Pope's Romero move could heal Latin American divisions


Oscar Romero statue outside Westminster Cathedral, London

It took 20 years. Over and over again, forces inside the Vatican stalled and blocked it. But earlier this month, Pope Francis declared that Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was martyred in odium fidei, murdered ‘in hatred of the faith’ and not for political reasons.

Francis’s decision has put Romero one step closer to sainthood, a decision that has given heart and hope to the many Catholics who were dismayed when liberation theology was branded political and cast aside by earlier popes. 

Romero is no longer officially suspected of being a Marxist sympathiser. In fact liberation theology itself has been undergoing a quiet rehabilitation during Francis’ pontificate.  

If he had been alive, the most displeased member of the curia would arguably had been the ultraconservative Colombian Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo. Until his death in 2008, López Trujillo was the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He openly expressed the fear that making Romero a saint would amount to the canonisation of Latin American Liberation Theology. 

Paraphrasing one of the best–known books by the late Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Fr Romero’s murder was a chronicle of a foretold death. He was assassinated in 1980, at the high point of the 1979–1992 Salvadorian civil war.

The date was March 24, 1980. The day before, he had delivered a Sunday homily that sealed his fate. Speaking inside the Cathedral in San Salvador, he confronted the military forces and the government. 'In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression,' he said.

The sniper who took Romero’s life was acting under the orders of Roberto D’Aubuisson, the vicious head of an ultra–right wing death squad and founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).  D’Aubuisson – like many perpetrators of human rights violations in Latin America – was never punished. 

The Salvadorian civil war – a conflict a between the US backed military-led right wing government and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) – caused the death of more than 75,000, most of the them civilians. Many others were forced to leave the country and until today the wounds are still open.  

Romero was born in 1917 into a modest family. At the age of 14 he entered the Seminario Menor of San Miguel, 138 km of San Salvador, the capital city of this small Central American country. He studied in Rome and was ordained a priest in April 1942. 

In his early years Romero was a model of Catholic conservatism. He had been unmoved by the ‘preferential option for the poor’, the central tenet of the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia.  

However his religious posture began shifting to the left as the indiscriminate murder of civilians and torture took central stage in the Salvadorian civil war. A key moment in his radicalisation occurred when his mentor, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, was killed by a right wing death squad in 1977, the same year Romero was appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador. 

As military violence against civilians peaked, Romero formed a Catholic Human Rights commission and his homilies became more and more critical of the US backed military regime. 

In a letter to the then US President Jimmy Carter Romero didn’t mince with his words: ‘The contribution of your government instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organisations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.’ 

The Civil War ended in 1992, the same year that saw the death of D’Aubuisson, Romero’s killer.  Nicknamed the ‘blowtorch’– he used this tool to torment his victims – D´Aubuisson died of an esophageal cancer. He died a free man thanks to the 1993 law of amnesty promulgated by Alfredo Cristiani, from the right wing ARENA party, which was founded by D´Aubuisson himself.  

El Salvador, a small Central American country with a population of just over 6 million, has never recovered from the brutal conflict. Now governed by the former FMLN guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador is deeply divided. This month’s move of Pope Francis has, however, shed new hope that El Salvadorean society will heal from the wounds of the war.

And perhaps more widely, Francis’ action might herald a new era for Latin American Catholicism. Last year Pope Francis took another major decision, lifting the suspension of Fr Miguel D'Escoto. A member of the Maryknoll order, Fr D'Escoto was ordered 29 years ago to stop exercising his priestly ministry because he refused to give up his left–wing socialist position in Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Now, in naming Oscar Romero a martyr, the Argentinian born Pope has the potential to reinvigorate the most progressive sectors of the Latin American Catholic Church after their experience of repression during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

Romero’s martyrdom might also have another significant development – closure, and punishment of those responsible for the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, a crime committed by the Salvadorean army during the war.  Perhaps – as Romero once said in one of his last homilies – he could be murdered, ‘but the voice of justice couldn’t be killed.’ 

