Think how compelling Óscar Romero would be to conservative Catholics if, in addition to championing social justice, he had also upheld traditional Catholic doctrines.
- Imagine that Romero, who denounced his government’s targeting clergy for assassination, had stated that legalizing abortion would be “truly a persecution of the Church.”
- Or, that Romero, who denounced human rights abuses, had declared that the taking of human life in abortion was a sin that cried to heaven the same as a cold-blooded political assassination.
- What if he had preached that homosexuality was an “aberration;” that sexual relations could only occur between one man and one woman married to one another and not using artificial birth control; that divorce would never be moral even after “a thousand legislatures had legalized it;” and that priestly celibacy was non-negotiable.
If the assassinated Archbishop of San Salvador had said all of these things in addition to railing against social injustice, it would surely be impossible for conservatives to dismiss him as just another misguided Catholic progressive. Taking such hardline stances would certainly qualify Romero for “culture-warrior” status in the current political discourse, and would result in an abrupt re-shuffling of who would be in favor, and who opposed to his impending beatification, right? In fact, all of the foregoing are the very positions Romero took as Archbishop, all while defending the poor and insisting on social justice.
If such information is surprising to those who think they have Romero “pegged” based only on scant information, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the Archbishop’s story. Anyone at all acquainted with Romero’s life will know that he was a traditional Roman cleric, raised and nurtured by the Church from age 13 onwards, and trained in Rome. He referred to the Church’s capital city as “my mother, master and homeland” (Primero dios: Vita di oscar Romero, Morozzo Della Rocca, p. 316). He took as his motto Sentire Cum Ecclesia, “Feeling With The Church,” which he explained, “specifically means unconditional attachment to the hierarchy” (Chaparrastique journal, 1965). Romero was almost never seen in public without his cassock, and frowned on priests who dressed in lay clothing. He wore a scapular and a penitential chain, and he lived with a community of nuns. His spirituality reflected the flavors of his formation, with Claretian, Jesuit, ascetic and mendicant/Carmelite traits. He was close to Opus Dei. In short, he was an old fashioned priest and happy to live that way.
All of Romero’s adherence to tradition, however, has been eclipsed by his stances on the social doctrine. The superficial read on Romero’s ministry in San Salvador is that it was an about-face, an adoption of progressive, pro-Liberation Theology stances at the cost of traditional doctrine. His sermons in San Salvador prove otherwise. He preached both lines of the Catholic creed—in tandem. He was “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52). In fact, Romero’s background as a renowned conservative cleric provided some credibility and latitude for his social criticism in Salvadoran Church circles. Certainly, it has helped buoy his canonization prospects, because he had friends in the Church who understood his orthodox credentials.In a deeper sense, Romero’s willingness to take up social justice may be the greatest evidence of his “capital C” Catholicity. Because of his strong Catholic identify, Romero allowed the Catholic ethos to override his own identity. He accepted and adopted tenets of the Faith that were not his first choice. He was reluctant to accept the changes of the Second Vatican Council, but he slowly embraced and made them his own priorities, sacrificing his very life to defend them. Thus, Romero leaves other conservatives behind. For Romero, Catholicism wasn’t a mere identikit. It was a way of life, worth sacrificing that very life to defend it.
Update:Today, in an audience with a delegation from the University of Notre Dame (USA), Pope Francis stressed the need to “defend”, “preserve” and “advance” Catholic identity. And at Mass this morning, the Pope prayed, “May the Lord help us to go down this path to deepen our belonging to the Church and our Feeling With The Church [Sentire Cum Ecclesia].”
In Memoriam: MCH