A recent post by the noted canon law blogger Dr. Edward Peters ponders whether the nine theologians who recently voted unanimously in favor of recognizing Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr considered whether Romero voluntarily accepted death. The answer to Dr. Peters’ question is a categorical YES.
“[T]raditionally,” Dr. Peters explains in setting forth his question, “a martyr makes a choice to accept death instead of renouncing the faith.” He elaborates: “The martyr knows that death is not an abstract possibility but that it is facing him right here, right now, and that he can escape that death by renouncing the Faith right here, right now. My question about Romero’s murder, then, is whether his being ambushed at Mass satisfies that criterion of martyrdom” (emphasis is Dr. Peter’s).
Dr. Peters is an eminent authority in canon law. He holds a J. D. from the Univ. of Missouri at Columbia (1982) and a J. C. D. from the Catholic Univ. of America (1991). He has held the Edmund Cdl. Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit since 2005 and he was appointed a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. In other words, he knows what he is talking about—and he is absolutely right that a martyr is required to voluntarily accept death instead of renouncing the faith. The canon law elements for martyrdom are: (1) a cruel or violent death; (2) that the victim freely accepts; (3) and is imposed out of hatred of the faith («odium fidei, uti fertur»). Woestman, Canonization: Theology, History, Process 143 (St. Paul University, 2002).
In the Romero case, the “violent death” is undisputed because Romero was shot to death by a sniper with a high-velocity .22 caliber bullet. (Dr. Peters does not dispute that there was a violent death.) Moreover, Dr. Peters readily admits that the element most observers have identified as the sticking point—whether Romero’s killers acted in hatred of the faith—has, in fact, been satisfied: “I have no doubt that he was murdered by soldiers in retaliation against what he bravely stood for, namely, Christian charity toward all.” As such, Dr. Peters dismisses the argument that the existence of political motives for the murder disqualifies Romero’s death from being a true martyrdom: “Murder can still be martyrdom if, among other things, it is done in odium Fidei, regardless of whether other motives contributed to the deed. A pontifical commission seems to have reached this conclusion, too. I think they are, in that respect, correct.”
In short, Dr. Peters’ trepidation boils down to the second element of the three listed above: whether Romero voluntarily accepted death. This is purely a factual question and not a question of law. This post is intended as a simple reply, not an argument or rebuttal. Dr. Peters is right to ask the question, but there is an answer, and that answer is that the Church authorities absolutely did ask and they absolutely received overwhelming evidence that Archbishop Romero valiantly accepted death rather than to renounce the Faith. The Salvadoran Church submitted evidence to the Vatican that Romero’s fame for martyrdom was specifically enhanced because it was known that he could have avoided death but opted not to, based on his fidelity to Gospel. The Church produced evidence that Romero’s collaborators knew that he understood the risk to his life but decided to stay with his flock. There was evidence that Romero received death threats and experienced great anxiety as a result. Finally, there was evidence from Romero himself in the form of notes from a spiritual retreat made just weeks before he was killed, in which Romero explicitly acknowledges that he is in danger of death, but firmly resolves to accept it based on his faith.
Basically, everyone in El Salvador knew that Romero’s life was in danger. “All of us reporting there knew he would be killed,” Christopher Dickey of Newsweek wrote: “He knew he would be killed.” Each passing day, the noose tightened and the danger became more explicit, as the Angel of Death drew nearer. Romero publicly acknowledged death threats in November 1979, when he said, “if I am in danger, it could be from both extremes to whom I am a nuisance, but I want to assure you and I ask your prayers to be faithful to the promise that I will not abandon my people but will share with them all the risks that my ministry demands of me.” Romero’s colleagues recall that he would be startled into panic at night when avocados dropped from a tree onto his bedroom’s roof, thinking the killers had arrived. Fear also gripped Romero’s relatives, whom he told that if something should happen to him, he did not want their tears but their prayers. [Interview with Zaida Romero, his sister—in Spanish.]
In February 1980, Romero told his flock that “Christ invites us not to fear persecution,” even though “anyone committed to the poor must suffer the same fate as the poor—and in El Salvador we know the fate of the poor: to be taken away, to be tortured, to be jailed, to be found dead.” On February 24, exactly one month before his assassination, Romero acknowledged fresh death threats. “Let them not keep on killing those of us,” he said, who propose the social doctrine. He added, “I speak in the first person, because this week I received notice that I am on the list of those who are to be eliminated next week.” On March 9, 1980, there was a dramatic attempt to kill Romero, which failed. A suitcase filled with seventy-two sticks of dynamite was placed at the pulpit where Romero preached a homily. There was enough explosive material to destroy not only the Basilica but the whole block. Luckily, the explosives did not go off.
At his last Lenten retreat just weeks before his death, Romero acknowledged the death threats. “I am afraid of violence to myself,” he wrote at the beginning of the retreat. “I fear because of the weakness of my flesh, but I pray the Lord to give me serenity and perseverance.” By the end of that retreat, Romero had found spiritual solace, and he wrote in his notes when the retreat ended:
Thus do I express my consecration to the Heart of Jesus, who was ever a source of inspiration and joy in my life. Thus also I place under his loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in him my death, however hard it be. I do not want to express an intention to him, such as that my death be for my country's peace or our church's flourishing. Christ's heart will know how to direct it to the purpose he wishes. For me to be happy and confident, it is sufficient to know with assurance that in him is my life and my death, that in spite of my sins I have placed my trust in him and I shall not be confounded, and others will carry on with greater wisdom and holiness the works of the church and the nation.
In one of his last interviews, Romero spoke to a Mexican reporter about facing death:
I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don't believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I tell you this without any boasting, with the greatest humility. As pastor, I am obliged, by divine command, to give my life for those I love, who are all Salvadorans, even for those who are going to assassinate me ... Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality ... You can say, if they come to kill me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully they may realize that they will be wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God ... will never perish.
Romero’s awareness of his impending death makes his final words about the Eucharist, spoken just seconds before the fatal shot thundered, much more poignant:
May this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for Mankind nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain like Christ, not for self, but to bring about harvests of justice and peace for our people.
In sum, there is ample, clear, and convincing evidence that Archbishop Romero made a choice to accept death rather than to renounce the faith.