FATHER LEONARDO BOFF's concepts of prayer are almost as controversial as his outspoken views on liberation theology. ``Private prayer has its permanent, unquestionable value,'' writes the Brazilian Roman Catholic priest, who was silenced by the Pope for a year because of his active political role in championing the poor and persecuted in Latin America.
Fr. Boff writes in his new book, ``Faith on the Edge'': ``In our committed groups, prayer is essentially a sharing of experiences and practices, enlightened by the light of faith and the gospel and criticized in that light.''
He advocates a more expansive prayer.
``Here is a prayer that opens the praying subject out to others,'' Boff explains. ``Here is a prayer heard not only by God but by our neighbor, for it communicates to that neighbor.''
Arthur Caliandro's prayer tends to be more private. The minister of New York's Marble Collegiate Church and successor in the pulpit to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale writes: ``The Scripture is God's Word to us. It is His message to me, as it is His message to you. It's very personal. That's the way I read the Bible - for personal help.''
Much prayer is tied to Scriptural prophesy. Frank Darling writes in ``Biblical Healing: Hebrew and Christian Roots'' about the Judeo-Christian tradition of individual freedom and human rights shaped by Biblical healing.
``The people healed by the teachings of the Bible,'' Darling reports, ``... enjoyed a form of individual freedom in a life of good health and usefulness.'' He adds that the evidence of Christian healing ``provided additional authority to the concept of individual equality. Primitive Christianity professed and verified that all mankind has equal access to a loving God and His healing power.''
Although a vast majority of people attest to the importance of prayer, there is less consensus over the power of prayer to heal sickness and discordant situations.
Some say that friends and counselors bring as much comfort as does prayer in times of need. Few would shun medical care and rely wholly on prayer for healing. Many would embrace both.
Arnold and Barry Fox talk about the ``medicine called prayer'' in their new book, ``Making Miracles.'' The former is a medical doctor and a specialist in cardiology; the latter teaches nutrition at City University in Los Angeles.
``Pray without ceasing, for prayer is a good medicine,'' say the father-and-son team. ``And as you pray, believe you'll have the thing you pray for, and you shall.
``See your prayer as coming true. Feel that it has been accomplished.... Pray with feeling, with belief, with conviction.''
Prayer and healing are main themes in many books. Some are Scripturally related. (The Bible continues to be the best-selling book in the world.) Many texts and articles relate these subjects to philosophy, psychiatry, and medicine. One volume outlines for the prospective parent a guide for successful birth.
In ``Praying for your Unborn Child,'' Francis and Judith MacNutt write: ``As we experience healing taking place over and over when we pray, our hope is strengthened the next time we pray.... These past blessings build up our certainty that God hears us when we pray for the unborn child, who is totally dependent on the love and mercy of God.''
John L. Selover, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors, points to the strong basis of religious freedom on which the United States was founded. Mr. Selover, along with other religious, business, and political leaders across the nation, was a recent signer of the Williamsburg Charter, a document dedicated to religious liberty.
He observes that the framers of the US Constitution recognized that tolerance alone was not sufficient. He portrays the Founding Fathers as ``deeply committed, spiritually minded people - intelligent, thoughtful people'' who were acknowledging ``an innate right of man to turn to God.''
PRAYER and dependence on religion, however, have sharp critics, particularly in circumstances where a child is seriously ill. Cases now in the courts deal with the right of a member of Jehovah's Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions and the right of a Christian Scientist to rely wholly on prayer - without resorting to medicine - in the treatment of an infant.
But just recently, New York's Court of Appeals, that state's highest judicial tribunal, unanimously held that the state could not compel medical treatment of an adult even if it deemed that a child's interests would be harmed by the death of a parent who refused such care.
A hospital had forced a blood transfusion on a member of Jehovah's Witnesses just after the birth of her child. Medical personnel said they overruled the mother's wishes in order to save her life. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument that the overriding interest in the well-being of the child should allow a denial of the parent's wishes.
Chief Judge Sol Wachtler wrote: ``Although the state will not permit a parent to abandon a child, the state has never gone so far as to intervene in every personal decision a parent makes which may jeopardize the family unit or the parental relationship.''
Norman Fost, chairman of the bioethics committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, strongly challenges the right of parents to reject medical treatment for small children. Dr. Fost has called for states to repeal statutes that exempt those from prosecution who rely solely on prayer for healing their infants.
Most states have religious accommodations written into their laws, but under child endangerment proscriptions some jurisdictions have still brought suit against parents when a child dies.
Fost concedes that ``religion plays an important role in the growth and development of many children and families.'' He adds, however, that ``children can sometimes die or become permanently disabled when they fail to receive medical treatment because of their parents' religious beliefs or practices.''
But other physicians raise the issue of the effectiveness of medical treatment. In a column entitled ``Second Opinion,'' which appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, Dr. Eugene Robin, retired from the Stanford Medical School, makes this point: ``I believe that medicine and the law should be exceedingly certain before they decide to punish parents who have made what seems to them a loving, caring, and rational choice.''
``In the last analysis,'' writes Dr. Robin, ``society should be especially sensitive to the medical needs of young children, but only when the medical facts are clear and unequivocal.''
Jayne Ann Moody, a Massachusetts mother who has relied on prayer for healing her children, says she has seen successful, consistent results. ``The world is afraid we are going to martyr our children. We're not. The first priority is the protection of the child, not a test of spiritual growth,'' she says.