Moral Low Ground


Pope Francis Declares Óscar Romero a ‘Martyr for the Faith’

Oscar Romero

Pope Francis has declared slain Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero a ‘martyr for the faith,’ his last major step toward sainthood.

Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador from 1977 until his assassination by US-backed troops on March 24, 1980, was a vocal critic of the right-wing military dictatorship which was arresting, torturing, raping and murdering tens of thousands of Salvadorans, mostly indigenous people. Romero also spoke out against poverty and social injustice.

The Pope declared on Tuesday that Romero was “martyred in hatred of the faith,” the National Catholic Reporter reports. This clears the way for Romero’s beatification, the final step on the road to sainthood. While beatification normally requires that a ‘miracle’ be proven to have been performed or caused by the subject, this prerequisite is waived in cases of ‘martyrs of the faith.’

The Vatican had formally started the process to canonize Romero in 1997. But such efforts were thwarted for years by powerful Church conservatives, including staunchly anti-communist popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who loathed Romero’s embrace of liberation theology — which supports progressive political change in service of social justice and, especially, the poor.

Some influential conservative clergy had questioned whether Romero was murdered for his faith, or for making provocative political statements against the Salvadoran military dictatorship.

The truth about Romero is that he “condemned capitalism [while] at the same time he was fighting communism,” explained Crux Vatican reporter Inés San Martín. “In his sermons, he cautioned against the dangers of atheistic, materialistic Marxism and chastised leftists for criticizing American imperialism while turning a blind eye to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.”

Over the course of his short tenure, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken out in favor of the poor and against the excesses of capitalism, calling for wealth redistribution to combat what he termed the prevailing “economy of exclusion.”  Defense of the poor is a central tenet of Jesus’ teachings, as the Pope has repeatedly reminded the faithful.

“We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor,” he said.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, has championed Romero’s cause. But even he was somewhat conflicted over declaring the slain archbishop a ‘martyr for the faith.’ The pontiff asked whether in odium fidei, Latin for “in hatred of the faith,” could be demonstrated only based on a person’s beliefs, or also based on the good works the person did in the name of, or because of, their faith.

“What I would like is a clarification about martyrdom in odium fidei, whether it can occur either for having confessed the Creed or for having done the works which Jesus commands with regard to one’s neighbor,” Francis asked on a recent Korean papal flight, according to the National Catholic Reporter. “And this is a task for the theologians. They are studying it.”

“Because after [Romero] there is Rutilio Grande, and there are others too; there are others who were killed,” the Pope added, referring to the Salvadoran Jesuit murdered in 1977 for helping the poor.

Grande worked with Romero, who had been chosen by conservative bishops and started out critical of left-leaning clergy who spoke out for the poor. That changed after Grande’s assassination. The day after the killing, he delivered a rousing sermon, in which he called on followers of Jesus to take peaceful yet forceful action. The speech shocked the nation and brought Romero to the attention of state security forces.

Almost overnight, Romero became a hero to oppressed Salvadorans. As more and more peasants and clergy were murdered, Romero took to the airwaves with weekly radio broadcasts that stirred the spirits of the poor and stoked the ire of the authorities. On March 23, 1980, he delivered his most famous sermon, in which he spoke directly to the regime’s murderers and torturers. He said, in part:

“Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own peasant brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin…

In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

The next day, the Romero held mass, preaching that one must die as Christ died so that others may be saved. As he finished his sermon, he was shot through the heart.

“If they succeed in killing me,” he had said, “I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history. Mourning turned to terror when government forces attacked the massive crowd with snipers, bombs and automatic weapons, killing some 30 people.

Who was responsible for the assassination of Óscar Romero? It was planned and ordered by Roberto D’Aubuisson and Captain Eduardo Ernesto Alfonso Avila. Both men were trained by the United States at the School of the Americas. During the planning stages, D’Aubuisson presided over a sick sweepstakes in which his men drew lots for the “privilege” of being the trigger man.

The Carter, and later Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, supported El Salvador’s military dictators in the Cold War fight against communism, with American taxpayer dollars funding the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of people deemed a threat to the regime. By the time the nation’s bloody civil war was over, more than 75,000 people were dead, the vast majority killed by government and allied forces.

Óscar Romero continued to inspire others to carry on his work for the poor after his death. Four American churchwomen — Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel — were among those who toiled dangerously in service of the most vulnerable Salvadorans. Tragically, the four women were kidnapped, raped, murdered and mutilated in December 1980 by Salvadoran troops on orders from commanders directly trained by the United States at the School of the Americas.


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