BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
In Chaucer’s classic The Canterbury Tales, the conversations of a group of pilgrims who travel together to venerate the relics of the martyred St. Thomas Becket are the focus. Similarly, after a pilgrimage to the L.A. Cathedral to venerate the relics of three martyrs and a missionary saint, the conversations shared with fellow pilgrims have warranted further reflection. Today, I want to write about one particular conversation topic from the pilgrimage: Catholic on Catholic violence. And in the process, I want to express my support for Pope Francis.
During the homily for the presentations of the relics, L.A. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez pointed out that all four saints—Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher, Junipero Serra and Bl. Oscar Romero—all “had challenges with the authorities where they lived. All of them!” For the three martyrs, the similarities went one step further. Not only did they have challenges with the government authorities of their day, but those authorities were distinctly Catholic.
In Romero’s case, Pope Francis has recognized that “he was defamed, slandered, soiled, that is, his martyrdom continued even by his brothers in the priesthood and in the episcopate.” Even on the eve of Romero’s beatification, a Madrid cardinal lobbied the Spanish episcopate to boycott the ceremony. Indeed, the fact that Romero was assassinated in a majority Catholic country, by baptized Catholics, was often portrayed as a stumbling block for his beatification. “A martyr is killed by people who are not Christian,” Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, a Romero supporter, explained on Salvadoran Catholic television. “But in this case, the murderers are baptized persons, people who are supposed to pray and go to church. How do you explain how there is a rejection of Christ and His doctrine?”
Contrary to the common supposition, Romero is not unique amongst Christian martyrs in that regard. Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, the English saints whose relics were exhibited alongside Romero, were put to death by King Henry VIII after they refused to recognize the Church he established in his break from Rome during the 16th Century. However, Henry’s break was due to a disagreement over a divorce that the King wished to obtain and which the Pope would not authorize. Henry was otherwise a staunch Catholic, who had written a heartfelt retort to Martin Luther, and thereby obtained the title of “Defender of the Faith” from Rome. Following his formal break with the Pope, Henry’s Church retained its Catholic doctrine.
The contradiction of how “hatred of the faith” (a martyrdom requirement that the executions of Sts. Thomas and John were found to satisfy) could be exhibited by one deemed to be a “Defender of the Faith” was a great topic of conversation among our pilgrims. The seeming paradox made me think of how many Catholics today stand ready to condemn other Catholics, even repeating Henry’s pretension to second-guess the Pope. It made me think of dissidents who accuse Pope Francis of spreading confusion and errors about the faith. It also reminded me that St. Thomas Aquinas defined pride as “a species of contempt of God and of those who bear his commission.”
We see many Catholic voices so willing to denounce fellow Catholics, even bishops—even the Pope!—as somehow deficient in their faith, yet these voices are not authorized; it is not their competence to render such judgments. Pride can constitute a grave offense whenever arrogance is the occasion of great harm to another by undertaking functions for which the person lacks the requisite knowledge or authority. Romero warned against such overreaching. One can pray for errant clergymen, one can raise points of dissent directly with them, or even report them to the competent Church authorities. Beyond that, you’re not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “No one apart from the hierarchy has the right to say whether this priest preaches or does not preach the Gospel,” Romero admonished (May 29, 1977 sermon).
Last month, the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X issued a statement accusing Pope Francis of spreading confusion and errors regarding the faith. “The Society of St. Pius X prays and does penance for the pope, that he might have the strength to proclaim Catholic faith and morals in their entirety,” the statement read. The statement echoed, and was cheered by conservative Catholic commentators. The blogging priest Rev. John Zuhlsdorf annotated the quote cited above with his own comment: “Do I hear an ‘Amen!’?”
Happily, there are also voices that are rising to defend and support the Pope. Recently, the “curas villeros” (slum priests) of Buenos Aires together with a lay association called “Generacion Francisco,” issued a statement defending Francis against a “brutal campaign against him with attacks of every kind.” Argentine Bishop Oscar Ojea also issued a letter complaining of efforts to “darken [the pope’s] evangelical and prophetic message,” with “biased opinions, assumptions, and unverified information.”
In light of these developments, I will cast my lot firmly on the side of Communion with Peter. I might add that this goes far beyond some partisan loyalty to Pope Francis and extends to the Petrine Ministry as properly understood within a framework of Christian fellowship.
Otherwise, as long as we continue to give in to sinful pride, the danger of Catholics martyred by fellow Catholics will remain an ever-present danger.