Two words rebut all of Msgr. Richard Antall’s misgivings about the upcoming beatification of Archbishop Óscar Romero. (Msgr. Antall wrote in First Things that Archbishop Romero may have been too partisan in his denunciations, and that the motives of his killers may therefore not fit the traditional requirements for martyrdom.) The rejoinder is: «Nihil Obstat.» That’s the name for the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI, certifying to the world that Archbishop Romero’s sermons, speeches, writings and teachings contain nothing contrary to morals or the faith. «Nihil Obstat» means “nothing stands in the way” in English, and the CDF certification gives assurance that church experts and authorities have studied these issues and have no objection to, or doubts regarding, Romero’s canonization.
To expand on those two words somewhat, we can look to Pope Benedict himself (no coddler of anything contrary to morals or the faith, he!), who said, “That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt.” (Q&A, May 9, 2007.) He added that, “Archbishop Romero was certainly an important witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship, and was assassinated while celebrating Mass. Consequently, his death was truly ‘credible’, a witness of faith.” (Id.) Pope Benedict’s words are especially convincing because the Pope spoke after reading a biography of Romero by Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, a professor of contemporary history in Rome, “Primero Dios: Vita di Oscar A. Romero” (“God First: The Life of Oscar A. Romero”). Morozzo della Rocca’s book was an effort, in fact, to situate Romero in “the ideological and political-social whirlwind in which he lived” (in Msgr. Antall’s words). The Pontiff described the book as “an important biography which clarifies many points of the question.” We can also look to Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statements earlier this year, describing the «Nihil Obstat.» The Vatican’s top authority on doctrinal matters said: “I see Oscar Arnulfo Romero as a great witness of the faith and a man who was thirsty for social justice. This was clear in his homilies, where he talked about the tragic condition his people lived in at the time.” The Prefect later disclosed that he had read six volumes of material on Romero in connection with the CDF’s review.
Alarmist concerns about undetected Romero problems ignore the fact that the church has an orderly process in place to vet such issues. Archbishop Romero is hardly the first complex man to be proposed for the sainthood, nor even so unique in his particular circumstances. The political intrigue surrounding Romero, for example, is no more complicated than that surrounding Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was killed by the Polish comunist intelligence agency in 1984. Fr. Popiełuszko was a staunch anti-communist, who peppered his sermons with criticisms of communism and calls to resistance. He was beatified in June 2010. Before Fr. Popiełuszko, we had the victims of Nazi persecution, including Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe—were they killed for purely religious reasons, or because the Nazis were killing everyone who wasn’t one of them or whom they viewed as their enemies? Before them, we had the the Spanish Civil War martyrs. Before them, we had the Cristeros, killed in the context of a Mexican internal conflict.
In fact, the Church is equipped to handle complexity. After all, as Pope Pius XI observed at the time of the Cristero conflict, “the frequent revolutions of modern times have ended in the majority of cases in trials for the Church and persecutions of religion.” («INIQUIS AFFLICTISQUE,» ¶ 5). In fact, one month before issuing his encyclical on the Cristero conflict, Pope Pius XI had beatified 191 martyrs of the French Revolution—including the Archbishop of Arles—who had been slain 134 years before. (Id., at ¶4). Whether it is the French Revolution, the Cristero Rebellion, or the Salvadoran Civil War, such conflicts conflate religious and political motivations—both of potential martyrs as well as their persecutors—that are necessary to sift through in order to assess whether the victims were killed in hatred of the Christian faith. In some cases, “it may be difficult to prove martyrdom ... if it is necessary to discern between the political and religious motives of the persons involved,” according to a former high ranking official in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. (Msgr. Edward Novak, quoted in WOESTMAN, Canonization: Theology, History, Process 58, St. Paul University, 2002.) Difficult, but not impossible, because the Congregation can use historical experts to sift through the motive strands to discern theology from ideology. (Op. Cit.)
