It has been 50 years since the Roman Catholic Church embraced a renewal of purpose which took the faithful from hearing Mass in Latin to celebrating it in their native tongues and inspired some bishops, like Óscar Romero, to denounce injustices as an important component of preaching the Faith. In his 2005 Christmas remarks to the Roman Curia, the then new Pope Benedict XVI discussed the legacy of the Second Vatican Council (as the reform program is called) in terms of how it is interpreted. We can either view the Council through the correct prism of reform and renewal, he said, or we can erroneously read it as a rupture with tradition—which the Pope called, in a famous turn of a phrase, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity.”
Archbishop Romero has correctly been described as “a Martyr of the Council.” (See, J. Filochowski, 2012.) But, did Romero understand the Council to authorize a break with the core tradition of the Church? Romero was firm that the Council did not bring an abrupt rupture, but rather an updating of assumptions. “This does not mean that the Church has broken with twenty centuries of tradition,” he said, “but rather that she has evolved with these modern times.” (May 8, 1977 Homily.) Romero reaffirmed his rejection of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” in his famous last sermon, delivered the day before he was killed (and understood to be the reason he was killed). “When dealing with the changes in the Church,” Romero said, “we need to ask God for the grace that will enable us to embrace these changes in a way that will allow us to understand the present reality without betraying our faith.” (Mar. 23, 1980 Hom.) Because “we are firmly anchored in the heart and the faith of Jesus Christ,” he said, and “this does not change.” (Id.)
Benedict told the Roman Curia in 2005 that the “commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it,” but that the bishops must continue to present that truth in “faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine.” The Pope emphasized that, “Through the Sacrament they have received,” bishops are the “stewards of the mysteries of God” and are required to “to administer the Lord's gift in the right way.” And for his part, Romero similarly hung his hat, so to speak, on preaching authentic doctrine. “With all the power that my sacred ministry gives me, as a sacred trustee of the Word of God and the Church’s teaching,” Romero said, he urged the faithful to “consolidate ourselves as Church under the light of this authentic doctrine.” (May 15,1977 Hom.) Romero saw Vatican II as a continuum that harkened back to the apostolic era and he compared it to the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. “Vatican II, like the Council of Jerusalem, is responding to the needs of our time,” he said. (Id.)
Romero also disavowed a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” with respect to his own ministry. “We begin by asking if these evident changes of the modern Church are a betrayal of the Gospel or changes demanded of her in order to be faithful to the Gospel,” he asked in 1977. (Aug.6, 1977 Hom.) He answered the question in the text of his second pastoral letter, issued that same day: “Far from betraying the Gospel, [the Archdiocese] has done no more than fulfill her mission,” he said. “She has spoken out about events in this country precisely because she is interested in the good of each and every individual. This has been required of her for the defense of human rights and for the salvation of souls.” (Romero. The Church: The Body of Christ in History.)
Pope Benedict told the Roman Curia about a related concern with respect to the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” which comes into play when Catholics cite to “the Spirit of the Council” but ignore the precise formulations of the Council’s texts. “The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church,” the Pope said. “It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council” because they are the results of back-room dealing during the Council which ended up unwittingly keeping in place “many old things that are now pointless.” Those who hold that view, Benedict noted, would argue that it is “necessary to go courageously beyond the texts” to really accomplish the Council’s intended reforms. But Benedict rejects that interpretation, saying that the Council was not like a constitutional convention (a “constituent assembly”) for a new Church, because the Council Fathers lacked authority to constitute a new Church, as “the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord.” (Id.)
Whenever he justified his actions based on the Council, Romero always focused on the language of the specific texts, citing to individual passages and encouraging the faithful to become familar with the documents: “Study them and see the richness of their spirituality.” (5/77 Hom., supra.) One estimate of Romero’s citations of just one Council document, «Gaudium et Spes»—the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world—is that Romero cited it over 300 times in under 200 sermons. (Filochowski, supra.) Romero explained, while he made a typical citation to the Council texts that, “I also want to refer to the documents of the Second Vatican Council because these have become the great law that are now part of our Christian life.” (Oct. 28,1979 Hom.) Thus, it is clear that, in citing the Council, Romero was guided by the actual texts. For example, when he preached about ‘censu fidei’—the Council’s teaching that says that lay persons are endowed with prophetic gifts, he did it by citing the Council text and relating the message to a traditional saint. Celebrating the Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Romero said, “My sisters and brothers, this beautiful example of your patroness leads me to reflect on a page from the Second Vatican Council and apply it to you who are participating in this holy Mass in the parish chapel ... to honor St. Catherine.” (Nov. 25, 1977 Hom.) He then recited the Council verbatim and explained the application of the teaching to the congregation.
In a more recent writing, Pope Benedict has noted that one of the most important insights of the Second Vatican Council comes from a lesser-known document dealing with religious freedom and the Church’s relations with the State. That relationship was grounded on Christ’s counsel to ‘give Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:15-22.) and was forged during the experience of the early Church: “Christians prayed for the emperor, but did not worship him,” the Pope said. (A. Tornielli, LA STAMPA.) That early reality found an echo in the post-Conciliar world, Benedict observed: “It was certainly providential,” he wrote, “that thirteen years after the conclusion of the Council, Pope John Paul II arrived from a country in which freedom of religion had been denied by Marxism, in other words by a particular form of modern philosophy of the State.” Many observers have seen a parallel between the reality John Paul faced in his native Poland under Communism, to the persecution of Christians under rightwing regimes like the experience of Óscar Romero’s Church.
In sum, that is the essence of Romero’s experience: a bishop who was killed for trying to apply the precise teachings of the Council to a reality that had been precisely defined by the Council—he is a Martyr of the Council in the fullest sense of the term.