The Ambiguous Archbishop Romero

November 2000By Eric M. Johnson

Eric M. Johnson writes from Alexandria, Virginia, and is the Web Administrator for The Washington Times.

Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic.  By Maria López Vigil. Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd. 423 pages. $19.95.



An assassin fired a single bullet into the heart of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, on March 24, 1980, murdering him as he was about to elevate the Host during Mass. Archbishop Romero died beneath a crucifix.

His enemies were really dumb. To murder a priest, especially an archbishop, even more so an archbishop celebrating Mass, was sure to attract worldwide attention.

As related in Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic, the prelate’s family was poor and urban in a poor rural country. After a prayerful youth, Romero entered the seminary. As a young parish priest, he was known for his love of the poor and staunch anti-Communism. The Left viewed him with great suspicion as he moved up the clerical ladder, ascending to the episcopate of San Salvador over their objections.

At that time, the upper class of El Salvador was convinced that only through vigorous repression could they maintain their grip on power. Many of them recalled fondly the 1932 massacre of 10,000 left-wing rebels, and supported the military’s efforts to curtail the influence of peasant organizations, labor unions, and restless university students.

When dissent grew in the 1970s, the military and the upper class ratcheted up the repression. Archbishop Romero, temperamentally conservative and nervous about the unrest, was reluctant to openly denounce the political killings, hoping that a peaceful resolution would present itself. Only after the killing of his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande did he begin to speak out against the government.

Soon Archbishop Romero’s powerful homilies became popular entertainment. Broadcast over the diocesan radio station, these addresses were reportedly more popular than soccer matches (and this in a country that went to war with Honduras over a soccer match).

However, at the time of his death, Archbishop Romero was known more as a supporter of the Left than as a man of God — though his status as the former depended upon his episcopal office. In his earlier days, he shocked leftist clerics by talking about the Virgin Mary during a discussion of peasant poverty and, as editor of the diocesan newspaper, he wrote impassioned editorials denouncing priests who paid more attention to politics than the Pope. But by the end of his life, he was saying things such as, “The very definition of the Right is social injustice, and it is never just to align yourself with the Right. As for the Left…I call them forces of the people.”

I must admit that I become wary when anyone refers to “the people” as an undifferentiated mass with a single opinion. Such sloganeering suggests that a Christian is more interested in the Zeitgeist than the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Left came to call Archbishop Romero Chespirito, after the Marxist revolutionary Ché Guevara.

Archbishop Romero was no Marxist, nor was he primarily a political animal (though his trajectory suggested that he might have ended up that way). To the end, he demanded that protestors not desecrate churches, and was by all accounts an excellent pastor to his people, whom he loved desperately. Nevertheless, the proximate causes of his death were his statement that the use of force against oppression was justified — a barely concealed reference to the revolutionaries — and his homily the day before his death, in which he stated that El Salvador was “without a doubt, living in a pre-revolutionary period.” His measured praise of the Sandinista’s successful coup in Nicaragua was another impetus for the Right-wing to assassinate him.

None of this is to imply, even remotely, that he deserved to die. But it does cast some doubt on whether he died as a martyr for Christ. Saints have not always remained aloof from temporal affairs — consider Thomas à Becket, Joan of Arc, or Catherine of Siena. Their actions have stood the test of time, though, and by that standard Archbishop Romero’s political judgments have not weathered very well. He was given to calling the U.S. “the Empire,” which, given the minimal interest America took in El Salvador at the time, was ludicrous: During the late 1970s Jimmy Carter sent a few million dollars in aid, as well as some State Department officials who made frowny faces at the military’s butchery. Central America wasn’t a high priority until the Reagan Administration took office the year after the Archbishop’s death. Perhaps the U.S. should have done more for El Salvador in the late 1970s, but its actions were hardly equivalent to Darth Vader and his stormtroopers.

More than that, “the people” have not been as supportive of their patrons as Memories in Mosaic would have one believe. The moderate leftist José Napoleón Duarté led the country for almost the entire 1980s, but he and his government were voted out in 1989 in favor of a right-leaning coalition, which has been in charge ever since. The Sandinistas of Nicaragua got the boot from “the people” in democratic elections the following year.

The book itself is a commendable achievement, the product of several hundred interviews with Salvadorans who knew or were touched by Archbishop Romero. The author, Maria López Vigil, chose her material well, and does not belie the kind of heavy-handed editing that might have been necessary to produce a coherent work from scores of different voices.

As a history, Memories in Mosaic makes an invaluable contribution to a famous Latin American figure, but does not pretend to be a comprehensive biography. It omits almost all mention of atrocities committed by the Left, or the help provided to the Salvadoran Communists by the U.S.S.R. (which was a real empire). Some of the episodes ring false, particularly Pope John Paul II coldly dismissing Archbishop Romero’s report of the brutal killings of peasants. This scene, purportedly based on the Archbishop’s diary, is completely out of character for the Holy Father, and seems to be inserted to reinforce the image of the Archbishop as a lonely crusader with no help from The Powers That Be.

Still, the book does contain hints that demonstrate why many Salvadorans, while sympathizing with political reform, might have recoiled from “the people’s” cause. It recounts sophomoric stunts such as the priest who, when dressing a statue of Jesus for a public procession, substituted blue jeans for the traditional purple robe. That kind of thing appeals to “the people,” you know. (López does not explain why a left-wing priest used such a vivid symbol of Yanqui sartorial imperialism.) Many of the younger, more radical clergy stopped wearing clerical garb and openly organized political groups with political goals.

By any empirical standard, the Salvadoran Church’s politics have not borne much good fruit. While the population was once entirely Catholic, there are now one million Protestants in a country of 5.8 million. The only real benefit, if one can call it that, is the wellspring of sympathy the Salvadoran Church has earned from institutions that are normally uncomfortable with much of Catholic teaching, such as The New York Times, the United Nations, and Georgetown University.

Aligning with political movements is a risky proposition for the Church. Doubtless it depends mostly on whether the movement inclines a society toward the Gospel. Even if the cause is just, it should be looked upon with suspicion. Like all earthly things touched by man, any social cause will be tainted by sin as it plays itself out. Memories in Mosaic reinforces the truth that the only permanent alliance Church officials should make is with Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and the saints.



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