Antonio CastilloAntonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and academic who is Director of Journalism at RMIT University and co-editor of Global Media Journal Australia

Oscar Romero Westminster Catherdral London statue image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Antonio Castillo, Oscar Romero, liberation theology, Pope Francis, Marxism, Latin America



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Existing comments

'Romero is no longer officially suspected of being a Marxist sympathiser.'... Marxism , in many Catholic minds, is synonymous with atheism and the brutal enforcement of political policies under Stalin and such. But it also helped promote one of the most enlightened political deals ever aired:- 'From each according to their ability; to each according to their need.' This ideal is fiercely rejected by many of those with special abilities who want to use their abilities for self-centred aggrandisement rather than for promoting the common good. Cases can be found where the two ends are equally well served, but in too many cases one is promoted at the expense of the other. 'Economic rationalism' tends to mean deepening the divide between the rich and the poor, instead of promoting the health and well-being of society as a whole.
Robert Liddy | 10 February 2015

"The preferential option for the poor" does not reflect Christ's teaching and example. In his dying on the cross, Christ did not proclaim any preferential options but died for all men equally, regardless of poverty or riches. The armed Jesuits and Mary Knoll priests who acted as terrorists in South America were certainly not acting according to the word of their professed God. Certainly, the murderous excesses of the fascist criminals running many South American countries should have been opposed. The Jesuit Cardinale brothers chose AK 47's and famously replaced the crucifix above the altar constructed for Pope John Paul's outdoor Mass in Nicaragua with the Hammer and Sickle. The Mary Knoll priest, Kennedy, rampaged around with his heavily armed band of rebels killing his fellow men in the government forces. It is highly dubious that that was how Christ would have done it. He would, I assume, have turned the other cheek, even loved his enemies, as many of his saints have done over centuries in their opposition to oppression. Fr Romero chose that path and deserves recognition in this world as a follower of Christ who died for that following, a genuine saint.
john frawley | 10 February 2015

Bravo! Thanks for this excellent analysis of good news. We hope.....
Peter Goers | 10 February 2015

john frawley: '"The preferential option for the poor" does not reflect Christ's teaching and example... How can this be believed? Jesus identified himself with the poor. In Mt 25, the criterion given for the Last Judgement is the care and the concern given to the poor and the needy- ; the hungry, the sick, and the alienated. This was certainly the practice of the early Christian Community, and it was this example that attracted millions of followers for hundreds of years.
Robert Liddy | 10 February 2015

Pope Francis's intervention in the process of examining the life of Archbishop Romero with a view to whether or not he is worthy of canonisation sends a message to various groups within the catholic church's hierarchy and to politicians everywhere but especially those in the Western hemisphere. Any fair-minded student of the Salvadorean civil war would surely admit that Archbishop Romero was virtuously heroic and heroicly virtuous in the most testing of circumstances. As a leader of his flock he lived in fidelity to God's grace and urged his people to live lives worthy of their faith. For him this meant challenging a socio-economic system that exploited the poor and the powerless in San Salvadorean society. Of course some carried resistance to this exploitation too far. Of course some found the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism attractive. As Mr Liddy has pointed out how attractive is the slogan "From each according to their ability/capacity, to each according to their need." But not to those with wealth and power (and I include the USA in this). Any hint at the redistribution of wealth is labelled socialist/communist/ Marxist - end of argument. Pope Francis is saying: ' Hear Romero's voice'.
Uncle Pat | 10 February 2015

Good morning Robert, You are quite correct in your understanding that Christ did see the poor and marginalised as demanding our compassion and support. He did, however, also see all mankind as deserving our same care and concern regardless of poverty or riches and indeed went out of his way to bring the wayward sheep back to the fold also without favour or consideration of poverty or riches. My argument, Robert, is with the word "preferential" in that I don't believe that Christ ever displayed a preference for any person over another. The preferential option is a human invention based on leftist politics not of Christian socialism based on love. Those who have wealth are certainly obliged to provide options for the poor but such options are not "preferential" in my understanding.
john frawley | 10 February 2015

John Frawley,
You might care to enlighten yourself about the origins of the expression 'preferential option for the poor.' You should read Rerum Novarum #29 which has become one of the pillars of the Theology of Liberation.

