In his third pastoral letter, Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador (1917-1980) sought to steer opposition groups seeking to free his country from a military dictatorship toward a peaceful, democratic and—if possible—Christian path to social renewal. His goal was ambitious, essentially seeking to redirect the tide of history, but it has been lost in revisions that portray Romero as uncritical of the Left. In fact, Romero’s challenge to the opposition called for more than a “reform of the reform”—it called for a revolution within the revolution. As he would preach in a subsequent sermon,
The first liberation to be brought about by a political group that truly desires the liberation of the people must be to liberate itself from its own sin. As long as it is a slave a sin, of selfishness, violence, cruelty and hatred, it is not suited to struggle for the people’s liberation. (3/2/1980.)
(This is a Year of Faith examination of the Servant of God Óscar A. Romero’s preaching and theological orientation.) The title of Romero’s third pastoral letter, “The Church and Popular Political Organizations,” suggests an alliance between the Church and the opposition. But a simple read reveals that such collaboration would not be without conditions. The Church and the new political action groups seeking political reform and democratization could find themselves together in the trenches advocating respect for human rights, freedom, and denouncing repression. But, opposition groups, Romero wrote, had to themselves renounce violence and should not expect the Church to support any violent agenda. He condemns leftist guerrilla violence as “terrorist” and “seditious.” He insists the popular organizations have to respect the Church and understand its essentially spiritual mission, and not coopt it towards any ideological ends. Clergy and the laity had to work under the supervision of the Church’s hierarchy, and priests could not accept political posts unless exceptional circumstances warranted it and, then, only through consultation with and approval from their bishop. If conflicts arose between loyalty to a political group and fidelity to the Gospel, Christians—Romero insisted—were duty-bound to uphold first the Gospel. And Christians who organized had to respect the opinions of Christians who preferred not to be involved in their activities.
Romero released his third pastoral letter in August 1978, for the Feast of the Transfiguration—El Salvador’s national, Catholic holiday. “The letters became addresses on the state of the nation's transfiguration,” writes Tod Swanson: “Their recurrence created the sense of a national journey.” [Swanson, “The Persuasive Moral Voice of Oscar Romero,” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp.127-144.] In his letter, “Romero called upon Christians in political organizations to make their faith their ultimate point of reference, professing it openly and in solidarity with the Church, opening themselves to God through the sacraments, prayer, and meditation on God's word.” [Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero,” Spirituality Today, Summer 1988, Vol.40 No. 2.] In a sense, it was revolutionary for Romero simply to broach the subject, but that was because of the novelty of the situation—the rise of peasant workers unions and political organizations had previously been forbidden and their development raised questions that Church groups had no answer for. Romero opens his letter by posing some of the practical questions that he had been asked and inspired the letter:
Does being a Christian mean one has to join some popular organization seeking radical changes in our country? How can one be a Christian and accept the demands of the gospel and yet join some organization that neither believes in nor has sympathy with the Gospel? How ought a Christian to resolve the conflict between loyalty to the Gospel and the demands of an organization when it may not be in accordance with the Gospel? What is the relationship between the Church and these organizations?
Romero begins by defining the mission of the Church in the world, as it was set out in the Second Vatican Council. He quotes «Gaudium et Spes»: “Christ ... gave his Church no proper mission in the political, economic, or social order. The purpose which he set before it is a religious one.” He quotes three of the four Gospels (including Matthew 25, which Pope Francis recently called, “An excellent program for our lives”), the letters of St. Peter and St. Paul, and Genesis (the same passages that Pope Francis quoted in his visit to Lampedusa). Romero cites to Pope Paul VI heavily, citing his «Evangelii Nuntiandi» ten times and claiming that it provides the “most authoritative and direct support” for his pastoral approach (Pope Francis recently said that this encyclical is “to my mind the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day”). Romero cites to the 1968 Latin American Bishops’ conference and John XXIII, but his principal source is Pope Paul. He cites Paul’s «Octogesima Adveniens» and lesser pronouncements, including his final «Angelus» message.
The Pope died on the day Romero’s letter was issued. “Today, in this pastoral letter,” Romero says in an emotional ovation, “we are also fulfilling the final charge laid upon us by Paul VI at the audience during our ad limina visit.” Romero had visited the Pope just two months earlier. “We give thanks for the charismatic clarity of his teaching and for the pastor's love he showed for us, the people of El Salvador,” writes Romero. “He urged us to show pastoral solidarity with our fellow Salvadorans. He spoke of their efforts to obtain justice and charged us to guide them in the path of a just peace, and to help them resist the easy temptation of violence and hatred.”
Now we must confront why Romero’s challenge in this letter does not figure more prominently in discussions of his legacy. Consider five potential reasons. First, we think of the urgency of Portuguese Archbishop Jorge Ortiga’s words when he recently said that the Church must “recover” Romero. “The problem,” Pope Benedict pointed out in 2007, is “that a political party wrongly wished to use him as their badge, as an emblematic figure.” Romero’s image has been coopted by the Left and our challenge is: “How can we shed light on his person in the right way and protect it from these attempts to exploit it?” Hopefully, we can do it by shedding light on his work. Second, the idea that Romero would challenge the rebels runs against the ‘myth-conception’ of Romero as an all-purpose anti-establishment figure who embodies only resistance to authority and subversion of order, even when it becomes aberrant to what Romero actually stood for. Third, the prevailing Romero legend suits both progressives and conservatives within the Church, who see Romero through a “hermeneutic of rupture” that fits their view of him. Fourth, the complexity of the historical situation and the faith vs. politics conundrum that it produced can lead to honest confusion, whereby Romero’s intentions are misunderstood even by good faith truth seekers. Fifth, and finally, Romero’s boldness and frank language may itself feed the generalized impression that he was a “radical.” (Although the challenge to the Left was the letter’s central focus, it also denounced injustice caused by the Right and it staunchly defended the right to organize.)
In the year following the letter’s publication, Romero saw his work begin to bear many fruits of holiness and reconciliation. “I bless the Lord for the good that that letter brought about,” he wrote one year later, noting that “some of our Christian communities have taken it as an outline for reflection.” He thanked God for “the generous, enthusiastic welcome that communities, institutions, and publications elsewhere on this continent and also in Europe have given it.” But Romero knew that his message might not take root too readily: “there will be those, even those of good will, who will not understand”—he predicted—because the concerns of the poor are foreign to them, or have become acceptable. Others will turn a blind eye, and still others will purposefully misinterpret his words and sow confusion. “However, thank God, we are sure we can also count on some honest and brave souls who will be ready to draw near to the light, who will not conform themselves to this world, and who will cooperate in the birth pains of a new creation,” wrote Romero, citing St. Paul (Romans 12:2 and 8:22).Ultimately, Óscar Romero would become the first, willing casualty of his own revolution.
Previously in this Blog:
Archb. Romero's 1st Pastoral Letter
Archb. Romero's 2nd Pastoral Letter
Romero's 1st Episcopal Letter