Was the 1980 killing of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador motivated by a hatred of the Faith, or because of politics?
The case of murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero has been a controversial one for years, with debate over whether he was murdered for political reasons or because of animosity of the Faith. Also central to the question were the views of Archbishop Romero: was he a Communist-sympathizing Liberation Theologian, or merely a bishop who cared for the material welfare and natural justice of those souls under his care?
Despite that on February 3, Pope Francis declared Romero “a martyr of the Catholic Faith” for having been assassinated on March 24, 1980 while offering Mass, this confusion still continues in the minds of Catholics—many of who sympathize with the archbishop’s defense of the poor, but nonetheless remain uneasy about his connection with Liberation Theology, of which even Pope John Paul II was initially dubious.
Some of Romero’s fellow Latin American bishops even considered Archbishop Romero a “crypto-Communist” and for years lobbied to ensure he was not recognized as a martyr of the Church. One prime example was the now-deceased Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia and former head of the Pontifical Council for the Family. As related by The Catholic Thing:
…a bold defender of the natural law—[Cardinal Trujillo] opposed Romero’s beatification because he believed he was killed as a result of anarchic political violence not in odium fidei [hatred of the Faith]. He was similarly skeptical about beatifying Pino Puglisi, an Italian priest killed by the mafia in 1993."
Despite being declared “venerable” in 1997, such opposition effectively stalled attempts to have Archbishop Romero canonized a martyr, even after visits to his tomb by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and 1996, and having commemorated him as one of the “20th century’s martyrs” during the Stations of 2000 in the Roman Coliseum (a declaration that was opposed by some Latino prelates).
The barricade against Archbishop Romero’s canonization began to come down in 2012 when Pope Benedict XVI told Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (the Vatican’s postulator for the cause) that the case’s “blocked” status was being removed and the process could move forward.
After his papal election, Pope Francis picked up Romero’s cause in earnest and on February 3 of this year (2015), he gave permission to the Congregation for the Causes of Saint to announce:
The martyrdom of the Servant of God Oscar Arnolfo Galdamez Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador… killed in hatred of the Faith, March 24, 1980, in San Salvador (El Salvador)."
But was Archbishop Romero actually killed for hatred of the Faith, or was his assassination motivated by his critiques of a governmental regime during the El Salvadoran Civil War, when Marxist and Liberation Theology ideologies were often viewed as one and the same?
Then there is today’s liberal application of martyrdom in the Church as exemplified by Pope John Paul II’s assertion to Kenneth Woodward (an American journalist) that because Romero was murdered while offering Mass, this was sufficient merit to deem him a martyr.
Martyrdom can of course make beatification an easy step, since it does not necessarily require a documented miracle as for proving the state of heroic sanctity. So if Archbishop Romero had clearly died because of “hatred of the Faith” this would be a clear-cut application.
But here’s the rub, the Vatican’s postulator for Romero’s cause, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, has stated that the slain El Salvadoran archbishop was "a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council." And from past precedence, we know that the traditional criteria of “heroic sanctity” and the traditional sense of “martyrdom” (referring to one clearly dying for the Catholic Faith) is not the only interpretation held in the post-conciliar Church.
For example, Archbishop Paglia has also compared Romero’s assassination to that of St. Thomas Beckett’s, while also calling the Archbishop of San Salvador “a kind of ‘protomartyr’.” As repugnant as the killing of Romero was during Mass, how can it be compared to the martyrdom of Beckett who was hacked to death before the altar for firmly upholding the clerical rights of the Catholic Church? Or that of St. Stephen’s stoning for preaching Christ Crucified in the streets of Jerusalem and before the Sanhedrin—and not against Pharisaical injustices towards the widowed, orphaned and poor (all of whom the Protomartyr was also tending to on the behalf of the Apostles)?
Hence at the end of this entire dispute over the death of Archbishop Romero (RIP), the burning question still remains: was he actually a martyr for the Faith?
1 “Understanding JPII and Oscar Romero” by Filip Mazurcazk; February 5, 2015.
2 “Archbishop Oscar Romero: Pastor and Martyr,” Zenit, February 4, 2015.
3 “Vatican: Oscar Romero is ‘a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council’”, National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2015.