|Msgr. Romero and Msgr. Rivera greet the faithful.|
After Vatican theologians unanimously found that Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador was killed “in hatred of the faith” [Full Story], attention has rightly focused on Romero’s status as a martyr. One point that is often lost when discussing Romero, however, is his effectiveness as an evangelizer. While Catholicism lost ground throughout Latin America, Romero dramatically reversed the downward trends in his archdiocese, demonstrating that by being attentive to their basic human needs the Church commands the loyalty and affection of the faithful.
Two recent studies of Catholicism in Latin America—one by Latinobarómetro and one by the Pew Research Center—show that Protestant groups made large inroads into South America, and that the countries of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic) registered some of the most precipitous declines in Catholicism for the region. According to the Pew figures, for example, Catholics made up 98% of the Salvadoran population in 1910 and had inched up to 99% by 1950. However, Catholics were down to 93% of the Salvadoran population by 1970, and further down to 50% by last year. According to these numbers, Catholicism declined by a mere 5 points between 1910 and 1970, but “collapsed” by a full 43 percentage points between 1970 and the present.
For some conservative observers, this decline reinforces their argument that pastoral policies that favor the poor will scare off adherents. “It is telling that Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala are the countries where Liberation Theology and the alliance of Catholic religious and clerics with the Far Left were most pronounced in the 1980's and 1990's,” the web site Rorate Caeli editorialized in response to the Latinobarómetro study in 2014 with respect to the pronounced decline of Catholic adherents in Central America.
The San Salvador Exception
The Rorate analysis does not, however, take into account the experience of the cleric who arguably made the most dramatic “option for the poor” in the region—Archbishop Romero, who defiantly declared “We are never ashamed of saying, 'The Church of the. Poor'” and who was assassinated for his outspokenness on the subject. His three year episcopacy falls within a large gap in the Pew-Latinobarómetro figures, but his performance can be gleaned from the statistics reflected in the Annuario Pontificio—the annual worldwide yearbook of Church operations compiled and published by the Vatican. According to A.P. figures, San Salvador was 99% Catholic in 1965, but had declined by 14 points to 85% in 1976, the year before Romero was appointed archbishop. That decline is consistent with the regional trends reflected in the Pew-Latinobarómetro studies for the same period. The A.P. figures, however, show San Salvador up three points by 1980, the year Romero was assassinated, and still up five points in 1990, a full ten years after Romero’s assassination. The complete drop-off in adherents registered in the Pew- Latinobarómetro surveys happens after 1990.
The real reason for the decline
To say with confidence that Archbishop Romero bucked the trend in Latin America, we should be able to explain the reason for the subsequent freefall in Catholic numbers during the 1990s. It is not that the faithful were turned off by the Church’s advocacy for the poor, but quite the opposite: the faithful left the Church because they perceived a retreat from the former pastoral accompaniment of the poor, according to published surveys and analysis of the phenomenon. Sensing an opportunity, Protestant Evangelical groups who had been raring for such a moment swooped in backed by millions of U.S. dollars. Unfortunately, in some instances, the crusaders were also supported by unscrupulous dictators eager to banish their pesky Catholic critics.
Period studies by the Central American Bishops’ Conference and several polls by the Catholic university in San Salvador confirm that the faithful approved of the Church’s preferential option for the poor and that concern over church meddling with politics was not the driving force behind the flight to Protestant sects. Contemporary reporting from the era documents the elements relevant to Protestant penetration in Central America. “Behind them are millions of dollars and the organizational support of North American evangelical groups,” the L.A. Times reported in 1990 with respect to Guatemala. The article noted that Evangelical groups received support from the dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who “used his office to preach the fundamentalist gospel” and “used his army as an avenging force to clean out the influence of Catholicism.”
The theologians who confirmed Romero’s martyrdom will bear out that the Salvadoran Church was subjected to devastating persecution. Eighteen priests were killed in the tiny nation between 1972 and 1989—six of them, during the three years that Romero was archbishop. Many others were expelled from the country: Romero lost fifty priests, counting those killed and those forced to leave the country—nearly a quarter of his clergy. At the same time, death squads targeted seminarians, lay catechists and the faithful who were identified with the Church. [Morozzo della Rocca.] “Religious women have also been the object of persecution,” Romero complained—well before the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen in December 1980. “The archdiocesan radio station, Catholic educational institutions and Christian religious institutions have been constantly attacked, menaced, threatened with bombs. Various parish convents have been sacked,” he lamented.
The attacks had a devastating effect, as confirmed by a study of the growth of the Pentecostal Church in El Salvador commissioned by PROLADES, a Protestant Evangelical think-tank. The PROLADES study is compelling because it reveals the “market analysis” of the successful Protestant campaign. The study recognizes that the Salvadoran government persecuted the Catholic Church and that said persecution drove the sectors of the Church favorable to the poor into a “tactical retreat” while other Catholic groups “maintained a highly sacramentalist approach” which ignored the poor majorities in their parishes. “At the same time that the Catholic Church was losing its institutional presence among poor Salvadorans through either tactical retreat or pastoral neglect,” the Protestant study concludes, “the Pentecostal churches were launching an offensive to win over converts for Christ.” Accordingly, Catholics who left the Church in El Salvador did so not because they rejected Archbishop Romero’s pastoral line, but to some extent because they thought the Church had abandoned it.
