The Latin Times calls newly declared Catholic martyr Oscar Arnulfo Romero a “Marxist Martyr” because of supposed ties to a Marxist-inspired movement called liberation theology that was popular in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.
This week Pope Francis recognized Romero’s death as “martyrdom” and signed the decree of beatification, setting him firmly on track to become a Catholic saint. As Archbishop of San Salvador, Romero was shot by a death squad while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel on March 24, 1980.
The Catholic hierarchy has always been suspicious of liberation theology, a movement that took its name from a 1971 book by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez titled A Theology of Liberation. In it Gutiérrez analyzes the situation in Latin America through the lens of oppressors and oppressed, insisting that poverty is always the result of sin, and proposes a political theology of change. Gutiérrez advocates “a profound transformation of the private property system” as well as a “social revolution” to allow for the change to “a socialist society.”
In 1984 the Vatican doctrinal congregation headed up by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, together with Pope John Paul II, published an “Instruction” titled Libertatis Nuntius, which was harshly critical of liberation theology—or “theologies” as some prefer to call it, given its numerous and varied expressions.
The instruction criticizes liberation theology for creating “a disastrous confusion between the ‘poor’ of the Scripture and the ‘proletariat’ of Marx,” resulting in a perversion of the Christian meaning of the poor. It also blames liberation theology for transforming the fight for the rights of the poor “into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle.”
The Catholic Church has always favored paying special attention to the poor and underprivileged, summed up in its principle of the “preferential option for the poor,” but the Vatican reacted strongly to theories tinged with the dialectic materialism typical of Marxist communism and its advocacy of class struggle and violent revolution.
It is clear that Archbishop Romero was deeply devoted to the poor, but the question remains whether he also subscribed to liberation theology.
The current head of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, recently claimed to have read through “six volumes on Oscar Romero” and at the end of this exhaustive study found nothing that would prevent him from being recognized as a saint.
In fact, when speaking of liberation theology, Romero himself made many of the same criticisms that came out in the Vatican investigation of the movement. He praised the attention being given to the poor and underprivileged, but forcefully rejected an overly materialistic or political understanding of Christian liberation, and especially the appeal to violence of some of its proponents.
In a sermon he preached in 1976, Romero said, “The liberation of Christ and of His Church is not reduced to the dimension of a purely temporal project. It does not reduce its objectives to an anthropocentric perspective: to a material well-being or to initiatives of a political or social, economic or cultural order, only.”
Though Romero thought that there were two liberation theologies, one faithful to Catholic teaching and the other corrupted by Marxism, he preferred to avoid the term altogether, preferring to speak of his own position as Transfiguration theology.
A careful read through Romero’s writings and sermons reveals a man who was deeply committed to the poor and disenfranchised, a courageous man who was willing to put his own life on the line in the defense of the defenseless and to denounce the injustices that were prevalent in the El Salvador of his day.
In Romero’s words: “The poor are the incarnation of Christ. Through their tattered clothing, their dark gazes, their festering sores, the laughter of the mentally ill… the charitable soul discovers and venerates Christ.”
What his writings do not reveal is any sort of sympathy for Marxist thought or any acceptance of an earthly, political theology divorced from considerations for the salvation of men and women in Christ.
Pope John Paul II, a stalwart opponent of Communism, was a great admirer of Romero. He is said to have repeated forcefully several times: “Romero is ours, Romero is the Church.”
When visiting El Salvador in 1983, St. John Paul II prayed at Archbishop Romero’s tomb in the San Salvador cathedral, referring to him as “a zealous pastor whose love of God and service to his brothers and sisters led to the very sacrifice of his life in a violent way as he celebrated the sacrifice of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
John Paul returned in 1996 and again visited Romero’s tomb. On that occasion he spoke of Romero, as “brutally assassinated while he offered the sacrifice of the Mass” and said he was pleased that the archbishop’s memory “continues to live among you.”
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia is carrying the beatification process forward as “postulator of the cause.” He sees something especially “providential” in the fact that “Romero will be declared blessed by the first South American pope in history. A Pope who asks for a poor Church for the poor, which is what Romero lived to the shedding of his blood,” he said.
“This joy also means a great responsibility for all of us,” he said. “Witnesses like Romero are still among us to say that loving to the extreme, which gives life, is what changes the world.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome