On Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize seven new saints. The best-known of them are Pope Paul VI (1897-1978), who served the Church as supreme pontiff from 1963 to 1978, and Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980), the courageous Salvadoran archbishop who was martyred while celebrating Mass after having becoming a fervent advocate of the rights of the poor and victims of political violence.
Unfortunately, however, Archbishop Romero’s life and legacy have frequently been distorted and seized by political ideologues and those who want to change Church doctrine. It is likely that in the news coverage in the coming days the secular mainstream media and progressive Catholic outlets will present the Salvadoran martyr as a very different figure from who he really was. Specifically, they will likely use Romero to criticize Pope Francis’ two direct predecessors and repeat the following myths which, as we shall see, are just that: myths.
Who was Oscar Romero?
Oscar Romero served as archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. At that time, El Salvador’s economy was basically feudal, as a small number of wealthy families (disproportionately of European origin) owned the majority of the land where the masses of the peasantry, the campesinos, lived in dire poverty. In the late 1970s, Salvadoran peasants, many of whom were inspired by leftist ideologies, began to fight for the right to ownership of the land, while the right-wing government responded with extreme brutality. Many murdered peasants were gruesomely disfigured to scare off others from rebelling. Meanwhile, the regime increasingly accused the Salvadoran clergy of being infiltrated by communists and killed priests. Amidst this growing bloodshed, Archbishop Romero called for peace and for the cessation of violence and for an end to economic injustice. On March 24, 1980, he was shot by a government death squad while celebrating Mass.
Myth #1: Romero was a proponent of liberation theology
The term “liberation theology” was coined by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez in 1971. This theological current sought to emphasize the poor as those especially loved by Christ and encouraged social action to improve their lot. While on the surface this sounds like nothing incompatible with the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and Catholic social teaching, many liberation theologians adopted troubling ideas.
They presented Christ as a political figure; adopted Marxist notions of class struggle (some liberation theologians proposed excommunicating the wealthy); did not reject, and in some cases, openly espoused political violence; and cooperated with communists. In 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued an Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation,” which was very critical of these ideas.
Romero is often associated with this controversial theology, and is even seen as an informal martyr of the movement. Indeed, many priests in El Salvador who were active in Romero’s time (many of whom were transplanted European missionaries influenced by Marxist thinking from the Old Continent), particularly Jesuits, were key proponents of liberation theology.
The fact that some of them knew Romero was about the extent of the archbishop’s association with the movement. When Romero was beatified in 2015, his former secretary, Msgr. Jesus Delgado told the Catholic News Agency:
When I wrote his life story, I looked over his library. Obviously, the liberation theology proponents always visited him and left him their books. I saw them, and they were like brand new, he never even opened them. He never read them; he never looked at them. On the other hand, all the books of the fathers of the Church were worn and were the source of his inspiration.
The monsignor adds that his former boss “knew nothing about liberation theology, he did not want to know about it. He adhered faithfully to the Catholic Church and above all to the teachings of the popes.”
Romero’s view of the causes of poverty and injustice differed from that of Marxist-inspired liberation theologians, who believed that unjust political structures are to blame. By contrast, in a pastoral letter Archbishop Romero stated: “[Liberation] has to start from redemption in Christ, redemption from sin. Laws and structures would be useless if human beings were not renewed interiorly, repenting of their own sins and striving to live a more just life.”
A look at what documents and authors Archbishop Romero referenced in his homilies is very telling. In his excellent book on the martyr, which is not just a chronological biography but also places its subject and his thought in context and dispels certain myths, Roberto Morozzo della Rocca notes that in about two hundred published homilies, Romero quoted Popes Paul VI and John Paul II 373 times; Vatican II 296 times; and the Latin American Episcopal Conference’s (CELAM) conferences in Puebla and Medellín 101 and eighty-five times, respectively.
The number of times Romero cited Marx, Engels, Lenin, or any of the liberation theologians in his homilies was zero.
Myth #2: Romero was a leftist
When we talk about the Church using the political labels “left” and “right,” it is worth knowing where these terms came from. After the French Revolution, supporters of the monarchy were seated on the right side of the National Assembly, while revolutionaries were on the left.
The Church has been around for 2,000 years, which means that the terms “left” and “right” have existed for slightly more than one-tenth of her history. Thus, to interpret Christianity, whose message is timeless and universal, in terms of relatively recent categories of secular politics is greatly simplistic.
Naturally, throughout the years there have been Catholics who have mixed their faith with secular political ideologies (with invariably disastrous results). This was certainly the case in Central America, both in Romero’s El Salvador, where many priests and lay Catholics supported leftist guerrillas, but especially in Nicaragua, where the Marxist, Cuban-backed Sandinista revolution of 1979 had the backing of a sizable proportion of the clergy. Several priests, such as the Cardenal brothers (one of whom was famously reprimanded by Pope St. John Paul II during the latter’s 1983 visit to the country), served as ministers in Nicaragua’s revolutionary government.
Archbishop Romero was no such figure. Naturally, in his homilies and popular broadcasts on Radio YSAX he spoke out more frequently against the abuses of the right than he did of the left. However, this was not because of some political bias, but simply because El Salvador’s right-wing, US-backed government was responsible for the vast majority of the killings in what would become the Salvadoran civil war: between 80 and 90 percent of the 75,000 victims of this brutal conflict were killed by the regime rather than by leftist guerrillas.
Still, Romero did not hesitate to call the left out for its offenses. He frequently criticized leftist guerrillas for using violence to achieve their aims, even if he believed that the underlying root of guerrilla violence was poverty and the repression of the regime. The martyred archbishop’s views on armed revolution were actually quite conservative and would prove disappointing to many liberation theologians. In a meeting with the press, he said that an armed uprising would be acceptable only if “all peaceful means had been exhausted” and if “the evils of insurrection [were] not worse than the evils of the dictatorship or tyrannical power to be eliminated.”
