Saturday, April 16, 2016

A “Romeroesque” pastoral letter


#BlessedRomero #MartyrOfMercy
The Archbishop of San Salvador has released a powerful new pastoral letter addressing El Salvador’s gang violence, and it is a staggering, serious, often sobering offering that is reminiscent of the work of Blessed Oscar Romero.  Signed on March 24—now Romero’s “feast day,” following his beatification last year—the pastoral letter from Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas (entitled “I See Violence and Strife in the City”) comes off as Romeroesque in inspiration, inclination, and in orientation. [See original Spanish text; and Super Martyrio translation.] [Additional coverage at Tim's El Salvador Blog.]

Obviously, it is Romeroesque in inspiration.  Archbishop Escobar signed it on March 24 and opens the letter with an homage to Romero: “Our very beloved Bl. Archbishop Oscar Romero is the wonderful light which illuminates our path,” Escobar writes, and he also closes the letter with a prayer invoking the intercession of El Salvador’s first Blessed to stem the bloodshed caused by the gang violence—which has recently placed El Salvador at the highest levels of worldwide homicide statistics.
The letter is also Romeroesque in its inclination, because it constitutes a major effort by Escobar to tackle the problems of the people.  Numerous observers had complained that the institutional church had—fairly or no—seemed disengaged from the admittedly complex and intractable gang problem.  After initially supporting a controversial gang truce, the Catholic Church has more recently appeared helpless before the crisis.  Archbishop Escobar’s letter is an ambitious response, at over 100 pages (longer than some papal encyclicals), it analyzes the history of violence in El Salvador, from the Spanish Conquest to the present; analyzes violence in the Bible and in Church teachings and draws multiple inferences for El Salvador; and, finally, it prescribes a spiritual path to reconciliation based on these profound and intensive analyses.
Abp. Escobar waves to the faithful during a pastoral visit.
Archbishop Escobar’s letter is also Romeroesque in its orientation, because it adopts Archbishop Romero’s diagnosis of El Salvador’s socioeconomic reality and the causes of violence:
Romero believed that violence in El Salvador was the result of underlying economic injustice which sowed discontent among certain groups of the population.  Those conditions were a breeding ground for violence: “The names for the violence will change, but there will always be violence as long as we do not change the roots that cause this violence and so many other horrible things that occur daily in our nation.” (September 25, 1977 Sermon.) 
Similarly, Archbishop Escobar posits that throughout El Salvador’s history, there has been a “violence in transformation,” a persistent violence that morphs from generation to generation but is continually fed by the underlying conditions of injustice (see, pars. 35-47, 63, and 139-141 of Escobar’s letter). [For more on the contents of the letter, click here.]
Blessed Romero maintained that contemporaneous manifestations of violence needed to be differentiated into underlying violence that provoked other violent responses, and violence intended to remove the yoke of oppression.  There is an institutionalized violence that provokes the anger of the people,” Romero said in an interview.  This was the violence of the military dictatorships of his day and the oligarchical interests they defended: “They want to maintain their privileges through oppression,” he said.  In reaction, other sectors took up arms in insurrection, but their violence was perpetuated by the persistence of the underlying injustices, and therefore the institutionalized violence was “the more blameworthy” of the two. 
Similarly, Archbishop Escobar classifies different violent phenomena as constituting either “primary violence” or “secondary violence” along the lines defined by Romero (see, pars. 27, 32, 40, and 143 of Escobar’s letter)—except that Escobar goes even further and applies those criteria to all violence throughout El Salvador’s 500-year history, concluding that the greed and oppression of the power groups has largely driven all the other violence in El Salvador’s turbulent history.
Finally, Archbishop Escobar’s letter is Romeroesque in its orientation in the way that it offers radical solutions based entirely on orthodox premises.  For example, Escobar recommends holding historical trials to end impunity (at pars. 61 and 140); massive investment in social programs even if means reduced profits for capitalists (at pars. 133 and 178)—and even if the current generation does not live to see its fruits (at par. 53); and going “against the grain” of “neo-liberal” economics to create an economy based on solidarity (at pars. 133 and 178). Just don’t expect to find cites to radical liberation theologians.  The footnotes here all relate to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vatican II documents, and the magisterium of the recent (and current) popes.
It’s probably fair to say that few people—if anyone—expected such an astounding letter to be produced by the reserved and sometimes enigmatic Archbishop Escobar.  Yet even in that surprise turn, this pastoral letter is oh-so Romeroesque—the product of “the God of surprises.”

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