. This Creator God is distinct from his creation and so precludes any pantheism such as that which figures so prominently in Boff. Saint Francis knew that Genesis 1:28 (“God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth’”) was to be read in light of Genesis 2:15 (“The Lord God took man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it”). In that way, man has, not absolute sovereignty, but responsible stewardship, and he participates in the divine work of creation.