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The Scandal of Redemption: 
When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations

by oscar romero
plough, 140 pages, $8

As the disciples were on their way to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper, Jesus told them, “All of you will be scandalized because of me this night, for it is written in scripture, I will smite the shepherds and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Some two thousand years later, on the evening of March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero began to say Mass at the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador. As he finished preaching the homily and turned toward the altar, he was shot. The day before, the archbishop had called for the Salvadoran army to refuse to carry out any more extra-judicial killings ordered by the Junta. Earlier that month, he had anticipated the consequences of this public act. “You can tell them, if they succeed in killing me, then I pardon them, and I bless those who may carry out the killing.”

Romero’s death, like that of Christ, remains a stumbling block. The gospel is not a tidy theory that explains the world, a spiritual technique for facing life’s challenges, or a program whereby mankind can redeem itself—by violence or by peace. No, the Cross contradicts all who attempt to decipher the world without God or to submit it to human control. It urges us to place our trust in him to whom we owe our life and being. That the Innocent One should suffer and die for the guilty is the ultimate scandal of human history. God’s grace alone frees us from sin and enables us to collaborate in building his kingdom.

The Scandal of Redemption leads us to the heart of the mystery of Christ. Jesus did not bring about the brotherhood of man on the basis of good will and fine ideals. He was neither an aesthete nor an enthusiast, neither a Neoplatonist nor a Freemason. He was certainly not a hippie do-gooder. What Christ proclaims is the ultimate turning toward the good. His summons is addressed to everyone: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel!” Only through the Cross can we understand the paradoxical words of Jesus, God’s peace-bringer: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). His peace is entirely different from the peace of this world, which is built on the basis of political, ideological, and military power, like the Pax Romana. Jesus brings us God’s peace, making anew heaven and earth by making us anew.

This volume consists of excerpts from Archbishop Romero’s diary interspersed with passages from his homilies in which he denounces injustice and calls murder and torture by their names. He preaches to the oppressed and to men of violence alike, pointing them to the gospel of redemption and liberation. Romero does not offer edifying thoughts that, while they might give our souls a temporary lift, do nothing to confront us with the radical call to discipleship. Nor does he select isolated biblical texts in order to validate a prefabricated ideology. He eschews the kind of propaganda that intoxicates a demagogue.

Romero’s message is the Catholic faith, attested to in holy Scripture and explicitly taught in the baptismal profession of faith: We believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He describes the Earth as our “shared house,” a field that, together, we must plow. We do not wait until death to enter the kingdom of God. Christianity is not a religion of the beyond. But as Romero knew, neither is it a religion of the here-and-now, a pious disposition aimed at improving living conditions. The kingdom of God overcomes this false dualism of “beyond” and “here-and-now,” of present and future, theory and practice, because Jesus is the God-Man. In him the fullness of time has come. The pilgrim Church points to the coming glory, while insisting upon our responsibility in the world.

Because of his powerful witness on behalf of the poor, Romero’s ministry has been drawn into the struggle over the meaning of liberation and the future of Catholic theology. In the battle between reaction and progress, right and left, Romero has been hijacked by one side. This tempts the other to denounce him as an example of the Marxist infiltration of liberation theology. (In the eyes of some, anyone who shows solidarity with the poor automatically comes under suspicion of being a crypto-communist.) Or he is accused of allowing himself to be duped into pulling the wagon of a godless ideology and murderous politics. It is no better when he is mindlessly celebrated and misunderstood by those who consider themselves modern, up-to-the-minute Christians simply because their minds have become befuddled with socialist utopian notions.

We shall never do justice to the charism of Oscar Romero if we go along with these ideological distortions. Romero did not start with political presuppositions, but subordinated politics to the truth of the Catholic faith. His starting point was revelation and salvation history. Christ’s message compelled him to confront the abuse of power in his country, where the dignity of mankind—for whom Jesus shed his blood—was stomped upon and trampled.

Of this there is no doubt: Oscar Romero is a true martyr for Christ. He proclaimed God’s love and was prepared, like any good shepherd, to give his life for his sheep. Because Romero died for the faith all Christians share, we must put aside all polarization and quarrelling over his canonization. Christians do not serve the Church by fighting against one another, but by imitating Romero in struggling and suffering for Christ’s kingdom.

