Speaking at the 65th Annual Religion Newswriters’ Association Conference, Todd Johnson cited the case of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador to illustrate the difficulty in counting the number of Christian martyrs. Johnson is an expert on religious demography from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He noted that Archbishop Romero is seen as martyr, but the motivation for his killing is contested. In gauging whether a particular death is martyrdom, he noted, the motives of the killers are the critical consideration. Thus, Johnson concluded, to assess martyrdom, one first has to conclusively settle the related controversies.
Perhaps unlike Prof. Johnson, I see ways to cut through the controversy and establish conclusively that Archbishop Romero died a martyr of the Church with any of three models of martyrdom. The first two paths toward martyrdom for Óscar Romero are paradigms that have been used frequently to settle close calls; while the third is a straight-forward application of the legal standard traditionally used by the Church to establish martyrdom. All three lead to the same conclusion and, if you follow my reasoning, I think you’ll agree that there really is no doubt of Romero’s martyrdom.
First, Óscar Romero is a “Martyr of Charity.” Pope Francis appeared to endorse this alternative path to martyrdom in August, when he said that martyrdom includes being killed “for performing the works that Jesus commands us to do for our neighbor.” St. Lawrence of Rome (c. 225–258) is the prime example. Legend says that, facing confiscation of the Church’s wealth by Roman authorities, he distributed them to the poor to prevent their seizure by Rome. Then when he was ordered to turn over the treasures of the Church he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said these were the riches of the Church. Another leading example, from modern times, is St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), who volunteered to take the place of a concentration camp escapee who was going to be put to death. Like St. Lawrence, Romero demonstrated a startling Gospel-based solicitousness for the poor, and premised his 'provocative' action on that concern. Like St. Maximilian, Romero put himself in danger by agreeing to take the place of those already in harm’s way: “Believe me, sisters and brothers, anyone committed to the poor must suffer the same fate as the poor,” he said. “And in El Salvador we know the fate of the poor: to be ‘disappeared,’ to be tortured, to be jailed, to be found dead.”
Second, Óscar Romero was killed in “Odium Iustitiae.” This argument can mean different things to different commentators, so let us state it as simply as possible. A generally accepted formulation of martyrdom is a death brought about out of “hatred of the Christian faith or those Christian virtues which are part and parcel with living the Christian faith.” Accordingly, if an abortion activist killed a priest who had spoken out against abortion, the Church would resist as reductionist the argument that the act was merely a “politically-motivated crime,” if the defense of life constitutes a virtue that is “part and parcel with living the Christian faith.” Similarly, when we say “odium iustitiae,” we simply mean that Christian justice or the Social Doctrine of the Church constitutes an important virtue, “part and parcel with living the Christian faith,” such that hatred of this important part has the same effect as hatred of the whole. Saints like Fr. Alberto Hurtado (1901-1952, canonized by Pope Benedict in 2005) and Bishop Rafael Guízar (1878-1938, canonized by Pope Benedict in 2006), who were champions of social justice and identified with the cause of the poor, exemplify the heroic quality of the virtue involved.
Third, and finally, Óscar Romero was killed in “Odium Fidei” —plain and simple. According to most observers, Romero was killed on Monday, March 24, 1980 as a direct reaction to the sermon he pronounced the day before, on Sunday, March 23, in which he ordered soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians, as contrary to the Law of God. Msgr. Ricardo Urioste was Romero’s vicar. “I think it was probably his death sentence,” says Urioste. “They said, ‘This man is going to make the soldiers rise up against us and will put us in dire straits’—so they decided to kill him.” It was the 1980 version of “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest”—an expression that seems on its face to be strictly political, but which has profound theological content. St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170), of whom the “turbulent priest” phrase was spoken, was not murdered simply because he opposed the King: he was killed for defending the legal jurisdiction of Church courts over clergy. St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was not killed simply for opposing the King: he was killed for defending papal supremacy over the crown. And Romero was not killed just for opposing the regime: he was killed for defending the supremacy of the Law of God over military orders to kill peasants. “Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: ‘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,” he had said. For that, he was killed.
Doubtless, the question of Romero’s assassination bears both political as well as theological repercussions. For as Pope Benedict told the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2006, modern persecutors now “seldom explicitly show their aversion to the Christian faith or to a form of conduct connected with the Christian virtues, but simulate different reasons, for example, of a political or social nature.” And as he said at a shrine for modern martyrs in 2008, martyrs include those who have “sacrificed themselves, undaunted by threats and dangers, in order not to abandon the needy, the poor or the faithful entrusted to them.” ... Like Óscar Romero.