This is precisely what has been done in the Romero case. Pursuant to an objection by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who expressed concerns about Romero’s association with Liberation Theology, Archbishop Romero's cause was investigated by the CDF when it was headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. Between 2000 and 2005, the CDF studied Romero writings, sermons, and speeches to ensure that they were free from doctrinal error. In 2001, the Postulator of Romero’s canonization cause held a special congress in Italy, bringing together experts and theologians to study the figure of Archbishop Romero in his historical context. Thereafter, the CDF concluded that “Romero was not a revolutionary bishop, but a man of the Church, the Gospel and the poor.” In 2005, the same Latin American cardinals who had requested an audit of Romero’s theology (orthodoxy) now demanded a study of his concrete pastoral action (orthopraxy). All the reviews were finally concluded last year with the «Nihil Obstat.» (See Vatican Insider, Path for Romero’s beatification cleared, now examination of doctrinal orthodoxy is complete (“no more doctrinal obstacles stand in the way of ‘San Romero de America’s’ beatification”).)
Msgr. Antall declares himself disturbed over Archbishop Romero’s use of strident language to denounce the Salvadoran regime and oligarchy. There are three responses to this concern.
- First, specific examples are not presented in full context. To take only one example, Msgr. Antall cites Archbishop Romero saying you should give up your ring before they cut off your finger. Importantly, Romero set up his statement to the rich by saying, “Do not look on me as a judge or enemy. I am only the shepherd, the brother,” and he said he wanted to encourage the rich to share so that they could be happy. (January 6, 1980 sermon.) It also bears noting that Romero was quoting Cardinal Lorscheider, who had been sent by the Vatican to see Romero. (Romero had also cited a similar quote from Card. Montini, who later became Paul VI, who had told Milan businessmen “spogliatevi, se non vi spoglieranno”—strip yourselves or others will strip you—September 30, 1979 sermon.)
- Second, Msgr. Antall appears to read into his interpretations assumptions that cannot be justified. For example, he reports that Archbishop Romero made a statement about the rich going to heaven “bitterly.” But, of course, Msgr. Antall was not present when Romero made the supposed (private) statement, so his observations of Romero’s tone or mindset are entirely and needlessly conjectural. (The comment was arguably just a variation on Jesus’ famous comment on the same subject.)
- Third, in the words of Msgr.Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, the former Opus Dei Archbishop of San Salvador to whom Msgr. Antall reported, “It was never [Romero’s] intention to stir up the people to hate and violence, but his messages were frequently fiery [fogosos].” It was Romero’s stated mission to “accompany” the popular organizations, in an effort to convince them to integrate Christian values into their causes, and steer them away from the atheistic models pursued in Cuba and elsewhere. Therefore, he tried to speak their language, using terms that had resonance in their rhetoric.
As to Msgr. Antall’s concern that Romero may have been toying with approving of violence, that question is addressed definitively in Romero’s third pastoral letter, and his intention is stated clearly in his final homilies, including his March 16, 1980 sermon, in which he directs “a call to the guerrilla groups.” Encouraging them to “mature by opening up and dialoguing,” he pleads, “I appeal to you and ask you to understand that nothing violent can be lasting.” Those hardly sound like the words of someone who is about to approve of the use of violence.
Finally, everyone should keep calm and read Romero. He is one of the most studied and read figures in modern Catholicism. All his sermons, including the ones cited by Msgr. Antall and those quoted here, are available in Spanish and in English translation. An ebook of quotes called “The Violence of Love” (available online on-line for free) has been widely disseminated. You can even hear the audios of Romero’s sermons. If you have any doubts about Romero, go see for yourself! As Duane Arnold remarked in a podcast hosted by Indianapolis Auxiliary Bishop Christopher Coyne earlier this year, “How can you read about this man without ending up loving him at the end of that reading?”
The Case for Fast-Tracking
The Case for Fast-Tracking