On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot during the celebration of Mass by the death squadrons of El Salvador’s military government. Today his reputation is undergoing a second assassination: Critics have responded to the floating of his name for beatification by wrongly charging the man with supporting violence, communism, and heresy. Those who would make the archbishop a radical hero have offered their own version of these claims in approving tones. Both are wrong.
Murals and t-shirts showing Romero alongside Salvador Allende and Che Guevara are common in Central America, yet his visage sits somewhat uncomfortably beside theirs. Romero did not hesitate to condemn capitalism, but at the same time he was an anti-communist. In his sermons he cautioned against the dangers of atheistic, materialist Marxism. In one of his homilies, Romero chastised leftists for criticizing American imperialism while turning a blind eye to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
While the left has come to glorify Romero, right-wing politicians in El Salvador have accused him of inspiring leftist guerrilla violence. In reality, Romero sought a peaceful solution to El Salvador’s troubles. In his third pastoral letter, written in 1978, Romero condemned leftist guerrilla violence as “terrorist” and “seditious.” In the fourth letter written one year later, the archbishop of San Salvador reminded the nation that violence was justifiable only in extreme situations when all other alternatives have been exhausted, citing Catholic just war theory.
The twentieth century was a difficult one for the Latin American Church. In the 1970s and 1980s, military juntas ruled most of the region. In Argentina, the bishops’ close ties to the dictatorship of Jorge Videla and their silence on the tortures and disappearances in the country led many Argentineans to lose their trust in the Church. By contrast, in Nicaragua many clerics supported armed revolution against the Somoza dictatorship and supported the Marxist Sandinistas.
Even a man as saintly as Dom Helder Camara—the bishop who defended Brazil’s poor against the country’s military dictatorship—believed that Marx should do for Christianity in the twentieth century what Aristotle did for medieval Thomism. By contrast, in a 1978 homily Romero said: “Since Marxist materialism destroys the Church’s transcendent meaning, a Marxist church would be not only self-destructive but senseless.”
Romero avoided the blinkered anti-communism of Argentina’s bishops and defended the vulnerable against military violence, seeing the hypocrisy of rulers who claim to be Christians yet persecute the people. At the same time, he understood the dangers of Marxism, condemning the Marxist guerrilla movement that terrorized El Salvador’s ruling class. Ernesto Cardenal, the Trappist monk who in the 1980s was a minister in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, wrote that before becoming a Christian, one first must become a Marxist-Leninist. Romero rejected this: His personal hero was Pope Pius XI for resisting fascism and communism at the same time.
Romero also stood apart from liberation theology, distinguishing between the liberation of communism and the liberation Christ offers. In the 1980s, some Latin American priests inspired by Marxism wanted to deny Communion to the wealthy. Romero resisted this saying in a 1979 homily: “We are not demagogically in favor of one social class; we are in favor of God’s reign, and we want to promote justice, love, and understanding, wherever there is a heart well disposed.”
Few know that Romero received spiritual direction from an Opus Dei priest and personally knew the future saint and Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva. When the latter died in 1975, he wrote a letter to Paul VI asking the Pope to jumpstart his canonization process, writing: “Monsignor Escriva . . . was able to unite in his life a continuous dialogue with Our Lord and a great humanity; one could tell he was a man of God, and his manner was full of sensitivity, kindness, and good humor.” As recommended by Opus Dei priests, Romero wore a cilice on Fridays as a form of self-mortification until his death.
One of the firmest supporters of Romero’s beatification has been Pope Benedict XVI. Both before and after his election to the papacy he has expressed his enthusiasm for the cause, going so far as to say that he has “no doubt” that Romero will be declared blessed someday.
During his 1983 pilgrimage to El Salvador, John Paul insisted on visiting Romero’s tomb despite the pleas of Latin American bishops and the Salvadoran government. John Paul II asked local priests to open the door of the cathedral which was locked up by the military. He immersed himself in prayer for a long time in front of Romero’s tomb.
John Paul II again demonstrated his affection for Oscar Romero by insisting—again against the wishes of many churchmen—that during the 2000 Jubilee Year celebration in Rome’s Coliseum Romero’s name be mentioned among the great martyrs of the Americas.
It is a name we are likely to hear again.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student at the George Washington University studying international affairs.