For twenty six years, a burning question in the wake of Oscar Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980 has been whether he is a Christian martyr, killed in “hatred of the faith” (odium fidei in Latin, a key question in canonization law). In some conservative sectors, Romero’s death is a product of politics more than of anti-religious motivation. Undeniably, politics had something to do with it. But, as Pope Benedict XVI recently observed, “the strategies on the part of [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.” However, as far as the Church is concerned said the Pope, “the motive that impels them to martyrdom remains unchanged, since Christ is their source and their model.” (Letter to the Plenary Session of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, April 24, 2006.)
The Pope’s recognition of what he called the changing “cultural contexts of martyrdom” does not, however, undo the fundamental requirement that hatred of the faith be established “in a morally certain way,” as the Pontiff put it, as a prerequisite to beatification and canonization of a supposed martyr. But, how can we establish that Archbishop Romero, who was murdered in the prelude to a Civil War between a right-wing military dictatorship and a leftist insurgency, in a 90 percent plus Catholic country, was killed for “hatred of the faith”? To add to the complication, how can Romero be killed for “hatred of the faith,” if the group he was perceived to be aligned with (the rebels) are presumably atheist Marxists, and the group believed to have ordered the murder (the government) are a traditional Latin American oligarchy – descendants of the elites who brought Catholicism to the continent? What if, in a perverse sort of way, Romero’s killers were acting in defense of the faith! -- against what they perceived to be a heretical usurpation of the faith by an infidel bishop?
The Vatican, which has experts, theologians and historians who examine candidates for the sainthood, has clearly thought of all these questions. That is probably why in the year 2000, two years after the final reports from the postulator of the Romero sainthood cause were received, the Vatican detoured the Romero files to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where an extraordinary theological audit was made of all Romero’s writings, sermons, and speeches, to insure his doctrinal orthodoxy. This at least reassured the Church that they weren’t dealing with a rebel bishop. This told the church that Romero was, as the commission concluded, “a man of the Church, of the Gospel, and of the Poor.” But it didn’t tell the Vatican much about Romero’s killers or the reasons that motivated them. In fact, the exact identities of Romero’s killers remain unknown, as the case was never prosecuted or even investigated by a Salvadoran establishment that was glad to see its most effective critic silenced once and for all.
As Pope Benedict told the Plenary Session, odium fidei can be ascertained “directly or indirectly,” so the motives of Romero’s killers – and their hatred of the faith – can be discerned from circumstantial evidence surrounding the crime. Relying on (1) the triggering event of the assassination; (2) the prevalent themes of Romero’s preaching; (3) the grandness of the crime (4) the other circumstances of the crime; (5) the background of Church hatred at the time, generally; (6) the background of high profile Church murders, specifically; and (7) the background of death threats against Romero himself, the Church can easily conclude that Archbishop Romero was killed because his persecutors hated the Christian faith and wished to snuff out the voice that was broadcasting a profoundly Christian, and therefore inconvenient, message.
It is generally believed that Romero was killed on Monday March 24 because the previous day, Sunday, March 23, he had given a sermon in which he said that Salvadoran soldiers should disobey their superiors if the higher-ups ordered the soldiers to kill peasant civilians. The rightwing spin is that Romero had called for insubordination, an act tantamount to treason, and that therefore the reason to kill him was “tactical” or political. Romero said, “No soldier is obligated to obey an order against the law of God: No one has to fulfill an immoral law.” Fifteen years earlier, John XXIII had said: “laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since it is right to obey God rather than men.” (Pacem in Terris, 1965.) Therefore, the very narrow trigger that set off Romero’s killers was a Christian message enveloped in the Papal imprimatur, and therefore hatred of this message was a form of hatred of the faith. But, as the Vatican’s theological audit concluded, the rest of Romero’s preaching was also faithful to the Church’s doctrine, so whatever it was that Romero’s killers hated in his message was Christian in nature: hatred of it was tantamount to hatred of the faith.
Moreover, the murder of the archbishop was staged to be an extravagant crime – and it was. Romero was killed at the altar while saying mass. This would be the first time in 800 years, and only the second time in Western history that an archbishop’s enemies would fell him at the altar. It was spectacularly clear that Romero was being killed as a result of his message, which had been delivered at the altar the day before, and so he was killed at the altar on the following day. The link between the cause and effect could not be more clear. Moreover, the other circumstances of the crime showed great disdain for the holiness of the setting. The man who shot Romero did not simply shoot at a government critic: he shot a man of peace, he shot at the metropolitan archbishop, he shot at a priest saying mass, he fired into a church, he fired at the altar, and he fired at the Eucharistic offering – all, with one shot. The harsh vulgarity of these circumstances rises beyond mere sacrilege to disdain and hatred of the faith and its symbols: odium fidei.
The profanation of Oscar Romero’s altar was not the first time that Church symbols had been disrespected by the military dictators of El Salvador. Communion wafers were riddled with bullets at Aguilares after the murder of Fr. Rutilio Grande in 1977. Convents had been sacked. The Church radio station was rigged with dynamite. Catholic educational institutions and Christian religious institutions were constantly harassed. Flyers were distributed that declared, “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” Of course, that, too, happened. The Jesuit University of Central America names two bishops, sixteen priests, one seminarian, three nuns, and at least twenty-seven lay workers who were assassinated during the Salvadoran conflict. By the time Romero was murdered, six other priests had already been killed and their murders were perceived by the Church as a symbol of persecution, which Romero lauded as proof of his Church’s commitment to the Gospel, and Romero’s murderers knew this. Their actions in light of this knowledge were certainly tinged with odium.
Finally, the Church’s persecutors had already sent various death threats to Archbishop Romero before his actual assassination. His unwillingness to shut up and willingness to die, of course, speaks highly of his courage and conviction. But the fact of the recurring threats presents another quid pro quo instance of correspondence between Romero’s Christian action and his killer’s anti-Christian hate. The nexus between the two facts is only exceeded by the linkage associated with the first martyrs, who were taken to the arena and asked to renounce their Christian faith. When they refused to do so, they were brutally killed. Here, death threats were used to intimidate Romero into silence. He kept preaching. Possessed by disdain for his spiritual fortitude, they did the only thing an oppressor knows how to do.
In so doing, they were motivated by hatred of the faith.