BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
After Pope Francis spoke about Blessed Oscar Romero on Friday, saying that Romero’s martyrdom continued after his death in the way “he was defamed, calumniated [and] soiled,” I was surprised by the coverage Francis’ remarks garnered. [TEXT] I was surprised that Francis’ lament that dead people are “scourged with the hardest stone” in the world—the tongue—led immediately to reports accusing certain dead prelates of slander against Romero. Accusations these dead prelates, like Romero, cannot defend against. Generally, I was surprised by how Francis’ words were uniformly interpreted—and, in my view, misinterpreted—by the press.
To dispel misunderstanding, here are five ways Francis’ comments have been misconstrued, and here is everything Francis said, which exposes the errors in the way his words have been reported.
1. Rather than condemning Romero's accusers, Francis was praising Romero.
The lens of error most reports interpreted Francis’ comments through was the belief that Francis was knocking someone. We see the bias in the verbs used to describe Francis’ action: he “criticizes” Romero’s critics, “denounces” them, “slams,” “condemns” and even “flays” them. All of these words presuppose that Romero’s critics are the focus of Francis’ attention. In fact, Francis is trying to get us to focus on Romero—not his detractors:
It is nice to see him like this: a man who continues to be a martyr. Well now I do not think anyone dares. However, after giving his life, he continued to give it, letting himself be scourged by all those misunderstandings and calumnies.
Notice where Francis is drawing our attention: to the attitude of Blessed Romero, which Francis lauds and holds up as exemplary. The actions of others are incidental and peripheral to this main action, which focuses on the man, Romero. This fundamental emphasis is universally missed in the reporting.
2. Francis' remarks were intended to soothe Romero's followers, not to excoriate Romero's critics.
Francis’ remarks were rightly understood by his audience of over 500 Salvadorans as words of validation and acknowledgement that for years they had endured unfair treatment in the Church. Francis introduces his off-the-cuff remarks by stating: “I would also like to add something that perhaps we have neglected.” The Salvadorans sat quietly through all of the Pope’s prepared statement, without applauding once during the reading of the text. But they interrupted him with applause three times during the short ad-libbed section regarding Romero’s treatment in the church. They accepted it as something that needed to be said, a fundamental truth that needed to be acknowledged, not as a put-down of anyone, but as redemption of the wronged—mostly Romero, but also his devotees among the faithful.
3. Francis' remarks were not aimed at the Salvadoran Church.
Many reports, particularly Spanish language stories, assumed that the subtext when Francis spoke was an accusatory exposition of the sins of the Salvadoran church, where the bishops had been infamously divided over Romero, and some were openly hostile to him in life. But Francis explicitly contradicted this reading when he said:
Monsignor Romero’s martyrdom was not precise at the moment of his death; it was a martyrdom-testimony, of previous suffering, of previous persecution, up to his death. But also after because, once dead – I was a young priest and I was a witness of this – he was defamed, calumniated, soiled, that is, his martyrdom continued even by his brothers in the priesthood and the episcopate. I am not speaking from hearsay; I heard those things.
If Francis directly heard unfair criticisms of Romero as a young priest, he must have heard them in Argentina, where he lived at the time. If he heard them directly, and is “not speaking from hearsay,” then he is explicitly not referring to things the Salvadoran bishops might have said in El Salvador, which he would only have heard about in Argentina second-hand. This is not to absolve anyone, because it is a fact that Salvadoran bishops treated Romero poorly; however, they were not the focus of Pope Francis’ words.
4. Francis' remarks were not aimed at conservatives.
Some stories reported that Francis was targeting either political or clerical conservatives. That’s also not necessarily a given. Admittedly, the actual individuals who were critical of Romero tended to be political and clerical conservatives. However, nothing about their conservatism necessitated that result; Francis did not claim that it did; and he did not explicitly disparage conservatism. Indeed, conservatives who understood Romero, like San Salvador Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Saenz Lacalle or the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Müller, have been supportive of Romero and his sainthood cause.
5. The admonition in Francis' remarks is of universal application.
If there was a rebuke in Francis’ words, it was a cautious and generalized warning not to speak ill of the dead, because we could be the ones to be dead wrong about the merits of the cases:
Only God knows the history of persons and how many times, persons who have already given their life or who have died, are continued to be scourged with the hardest stone that exists in the world: the tongue.
This is the closest Francis comes to “condemning” or “denouncing” in his remarks. But note how the words are hypothetical and contingent. These words are broad enough to encompass any time someone is unfairly criticized after death, including far-fetched cases such as Venerable Pius XII and Saint Junipero Serra—whom the pope canonized despite criticisms that he had mistreated Native Americans, to which the Pope said it was unfair to judge people in the past under modern standards.
Perhaps this is the best take-away from Pope Francis’ message: a new take on the old adage, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: “Speak no ill of the dead,” because they are not here to defend themselves or to correct you if you gravely misconstrue the circumstances of their lives.
Published on All Souls’ Day.