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A victory for Pope Francis

2015 May 23
by Paul Vallely

The assassinated archbishop Oscar Romero is at the final milestone on a tortuous road to sainthood after his beatification by the Catholic Church on Saturday. The ceremony has brought celebrations of the highest order in his native El Salvador. But the event is an occasion for much wider rejoicing – for it reveals a victory over malign influences within the Church and provides further evidence of the radical nature of the revolution Pope Francis is forging in Rome.

Romero was shot dead at the altar as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador in 1980. His assassin was from one of the death squads propping up an unholy alliance between rich landowners, the army and sections of the Catholic Church as the country moved towards civil war. The archbishop’s crime was to quote the Gospel to men in the army and order them to stop killing innocent civilians. The far-right elite saw him as an apologist for Marxist revolution – a defamation which highly-placed individuals in the Vatican nurtured for three decades, and which Pope Francis has now finally squelched.

The chief concern of these opponents was that his canonisation would be an effective endorsement of Liberation Theology which –  throughout the Cold War, and even after – they feared would allow communism to infiltrate Latin America. This was a wilful caricature of the movement which coined the notion that the Gospel carried a “preferential option for the poor” and insisted the Church had a duty to work for the social and economic as well as the spiritual liberation of the downtrodden.

This misrepresentation reached its nadir in the gross calumnies perpetrated about Romero, both during his life and in the years since his murder.

The oligarchy in El Salvador had hoped that Oscar Arnulfo Romero would be a compliant prelate when he became Archbishop of San Salvador. His background was conservative and his spirituality drew on that of Opus Dei. But he became outraged by the growing violence against the poor and those who spoke up for them.

Within weeks of his installation one of his priests – a close friend, Fr Rutilio Grande – was murdered for supporting poor campesinos campaigning for land reform and better wages. A succession of priests were killed thereafter though they were only a small proportion of the 3,000 people being murdered every month by 1979. When a reporter asked Romero what he did as archbishop, he replied: “I pick up bodies”.

Romero looked at Fr Rutilio’s body and knew he had to walk the same path. He became a voice for the voiceless in weekly sermons which were broadcast by radio across the nation. As the violence worsened he became more outspoken, condemning the oppression, and telling the people that they would never be alone because God was accompanying them in their pilgrimage through history.

Romero was no liberation theoretician, but his final years were Liberation Theology incarnate. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the chief advocate Romero’s sainthood,  has called him “a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council” because his decision to “live with the poor and defend them from oppression” flowed directly from the documents of Vatican II.

In all this Romero was no Marxist. He drew his chief inspiration from a pope, Pius XI, who had stood up to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. (When Romero boycotted the installation of the new Salvadoran President, General Carlos Humberto Romero in 1977 he cited the precedent of Pope Pius’s boycott of Hitler’s visit to Rome in 1938.) Indeed in a sermon in 1978, Romero  said: “A Marxist church would be not only self-destructive but senseless” since “Marxist materialism destroys the Church’s transcendent meaning.”

But this was a world in which anyone who raised his voice for justice was branded a communist.  For a peasant even to own a copy of the Gospel was a death sentence in some rural areas. The injustice was so blatant that when Washington sent a new ambassador to El Salvador – with the brief to help the US-backed government there find a reformist middle ground and prevent full-scale revolution – the diplomat, the late Robert E. White, became an outspoken critic of the murders being carried out by army units which had been trained by the US military. White eventually lost his job for his candour.

El Salvador’s social, military and ecclesiastical elites were deeply unhappy. The 14 families who controlled the economy, and who made big cash donations to the Church, sent a constant stream of letters and telegrams of complaint to Rome. They accused Romero of meddling in politics, blessing terrorism and abandoning the Church’s spiritual mission to save souls. Associations of wealthy Catholic women fabricated stories against Romero and had them published them in newspapers. Four bishops alarmed that the archbishop was questioning their cosy complicity with the oligarchy began to speak out openly and virulently against him.

Romero’s copious diaries give the lie to all their claims. So did the dossier he took to Rome to give to Pope Paul VI in a private audience which ended with the Pope taking both of Romero’s hands in his and urging him: “Courage! Take heart. You are the one in charge”.

Yet the next day, in a series of meetings with bureaucrats in the Vatican Curia, Romero got a very different message. A year later he was summoned by Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, head of the Congregation of Bishops, to “a fraternal and amicable dialogue”. It was no such thing. The cardinal said he had had a quite unprecedented volume of correspondence and complaints regarding Romero. The charge sheet was full of wild allegations and pernicious distortions of facts but Romero was distressed by the fact that Baggio clearly believed them. Again he went to the Pope who this time said: “Proceed with courage, with patience, with strength, with hope.”

But the following pope, John Paul II, had little knowledge of Central America and relied on the advice of curial officials hostile to Romero. Baggio sent a Vatican inspector to El Salvador who recommended Romero be stripped of his duties. Romero went to Rome again. A hostile Curia tried to block him from seeing the Pope. When he finally obtained an audience John Paul II said he could remain as archbishop but that his brief should be “courage and boldness tempered with the necessary balance and prudence”. Yet, when Romero left, the Pope told Vatican officials to moderate their attitude to the besieged archbishop.

After Romero’s murder, however, when the people of Latin America made him a saint by acclamation, Romero’s enemies began three decades of manoeuvring to prevent him being officially declared a saint. A succession of blocking tactics were deployed, led by the man who had been given the role of championing Romero’s cause, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian conservative close to Opus Dei and deeply opposed to Liberation Theology. Years passed while Vatican officials scrutinised Romero’s sermons and writings for doctrinal errors. When they found none critics shifted to arguing that Romero was not killed for his faith but for his  “ancillary political statements” which were not part of authentic preaching the Gospel.

Supporters of Romero blamed conservative popes who were antagonistic to Liberation Theology. But that is unfair.  In 1997 Pope John Paul II bestowed upon Romero the title of Servant of God and in 2003 told a group of Salvadoran bishops that Romero was a martyr. In 2007 Benedict XVI called him “a man of great Christian virtue’. And he added: “That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt”. (This last sentence was strangely cut from the interview transcript placed on the Vatican website.) Pope Benedict, just a month before he resigned, gave orders that Romero’s canonisation process should be unblocked.

It was the arrival of Pope Francis – who promptly engineered a rapprochement between the Vatican and Liberation Theology – which finally brought action. Romero’s cause, he told reporters, had been “blocked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‘for prudence’.” But he added “for me Romero is a man of God”. Following that lead, the appropriate body of Roman theologians universally declared that Romero had not been killed for political reasons but had indeed died in odium fidei – in hatred of the faith. Pope Francis promptly officially declared him a martyr and the path to sainthood was opened.

For Francis this was a no-brainer. He had said on his second full day as pontiff that he wanted “a poor Church for the poor”. And he had written in his papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium: “We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor”. The beatification of Oscar Romero is therefore a cause for double rejoicing. It honours a man whose love for justice and focus on the poor was a direct manifestation of his faith in Christ and his faithfulness to Church teaching. But it also reveals that, with the arrival of Pope Francis, some of the dark forces which lurked inside the Vatican in recent decades have at last been vanquished.


An edited version of this piece appeared in the New York Times


Paul Vallely is a visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester and is the author of Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism which will be published in September by Bloomsbury US


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