Articles in the news about a rapprochement between the Vatican and Liberation Theology tend to link the that development with news about a breakthrough in the beatification cause of Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in El Salvador in 1980, and deeply linked with the defense of the poor. Although Romero’s name is often associated with the controversial Catholic movement in Latin America, the relationship between the man and the movement is ... complicated. Here are 5 essential things to understand (and #4 is probably the most important).
1. Romero knew that a Vatican correction of Liberation Theology was on the way. In July 1978, Romero told the faithful that there would be “revisions in Liberation Theology” following Pope John Paul’s visit to Mexico the following year, and Romero warned in his last pastoral letter, issued in August 1979, against a politicized version of Liberation Theology that could render its Christian content “ambiguous,” echoing concerns laid out by John Paul.
2. The “revisions” of Liberation Theology that the Vatican promulgated in 1984 and 1986 were consistent with criticisms of Liberation Theology that Romero had made. In 1974, Romero said he wished to highlight “what is positive about an authentic Liberation Theology and also the serious reservations regarding a mistaken understanding of the same.” In 1976, in his first major national sermon, Romero preached that, “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.” He added sternly, “Much less can it be a liberation that supports or is supported by violence.” His words were interpreted as a condemnation of Liberation Theology at the time.
3. Romero’s understanding of Liberation Theology was consistent with Card. Ratzinger’s distinctions between orthodox and heterodox strands. “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,” Romero said in 1977 (Card. Pironio, an Argentine, shared the ‘folk theology’ used by his compatriot Card. Bergoglio; he was appointed Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life by Paul VI and President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity by John Paul II). Romero’s views of Liberation Theology were also informed by the Opus Dei theologian José María Casciaro, the Franciscan friar Buenaventura Kloppenburg, and the CELAM missionary Segundo Galilea. Romero never references Liberation Theologians such as Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Manuel Pérez or Carlos Mugica. He did not read books on Liberation Theology that he received as gifts while he was archbishop (they were found in their sealed wrappers after his death).
4. Romero cared deeply for the poor and in this he broke bread with Liberation Theology, but he got there through a separate and independent route. As early as 1941, while he was still a seminary student (and long before Liberation Theology was conceived), Romero wrote that, “The poor are the incarnation of Christ. Through their tattered clothing, their dark gazes, their festering sores, the laughter of the mentally ill ... the charitable soul discovers and venerates Christ.” [MORE.] He was influenced by his study of asceticism, which pushed him to embrace poverty and discipline. [MORE.] He was also influenced by the Church Fathers: Fr. Thomas Greenan places Romero “in the patristic episcopal tradition” of St. Basil and St. Ambrose. Romero’s vicar remembers Romero quoting St. John Chrysostom (“Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Don't ignore Him then, when you find him naked in the poor.”), and in his homilies Romero quoted St. Irenaeus and St. Augustine. [MORE.]
Finally, Romero was profoundly influenced by the social magisterium of the modern popes. [MORE.]
5. Romero himself described his doctrinal innovation as a “Transfiguration Theology.” In a sense, such a theology is radically different from Liberation Theology in that it starts with Christ’s revelation of His divinity, and proclaims that “Jesus, on the heights of Tabor”—where the Gospels tell us that the Transfiguration took place—“is the wonderful image of liberation.” Developed over decades of preaching on El Salvador’s patronal feast (the Feast of the Transfiguration), “The Theology of the Transfiguration is telling us that the path of redemption must first pass through the Cross and Calvary but beyond history lies the goal of Christians,” says Romero, emphasizing the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ invites his followers—including societies—Romero teaches, to be transfigured, and to be raised from the world of sin and material desire to the dignity of being children of God in heaven; and to work for a more just world, which turns out to be only the prelude to true salvation. Romero preached this “theology” at length over many years, and this sizeable body of work is waiting to be discovered and explored. [MORE.] (Fittingly, Card. Ratzinger issued his 1984 “Instruction” on the Feast of the Transfiguration, as well.)
The Church is not going to beatify Romero because it has decided to go easy on trends it formerly deemed to be in error. Romero, too, recognized that the Liberation Theology movement was adrift and would have been happy to see it guided safely back to port. Romero himself, however, was able to navigate the treacherous waters and never lose his way.