Why Oscar Romero Matters

A shade over 35 years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Archbishop San Salvador, El Salvador, was assassinated by government-backed gunmen while he was in the middle of saying Mass.  There was no dispute regarding the motive behind the killing--Romero was outspoken in his opposition to the government on the side of the poor.  He was, like many of his generation among the Latin American clergy, a leftist, a proponent of liberation theology.  Was he a Marxist?  Not really.  As his contemporary, Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, famously said "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." [Ed. note: I butchered the quote in a previous version.  My mistake.  BTW, Dom Camara may be on his way to sainthood as well].

In a couple of months, Oscar Romero will be beatified, the "level below," if you will, being named a saint.  No one seriously doubts that he will be canonized is due course.  Pope Francis will be heading to San Salvador for the beatification.  You might say that this is evidence that the Pope is behind the beatification, but you don't actually need evidence of that.  Pope Francis showed his cards clearly when he cut through the tangled webs that had been spun by the Vatican bureaucracy to keep Romero from being elevated to sainthood.  In specific, Pope Francis declared that Oscar Romero was a martyr.

It is important to understand what that means.  Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it (CCC 2473):

Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude.


"He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine."  Another traditional formulation holds that martyrs are those that are killed "out of hatred of the faith"--the person is killed because they are Catholic or Christian.

And that's why Oscar Romero's canonization matters.  To say that Oscar Romero is a martyr is to make two claims.  First, it is to say that Romero's mission to the poor and his opposition to El Salvador's right wing government represents an appropriate and proper "witness to the truth of the faith and the Christian doctrine."  To declare Romero a martyr is to declare, perhaps implicitly, that the Church supports his project.  And, consequently, that they do not support the project of those that killed him.  One can no longer say that liberation theology is inconsistent with the Catholic faith, or at the least no one can say that about Romero's brand of liberation theology.  To say Romero is a martyr is to take a side.

Second, it makes a, against perhaps implicit, point about those that killed Archbishop Romero.  To say that Oscar Romero was killed "out of hatred for the faith" places those that killed him on the outside of the Church.  This was not some political dispute, where well-intentioned people can disagree.  This was a battle between the Church and its enemies, and the right wing government of El Salvador were in the camp of the enemies.  And if the government of El Salvador is in that category, it is hard to dispute the conclusion that those who supported that government, armed it, encouraged it, are on the side of the enemies as well.  Which means the United States.

Saying Oscar Romero is a martyr is to make a statement about the foreign policy of the United States, under Presidents of both parties.  Ronald Reagan gets associated with El Salvador, but Reagan had only been President for a couple of months when Romero was assassinated; the guns that shot Romero were provided by the Carter administration.  We, as Americans, like to look back at the Cold War and see ourselves as the good guys.  Saying Oscar Romero is a martyr is to challenge that story.

It's is also a challenge to the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.  We will hear that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were supporters of the cause of Oscar Romero.  That's nonsense, but everyone will be too polite to say that.  Romero's cause was in limbo for 30 years and all of the sudden the seas part when Francis becomes Pope?  Please.

It's not a surprise, really.  Pope John Paul II made his opposition to liberation theology a key part of his agenda.  Pope John Paul made sure that people like Romero were not named bishops, were not given the opportunity and the platform to follow Romero's lead.  Benedict, before he was Pope, carried out key portions of JPII's agenda by clamping down on the theologians that provided the intellectual framework for Romero's action.  Both worked actively to make sure there were no more Romeros; why hold him up as someone to follow?

But now, John Paul II and Benedict are gone, and Francis is here.  Francis, a son of Latin America, is going to go to El Salvador and say that Oscar Romero represents what the Catholic faith is about.  Along with that is the explicit critique of the right wing in Latin America and the implicit critique of America and of his predecessors.  You can debate what Francis "really" is about with regard to sexual issues or women or whatever, but there is no question what he stands for on this front.  It is a clear about-face from the last 35+ years.  Oscar Romero is the what the Catholic Church is about, now.

Canonizations and beatifications are about faith and sanctity, but they are also about politics.  And no beatification is more about politics than that of Oscar Romero.

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