Pope Francis has paved the way for slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero to attain sainthood. In a decree on Tuesday, Francis ruled the archbishop, who was slain by a right-wing death squad in 1980 while celebrating Mass, was a martyr and will be beatified, the Associated Press reported.
Romero’s association with liberation theology, a doctrine based on radical advocating for the poor, made him a hero on the Catholic left -- and a figure of controversy for mainstream Vatican leaders.
Francis’ decision, while on the face of it an endorsement of leftist values, doesn’t necessarily symbolize his validation of it. Rather his decree shows he has “finally been able to break through the doctrinal logjam” created by his predecessors, James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, told International Business Times.
Romero’s case for sainthood was opened in 1990 at his local diocese before moving to Rome in 1996. It remained in Vatican bureaucratic limbo until Francis was elected and “unblocked” Romero’s case. The stalemate stemmed from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI opposing liberation theology, a leftist movement that originated among Latin American Catholics. John Paul II treated this ideology with the same disdain as he did communism in Poland. Benedict XVI disliked the movement out of his experience as a professor at the University of Tübingen during the student revolts across Europe in 1968, with which some conservative church thinkers associated liberation theology.
Both pontiffs recognized Romero’s work as a defender of the poor but worried whether he was killed because of politics rather than his faith. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the issue in 2007 when he called Romero a “great witness of the faith” but said he was worried Marxist supporters would use him “as their badge.”
“If John Paul II or Benedict XVI had been pope there would have been no change in the Romero sainthood process,” Bretzke said, explaining Francis’ emphasis on reforming church bureaucracy has led many in the Vatican to adopt similar stances. “Francis clearly has changed directions and now this is one more example of the Vatican bureaucracy taking note of the change of prevailing ecclesial winds and adjusting their own sails accordingly,” Bretzke said.
Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador when he was shot and killed while celebrating Mass at a cancer hospital. At the time, he was considered the “Voice for the Voiceless” champion for the poor and an outspoken critic of U.S. military support for the El Salvadoran government during the country’s 1980-92 civil war. His human rights work earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Despite the Vatican’s holdback on his beatification, fellow Salvadorans already regard him as a saint.
But Romero was not always considered progressive. In fact, he was appointed archbishop because he was considered a safe and conservative choice. Romero changed his stance after he witnessed the suffering of El Salvador’s poor while serving as a bishop of Santiago de María. On March 12, 1977, the Rev. Rutilio Grande, Romero's longtime friend and a Jesuit priest, was assassinated. This propelled Romero into the political spotlight. He suspended masses the following Sunday at area churches and demanded justice.
Pope Francis may have gone through a similar intellectual experience. While serving as Jesuit provincial of Argentina, or the order's leader in the country, he did not display an especially strong tendency to advocate for the poor. After he became archbishop of Buenos Aires, witnessing widespread poverty and the limitations traditional methods like charity had to address people’s needs, his public stance changed.
“In this sense Bergoglio [Pope Francis] mirrors a similar conversion that Oscar Romero himself underwent,” Bretzke said.
Despite Romero’s association with the controversial ideology, everyday Salvadorians don’t necessarily see him as a face for liberation theology. “Rather, he seemed to be a temperamentally and theologically conservative person who was genuinely moved by the plight of ordinary people under a repressive government,” Bill Portier, a theology professor at the University of Dayton (Ohio) who specializes in U.S. Catholic history, told International Business Times.
“This is the kind of thing that Francis is advocating for bishops and clergy, and this is part of his message to them against clericalism and careerism. Bishops are supposed to be like Oscar Romero,” he said.