ARCHBISHOP ROMERO ON
If Archbishop Romero had been around when Cardinal Ratzinger issued his famous Instruction on certain aspects of the Theology of Liberation in 1984, he would have sided with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and future Pope) and would have (gently) prodded Latin American theologians to heed the admonition, according to inferences in Romero’s preaching and writings which show Romero attempting to steer the currents of Liberation Theology towards the Church’s authorized social doctrine for at least a decade.
The evidence shows that Romero’s views on Liberation Theology were fixed in the early 1970s, and that he did not change those views. As Bishop, Romero wrote about Liberation Theology in the Santiago de Maria Diocesan newspaper in the early 1970s. “The most profound social revolution,” is not political change, he wrote, but, “the serious, supernatural, interior reform of a Christian.” (O. A. Romero, La Más Profunda Revolución Social [The Most Profound Social Revolution], DIARIO DE ORIENTE, No. 30867 – p. 1, August 28, 1973.) The following year, Bishop Romero wrote that he had found two Latin American theologians who shared his views on Liberation Theology and that he wished to highlight “what is positive about an authentic Liberation Theology and also the serious reservations regarding a mistaken understanding of the same.” (O. A. Romero, De Acuerdo con una Teología de Liberación bien Intencionada [In Agreement with a Well-Intended Liberation Theology], DIARIO DE ORIENTE, No. 30905 – p. 1, June 18, 1974.) Romero did not add much to his theological understanding of Liberation Theology, later on. An investigation by Romero biographer Jesus Delgado, S.J., concluded that Romero did not read books about Liberation Theology that he received as gifts while he was archbishop, and ranked Liberation Theology at the bottom of the topics of interest which Romero studied then. (Jesús DELGADO, “La cultura de monseñor Romero,” [Archbishop Romero’s Culture] in Óscar Romero un Obispo entre la guerra fría y la revolución, Editorial San Pablo, Madrid, 2003.)
Romero’s sources for his understanding of Liberation Theology were mainstream sources approved by the Church. Romero identified Pope Paul VI as the “man who continually illuminates my thinking regarding these aspects,” and pointed out the Pontiff’s orthodox orientations. (Archbishop Romero’s November 19, 1978 Sermon.) Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed that, “In the notion of development, understood in human and Christian terms, [Paul VI] identified the heart of the Christian social message.” (CARITAS IN VERITATE, 13.) Romero declared: “Let it be known that I study Liberation Theology through solid theologians, such as Cardinal [Eduardo] Pironio, who currently is the prefect of one of the Pope’s congregations, a man who enjoys the full confidence of the Pope.” (July 24, 1977 Sermon (Spanish).) In addition to the Pope and Cardinal Pironio, Romero’s papers also reveal other writers who influenced Romero’s views of Liberation Theology, including the Opus Dei theologian José María Casciaro, the Franciscan friar Buenaventura Kloppenburg, and the CELAM missionary Segundo Galilea. (DIARIO DE ORIENTE, Supra. Conversely, Romero’s sermons never cite or refer to Liberation Theologians such as Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Manuel Pérez or Carlos Mugica.)
Romero knew that a correction to Liberation Theology was coming. “The president of CELAM, the Brazilian Cardinal [Aloísio] Lorscheider,” Romero announced, “has said that in the meeting at Puebla there will be some very profound revisions of the Christological doctrine as well as revisions in Liberation Theology.” (July 23, 1978 Sermon.) Like Cardinal Pironio, Cardinal Lorscheider also was a good friend of Archbishop Romero’s—the only cardinal known to have stayed with him at the cancer hospital grounds where Romero lived as archbishop. Romero referred to the called-for reform in his final pastoral letter, when he cited John Paul’s exhortation against politicization that “could make a theology of liberation ambiguous.” (O. A. Romero, The Church's Mission amid the National Crisis: Fourth Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero, Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1979.) Strikingly, Romero’s pastoral letter goes on to cite the same passage from Pope Paul VI’s EVANGELII NUNTIANDI that he had cited in a 1976 sermon that has been referenced as proof of Romero’s hostility to Liberation Theology before he was archbishop.
In that 1976 Sermon, Romero had preached, “The liberation of Christ and of His Church is not reduced to the dimension of a purely temporal project. It does not reduce its objectives to an anthropocentric perspective: to a material well-being or to initiatives of a political or social, economic or cultural order, only.” (August 6, 1976 Sermon.) He added sternly, “Much less can it be a liberation that supports or is supported by violence.” (Id.) This is the same message Romero was preaching near the end of his term as archbishop: “as we have said a thousand times, true liberation does not simply consist of better salaries, lower prices, or a change in government—these are temporal liberation ...” (November 18, 1979 Sermon.) And, of course, Romero always repudiated hatred and violence: “Liberation that is achieved through revolutions of hatred and violence that destroy the lives of others and represses the dignity of others is not true liberation. True liberators,” he preached, “do violence to themselves just as Christ did violence to himself … These are the true liberators that our country desires, liberators with humble hearts, hearts that shine with the characteristic love of Christians.” (March 23, 1978 Sermon.)
In correcting Liberation Theologians, Archbishop Romero doubtlessly would have been pastoral and collegial—as he was in various sermons in which he cautioned against Liberation Theology’s overly secular and Marxist bent. He grew to admire and know many of them personally and he appreciated their genuine commitment to the poor (which Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledged, too). But, Archbishop Romero would have cared too much to look the other way. “There are no greater slaves than those who rebel against God’s law,” Archbishop Romero preached. (March 18, 1979 Sermon.) “The freedom that God offers has a path that must be followed: the law of God.” (Id.)
Photo: Archbishop Romero with Frs. Ignacio Ellacuría and Segundo Montes, Spanish Jesuits linked to Liberation Theology in El Salvador. Both were assassinated during the UCA Massacre of 1989. The tear in the photo is damage to the original print.