For many of the progressive Catholics who love Archbishop Romero, Opus Dei represents everything they dislike about conservative Catholicism. It just so happens that Romero had a very close relationship with this movement, which in Latin America and Spain is often associated with the political right. Romero was an admirer of Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá, whom he met in 1955. Meanwhile, his confessor, the Spanish born Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, was a member of the prelature. Oscar Romero remained close to the movement literally up to the very end: he attended an Opus Dei meeting for priests on the very day he was killed.
Like any country that has gone through civil war or dictatorship, Salvadoran society is greatly divided. Because Romero criticized the military regime, he has become a darling of the Salvadoran left. The country’s leftist presidents Mauricio Funes Cartagena and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, for example, have praised him as a national hero. Naturally, they have conveniently ignored the fact that the archbishop also condemned leftist guerrilla violence. Consequently, the polarization in Salvadoran society and politics has cemented Romero’s leftist reputation.
Myth #3: Romero was in conflict with Pope John Paul II
In 2005, when Pope St. John Paul II died, several television movies about the beloved pontiff were made. One of them was Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II. In the film, there is a scene in which the pope, played by German actor Thomas Kretschmann, meets with Archbishop Romero. John Paul II is portrayed as screaming at the future martyr and angrily imploring him to be obedient to Rome. Only when Romero is gunned down while saying Mass does the pontiff feel guilty for having been so harsh; Kretschmann’s John Paul II is then shown travelling to El Salvador and praying at the martyr’s tomb, begging for forgiveness.
The scene portrayed in this film never happened, although the belief that John Paul II was cold to Romero, whom he supposedly saw as a communist subversive, does appear to be widespread in some sectors, particularly among Catholic progressives. For example, in his obituary of John Paul II in the progressive National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen, Jr., chastised the late pope for “[s]habby papal treatment of El Salvador’s martyr-archbishop Oscar Romero.”
The historical record, however, is different.
The two future saints met twice. The first visit occurred in April 1979, when John Paul II had been pope for barely half a year. There were many churchmen in Rome who were negatively disposed towards Romero, and undoubtedly some of them gave the pope negative reports about the prelate. During their first meeting, Archbishop Romero gave John Paul II a large collection of papers documenting human rights abuses in El Salvador and his own ministry. The pope recommended that he approach the situation in his country with “courage and boldness,” but “tempered with prudence and necessary balance.” Furthermore, the pope recommended unity in the Salvadoran episcopate.
Archbishop Romero had conflicting feelings about his first audience. On the one hand, he had the impression that negative reports about him had reached the pope. “I have learned that one cannot expect total approval,” he wrote in his diary. On the other hand, however, John Paul II – unlike others in Rome – accepted Romero’s criticism of the Salvadoran regime, rather than asking him to be on positive terms with it. Romero also wrote that John Paul II had been “extremely helpful.” In other words, the scene of John Paul II scolding Romero is pure fantasy.
The second meeting between these two great men of the Church took place nine months later. Romero was in Europe to receive an honorary degree and briefly visited Rome. After the general audience, John Paul II approached Romero and asked for a meeting, much to the latter’s surprise. Here’s what the martyred archbishop wrote about this meeting in his diary:
The Holy Father told me: ‘I know the serious situation your country is going through, and I know that your apostolate is very difficult. You can count on my prayers: every day I pray for El Salvador. It is necessary to defend social justice and love for the poor a lot, tenaciously, but it is also necessary to be very careful about the ideologies that can seep into this defense of human rights, which in the long term are just as harmful to human rights.’ I replied: ‘Holy Father, I am glad to be in agreement, because I am seeking this balance: to defend social justice courageously, which is the weakest point in my country. To be with the people fully, but also to point out that there can be dangers in claims made without Christian sentiments.’ He told me that this was the balance that had to be maintained and that we should always have trust in God. This is a summary of his thought; then he gave me a strong embrace, told me that he was with me, and gave me a special blessing for my people.
Romero’s biographer Roberto Morozza della Rocca writes the following about the second meeting between John Paul II and Romero:
In May 1979, Romero had left Rome without having understood that John Paul II had given him his confidence. In contrast, Romero returned from his last trip to Rome in a state of euphoria, strengthened by the full solidarity of the Pope, which had been expressed in personal, fraternal terms. Being so much better acquainted with the Pontiff, Romero could rely in the future on personal communication with him, and knew that he was in his thoughts and prayers. In the following weeks, Romero made several enthusiastic references in his Sunday homilies to his meeting with John Paul II.
St. John Paul II visited Archbishop Romero’s tomb twice, during his visits to El Salvador in 1983 and 1996. During the first visit, El Salvador was torn apart by a bloody civil war. Many Church officials implored him to not visit Romero’s tomb, not only because many of them saw the martyred archbishop as a heretical liberation theologian, but also because this would be seen as a partisan gesture in a violently polarized society. “No, the pope has to go,” John Paul replied. “Romero was a bishop who was gunned down at the very heart of his ministry as a pastor, during the celebration of the Holy Mass.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero was one of the great Catholic martyrs of the twentieth century. At a time when the secular media’s coverage of the Church is overwhelmingly negative and focuses on scandal, his canonization is a welcome reminder that we have many Catholic heroes of whom we can be proud. He was not, however, a leftist, a liberation theologian, or an adversary of Pope St. John Paul II, and frequent characterizations of him as such are an insult to the truth and to his great legacy.