During the beatification process, the question arose of whether a man who had been murdered for political motives could be canonized. I recall the debates in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as to whether or not the nihil obstat should be granted. When I became head of the congregation in 2012, Romero’s canonization had been stalled over these questions for some time. In the end, I was able to persuade Popes Benedict XVI and Francis to advance his cause by asking a single question: “Whose motivation are we talking about?” In martyrdom, the motivation of the perpetrator is never decisive. Even if those who murdered Romero believed they were doing so not out of odium fidei but for political reasons, this would be irrelevant. What matters is Romero’s own intention. One can see this by looking at the death of Christ, the prototype of every martyrdom. The motives of the executioners were not what gave Christ’s death on the cross its redeeming dimension. If that were the case, then the soldiers who crucified him would be the priests of the sacrifice. That is impossible. Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the New Covenant, who offered himself as the sacrifice through which we are redeemed once and for all. In an analogous sense, a Christian becomes a martyr by uniting himself to Christ through his willingness to suffer and die for the faith.

We must not confuse the Church’s proclamation with politics. But in El Salvador (and in many other countries), priests and bishops who stood up for justice, opposing right-leaning and left-leaning dictatorships, were wrongly accused of promoting Marxism and communism—or, on the other hand, of being capitalist pawns. A view prevailed that the Church should restrict herself to the improvement of personal character and the individual increase of piety. During the Cold War, many held that if the Church was not willing to take sides in the battle between capitalism and communism, then it should retire from the public sphere and get on with the practice of religion as a private matter.

To do so would have been to deny the gospel. The kingdom of God begins in this world. The internal and the external, the present and the future, the material goods that maintain our lives and the spiritual goods that enable us to live with God, cannot be separated from one another. This is what Oscar Romero preached—in completely orthodox terms.

Gaudium et Spes is the Magna Carta for the Church in the modern world. Its core message is this: Improving society and proclaiming the gospel of Christ should not be seen as separate. They form the one, indivisible mission of the Church. In a way that was authentically Catholic, Oscar Romero proclaimed this truth. Faith is necessary for salvation; yet we are judged on the basis of our works of corporal and spiritual mercy (Matt. 25). In this sense, the authentic liberation theology that Oscar Romero lived and practiced was an expression of the deep catholicity of his heart and mind.

Some bishops denounced Romero to Rome—unjustly—on the grounds that he was politicizing the gospel. Just like his country’s power-obsessed oligarchy, these men accused him of being active in communist subversion. These charges take no account of Oscar Romero’s intention and achievement. He was not interested in toppling social structures so that the proletariat could erect a dictatorship, only to replace one injustice with another. Once and for all, on the Cross, Jesus achieved redemption and liberation for all mankind. This makes all men brothers and sisters in the one family of God. As Romero saw, the problem consists not in the inequality of human abilities and interests, nor even (necessarily) in different degrees of wealth, but rather in violations of dignity and denial of physical and spiritual sustenance to millions of people.

Communism seduced people with the image of a utopia in which exploitation would be abolished. Catholicism rejects this fantasy, and so did Romero. Yet in fundamentally rejecting the atheism of Marxist philosophy, Catholics do not say that non-Christian philosophies and sciences embody no truth whatsoever. As St. Thomas teaches, “in every truth that is acknowledged as such and in every good that is performed, God is implicitly known as their origin and source.” Not only are Catholics permitted to work together with non-Christian scholars and all men of good will, but they are actually urged to do so. Romero took this approach, neither adopting the atheism of Marx nor rejecting the notion of political and economic liberation out of hand. He grounded all liberation and redemption in God, believing that “the Church does not want to liberate poor people so that they can have more, but rather wants them to be more.”

After the violent death of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., Oscar Romero committed himself to the poor and oppressed. He decided to devote his life to (and even sacrifice it for) the struggle for the new and greater justice of the kingdom of Christ. Doubtless he knew A Theology of Liberation, the groundbreaking work of Gustavo Gutierrez that began as a series of lectures to priests in Chimbote, Peru, in 1968. Like Romero, Gutierrez never tried to change theology into an internal, purely worldly doctrine of salvation. But faced with poor, oppressed people stripped of their dignity, he asked how it was possible, given their sufferings, to speak of God’s love. How can we proclaim God’s salvation in such a way that “the face of the earth may be renewed”? This struggle for the kingdom of God, relying on the grace and charity that belong to it, has nothing to do with Marxist “class struggle.” As Romero said, “We have never preached violence, except the violence of the love that led Christ to be nailed to a cross. We preach only the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and to eliminate the cruel inequalities among us.” Preaching this simple Christian message brought Romero to martyrdom. Blessed Oscar Romero surely can say: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

At the end of A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez warns against the “intellectual self-satisfaction” of those who are always looking for “new interpretations” in theology merely for the excitement of novelty:

No political theology, no theology of hope, revolution and liberation, carries as much weight as one genuine initiative in solidarity with society’s exploited classes. No theology of this kind can match a single, serious act of faith, charity and hope when such an act knows—in whatever way—that it is obliged to commit itself to active collaboration in a work that liberates man from all that dehumanizes him and prevents him from living according to the Father’s will.

In those few words, Gutierrez expressed the profound truth about Oscar Romero, martyr and saint.

Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.