Romero’s First Miracle
The wisdom of Romero’s pastoral approach is also confirmed by comparing his track record to those of other bishops in El Salvador. The Annuario Pontificio numbers reveal that Romero’s archdiocese expanded while other Salvadoran dioceses contracted. Tellingly, the dioceses led by Romero’s bitter critics, Bishops Pedro Arnoldo Aparicio, Benjamin Barrera, and José Eduardo Álvarez all declined in membership while Romero’s expanded. The diocese headed by Bishop Arturo Rivera, a Romero ally who followed his pastoral line, also grew during these years. (See chart.)
|Romero - red; Rivera - yellow|
Archbishop Romero attributed his success to the ancient wisdom of the Church Father Tertullian, who said that martyrdom and suffering are seeds for the Church: “we have perhaps lived the most tragic year in our history, yet for the Church this has been the most fertile and productive year,” he said at the end of 1977. Romero acknowledged overflow crowds routinely attending his masses: “We do not fit inside this Cathedral and we have had to improvise an altar here in front of the park, in the midst of a large multitude.” Romero acknowledged the return of Prodigal Sons: “How many people have come to the Church and said that they had lost their faith, but thanks to the cross of 1977 they have recovered their faith!” Romero also acknowledged thriving vocations. As far back as the 1950s, the Salvadoran Church, like others in the region, had been constrained by few inscriptions in to the priesthood—the Salvadoran average was about 1 priest per 10,000 (versus 1 priest for 1,200 in Europe). In March 1980, Archbishop Romero reported that the countries’ five seminaries were filled to capacity and had to turn away novices, even asking applicants holding degrees to join a waiting list.
Romero was recognized for his achievement. “I was deeply moved while I was in Mexico and listened to people speak about our Church being this city on the mountain,” he reported. “I heard some priests say: We have never had so many vocations from El Salvador as we have had this year.” After decades of lagging behind Europe in vocations, Romero reported, “Someone from Spain viewed our situation and said: You have to send vocations to Europe because there we lack priests and here you have so many young men desiring to become priests.” He also reported that the interest had warranted the creation of an introductory year to seminary life for high school students, the initiation of a diaconate year, and even the establishment of a group to prepare older men for the priesthood.
A saint for the New EvangelizationPope Francis has called for “a church which is poor and for the poor,” and which goes to the existential peripheries to encounter those who are marginalized and suffering. Archbishop Romero exemplified the same pastoral attitude and proved that it is also a successful strategy for evangelization.
- Pew Research Center, “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region” (Nov. 2014)
- “Las religiones en tiempos del Papa Francisco”, Corporación Latinobarómetro, Santiago de Chile, 2014
- “Enciclopedia de Religión en las Américas y la Peninsula Ibérica: El Salvador”, Clifton L. Holland, PROLADES, Costa Rica (2011)
- “Nota metodológica: Midiendo religión en encuestas de Latinoamérica”, Alejandro Díaz-Domínguez, Perspectivas desde el Barómetro de las Americas: 2009 (No. 29)
- “La religión para los y las salvadoreños”, Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP) de la Universidad Centroamericana «José Simeón Cañas» (UCA) de El Salvador, Boletín de Prensa Año XXIV, No. 4 (2009)
- “Encuesta sobre la religión para las y los salvadoreños: Consulta de opinión pública, junio de 2009”, Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP) de la Universidad Centroamericana «José Simeón Cañas» (UCA) de El Salvador, Serie de informes: No. 122 (2009)
- “La religión para los salvadoreños: una aproximación desde las encuestas de opinión pública”, Marlon Carraza, ECA: estudios centroamericanos, volumen 64 numero 721 (2009)
- “¿De qué religión es El Salvador?: El declive de la hegemonía católica”, Estela Henríquez y Claudia Zavala, Vertice/El Diario de Hoy, 15 de abril de 2001
- “Religious Freedom and Evangelization in Latin America: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism,” Paul E. Sigmund, Editor, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY (1999)
- “The Sound of Tambourines: The Politics of Pentecostal Growth in El Salvador,” Philip J. Williams, PROLADES (1997)
- “Encuesta sobre la religión de los salvadoreños y los retos del nuevo Arzobispo: Consulta de opinión pública mayo-junio de 1995”, Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP) de la Universidad Centroamericana «José Simeón Cañas» (UCA) de El Salvador, Serie de informes: No. 49 (1995)
- “Las Sectas Fundamentalistas en Centro America”, Universidad Rafael Landivar, Departamento de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales, septiembre de 1991 (presentado a SEDAC, la Secretaría Episcopal de América Central y Panamá)
- “El paso de algunos católicos a las sectas fundamentalistas en Centroamérica”, SEDAC (1991)
- “Holy War in Central America: Protestant evangelicals' success has stunned the Roman Catholic Church, especially in Guatemala. The movement has strong ties to rightist politics,” Kenneth Freed, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1990
- “La religión para los salvadoreños: Una encuesta de opinión pública”, Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP) de la Universidad Centroamericana «José Simeón Cañas» (UCA) de El Salvador, Serie informes: No. 17 (1988)
- Annuarii Pontifici, Segreteria di Stato Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana: 1966, 1976, 1980, 1990 & 1999