And just to add some equilibrium to you banging away with the asymmetrical rhetoric about gun toting Marxist Leninist Maryknoll guerrillas, you might add a note or two about the death squads trained at and armed by the 'School of the Americas.'
Thanks Robert LIddy for reminding the reader of Mt 25. That's another pillar of Liberation Theology, validation of the preferential option for the poor and the basis of dear old Mother Teresa's confession that when she came into contact with the most destitute, she 'saw Christ in a most disturbing disguise.'
David Timbs | 10 February 2015

john frawley: 'My argument, Robert, is with the word "preferential" in that I don't believe that Christ ever displayed a preference for any person over another.'....
Good afternoon, John.
Christ identified himself as a servant, washing feet. He singled out sinners. 'It is not the well who need a doctor..'
Are you suggesting that if we feed the starving, we should also provide a meal for the well-fed?
Robert Liddy | 10 February 2015

With regard to the supposed conflict between socialism/ Christianity/Catholicism, it seems to me there should be none.
When I read the Acts of the Apostles, and see the early Christian community met in common, shared their resources and decided things in common, it looks very much like socialism to me, and not a medieval monarchical structure.
John Dobson | 10 February 2015

Any reduction of Romero' s Martyrdom to politics is a sham. St John Paul who revised the whole canonisation process recognised Romero died due to Odium Fidei["Hatred of the Faith"]. Indeed,
an official statement noted that the way the archbishop was killed while saying Mass shows such hatred.[Odium Fidei].
St John Paul II, who knew the two other saints killed on the altar, St Stanislaus of Kraków and Thomas Becket of Canterbury, said: ‘They killed him right in the most sacred moment… It was the murder of a bishop of the Church of God who was carrying out his sanctifying mission by offering the Eucharist.'” The event is no canonisation of Marxism[now well in disrepute since JP2 dismantling of the evil empire].
Father John George | 10 February 2015

Thank you. I have long been a supporter of Liberation Theology and the roles many South American priests undertook to help the poor and disenfranchised under resource-grabbing American-backed governments. Your other articles in Eureka Street have also been enlightening. Bravo to both you and Pope Francis!
Annabel | 10 February 2015

Robert Liddy, "Are you suggesting that if we feed the starving, we should also provide a meal for the well-fed?" Not at all, Robert. We are under no obligation to provide material things for those not in need (the well fed). Since the Church's social teachings are not confined to the paucity of material fulfilment but also to that of human or spiritual fulfilment our obligations cannot be dished out preferentially based only on money. Sometimes perhaps in terms of spiritual and human poverty our greater obligation might be to a lost soul who is not materially poor. David Timbs. In my understanding, a "preferential option for the poor" does not have its origins in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum of 1891, It was first vocalised by the Jesuit General, Pedro Arrupe, in 1968 in a letter to the S American Jesuits and some 3 years later in Liberation theological writings was vocalised as a "preferential option" Thus my suggestion that it was a man made option based on leftist politics in response to extreme right wing Fascism with all its excesses. That was not, however, the green light to fight such evil with machine guns as certain apostate Catholic religious did in S America. I didn't need to be reminded of Matt. 25, which is perhaps my most favoured tract in the New Testament and indeed formed the basis of my working life. I simply find it sad that very good people, almost certainly better people than I am, have allowed themselves to be seduced by the leftist, Marxist philosophy couched in hatred of others, rather than the care and concern that Mother Teresa and Christ epitomised. John Dobson. What you describe, John, is indeed the socialism of love, Christ's socialism. Not the socialism of hatred and attrition , the signature of latter day socialism and Marxist communism.
john frawley | 10 February 2015

