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Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated while celebrating mass in 1980, has long been an icon for the Latin American left. Now, with reports that his cause for canonization has been “ unblocked,” he may be on his way to be declared a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church.

I have no doubt that Archbishop Oscar Romero is in heaven. What priest would not like to go to God after a day of prayer and in the middle of Mass? However, it is obvious that his image has been oversimplified as well as manipulated politically. Proponents of the beatification seem too eager to ignore the complexity of the archbishop as man and churchman and the ideological and political-social whirlwind in which he lived.

If Romero is to be judged a martyr, then he has to have been killed because of his Christian faith. Yet, as John Allen has written, there has been “some question as to whether his death meets the classic test for martyrdom of being killed in odium fidei, meaning ‘in hatred of the faith,’ or whether the motives were more social and political.” Was his death because of doctrine or was it reprisal for what may have been interpreted as political options which did not seem to rule out violence?

Romero was quite outspoken about social tensions, and it does his memory no service to sweep this under the rug. The language of class struggle echoed in his rhetoric. He used the word “oligarchy” frequently. He once said “the rich will continue to be called ‘those whom God despises,’ because they put more confidence in their money.” On Sunday February 24, 1980, shortly before he died he spoke thus about “the oligarchs” with these words, “Let them not keep killing those of us who are trying to achieve a more just sharing of the power and wealth of our country.” The archbishop called those who opposed the “oligarchs” simply “the people.”

On more than one occasion, Archbishop Romero referred to what he called a very “picturesque” metaphor of the Brazilian Cardinal Lorscheider: “You better take off the rings so that they don’t cut off your fingers. I think this is a very understandable expression. Whoever does not take off the rings runs the risk of getting his hands cut off; and whoever doesn’t want to share because of love and social justice runs the risk of appropriation by violence.”

The rich-poor polarity spilled over into pastoral actions, too. The archbishop attempted to deny Christian burial to a newspaper publisher because of his extreme right-wing views and forbade a pastor to celebrate the funeral mass. The priest, with the code of canon law in hand, said he saw no scandal in the Christian burial of a professed Catholic, however inconvenient his political views. “What makes you think the rich will go to heaven?” asked the Archbishop bitterly.

In his discourse at Louvain on February 2, 1980, crafted with the help of Liberation Theologian Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero hinted that discussion might be needed about “the relationship between the faith and political ideologies—in particular Marxism” and “the question of violence and its legitimacy.” He said the Church had to go on “making judgments about politics within a changing scene.” While the outlook was ambiguous, “all the projects emanating from the government are collapsing, and the possibility of popular liberation is growing.” In the Louvain discourse, Archbishop Romero emphasized the role of the Church in politics. He said, “The essence of the Church lies in its mission of service to the world, in its mission to save the world in its totality, and of saving it in history, here and now.”

Who, then, killed Romero, and why? Earlier this year, Filip Mazurczak wrote that Archbishop Romero “was shot during the celebration of Mass by the death squadrons of El Salvador’s military government.” This is a simplification on many counts. The junta that ruled at the time was mixed military and civilian. It was also extremely divided, with recent defections of some prominent non-military leaders. The man popularly associated with the assassination, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, was not a member of that government, and supposedly at the time he was separated from the military.

One member of the junta later became president of El Salvador—the Catholic Napoleon Duarte, graduate of Notre Dame and friend of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. No one accused Duarte of the assassination and he has always held that D’Aubuisson had ordered the death of the archbishop. He made the charge a centerpiece of his campaign against the Major in the elections of 1984. Nothing ever came of the judicial process to assign blame to D’Aubuisson, however, not during the Christian Democrats’ time in government, and not in the administration of the FMLN party which has held the executive office since 2009.

More investigation, more reflection, more study of history is in order to appreciate fully the dramatic tensions in life of the Church in Latin America refracted in the tragedy of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Reductionism does no justice to his memory. Doesn’t the Church deserve more than a poster Romero?

Msgr. Richard Antall worked in El Salvador as a member of the Cleveland Latin American Mission Team from 1986 and 1993 and then again from 1998 to 2011. Besides serving as a parochial vicar and pastor of two parishes, he also served as a Vicar Forane, Episcopal Vicar of Promocion Humana, and as Moderator of the Curia under two archbishops. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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