Mr Dobson sir!The elements of affinity between Communism and Ácts' Christianity are more obvious in armchair exchanges in academic smoking rooms versus.Gulags, Mao's prisons; those communist Killing Fields [=a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the communist Khmer Rouge regime,[2.7 million victims in toto] during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975). In any case millions rejected atheistic Communism in 1990s.[Check domino effect after perestroika[restructuring] by St John Paul]
Marx's "Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie" was hardly a hermeneutic trajectory of Acts of Apostles[pace Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin' and his 30 million dead victims]
Finally, the Church of Acts was the Church of the Petrine commission and other scriptural marks of the perennial True Church!
Father John George | 10 February 2015

john frawley: "the socialism of love, Christ's socialism. Not the socialism of hatred and attrition , the signature of latter day socialism......
Good evening John. It seems that we agree that true socialism should be based on love, and that hatred has no place in it. However when faced with unjust aggression, death squads and deprivation of human rights, some proportional defence measures can be justified. Most of the current hatred seems to be directed towards the idea of social living.
Robert Liddy | 10 February 2015

Robert Liddy. Good evening, Robert. Thank you for taking the time to reply to my meanderings. I knew from what you have written, not only here but in the past, that we agreed on many things. I am a difficult beggar, however, and sometimes don't understand myself! One of my colleagues who worked with me for 25 years once told me I was the most extreme right wing fascist, leftist communist he had ever met. Perhaps that explains the convolutions to which I am a little prone and which get me into trouble every now and then! Perhaps much of the current hatred to which you refer is directed towards the abuse of social living rather than towards social living itself. Such abuse has two sides to the coin, I think, the excesses of the top end on the one hand and the users who don't need the benefits on the other.
john frawley | 10 February 2015

Thank you, Antonio. Few Australians (myself included) would have any idea how atrocious it would be to live under some of the extreme right wing governments in Latin America. As someone who lived under Pinochet in Chile you have made this sort of existence quite clear. I have no doubt that the late Archbishop Romero was a hero; a genuine Christian martyr with all that entails and someone of similar stature to the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the late Bayers Naude, both of who had a genuine; theologically based; well-thought-through and impeccably well articulated response to a thoroughly un-Christian; anti-human; morally and socially destructive regime. Both the Catholic Church and the US government no longer support these sorts of regimes in Latin America. Sadly, as you have pointed out in previous articles, the adverse effects of some of these regimes still live on in some countries, particularly in Central America.
Edward Fido | 11 February 2015

"When we struggle for human rights, for freedom, for dignity, when we feel that it is a ministry of the church to concern itself for those who are hungry, for those who have no schools, for those who are deprived, we are not departing from God's promise. He comes to free us from sin, and the church knows that sin's consequences are all such injustices and abuses. The church knows it is saving the world when it undertakes to speak also of such things." Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love. Quote of the month in Faith Doing Justice Newsletter, February, 2015.
Annabel | 11 February 2015

John Frawley - God's preferential option for the poor is not a theoretical or intellectual theological concept - but simply a reflection on the reality - and it's just as much a mystery as the holy Eucharist and our unconditional belief n the bodily presence of Christ. It's part of the same mystery of God's love (revealed to us through the passion of Jesus) and it can't be explained by science, chemistry, sociology or politics. We might be able to understand it a bit bit better through meditation, and a realization that our salvation is intrinsically linked to how those of us in who are relatively well off and well-fed, treat those who are living on the margins. The "poor" are living the Eucharist - while the wealthy are invited to enter into that communion spiritually through the Mass.
AURELIUS | 11 February 2015

Who cares how they got here! ...Romero declares: 'Somebody has to have the courage to say, "Enough!"' ...Get them out now! http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/heartbreaking-drawings-from-children-in-immigration-detention-centres-paint-a-bleak-picture/story-fni0cx12-1227216861154
AO | 12 February 2015


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