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Blessed Romero?: Pope Francis, Liberation Theology, and Beatification

During his recent trip to Asia, Pope Francis raised the hopes of many Catholics by suggesting that the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador killed in 1980 by an assassin for his opposition to the Salvadoran government, will likely happen sooner rather than later. In a mid-air press conference more noted at the time for his statements on intervention in Iraq, Francis commented that the cause for Romero had been “unblocked” in the Vatican and insisted that the process take place quickly. Writing at the New York Times, Paul Vallely makes the case that Francis’s moving forward with the cause of Romero represents a break with his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, under whom Romero’s cause languished, and a shifting attitude toward the liberation theology often associated with Romero. But has such a dramatic shift taken place?

It is worth noting that Francis’s remarks revealed nothing new. In April of last year, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the promoter of Romero’s cause for sainthood, announced that Romero’s cause had been “unblocked,” and in July of the same year Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), mentioned in an interview with Vatican Insider that Romero’s case had been passed on from the CDF, which had been investigating Romero’s writings for doctrinal orthodoxy, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The more important question, however, is whether this progress toward sainthood under Pope Francis represents a shift from the policy of his predecessors. Vallely wholeheartedly claims that it does, but the reality is more complex.

Vallely writes that, “For three decades Rome blocked his path to sainthood for fear that it would give succor to the proponents of liberation theology, the revolutionary movement that insists that the Catholic Church should work to bring economic and social — as well as spiritual — liberation to the poor,” and then explains the Vatican’s long opposition to liberation theology. This account, however, is misleading and incomplete. In the Catholic Church, the process of canonization begins when the bishop of the place where the holy person lived and died opens an investigation into the latter’s virtues, after at least five years have passed since the person’s death. In 1990, only ten years after Romero’s death, Archbishop Arturo Rivera of San Salvador opened an investigation of the former’s life, and in 1997 John Paul II conferred the title of “Servant of God” on Romero, opening his cause at the Vatican. John Paul had already attested to his belief in Romero’s holiness in his 1983 visit to the archbishop’s tomb in San Salvador.

Romero’s cause seems to have progressed normally until 2000, when it was passed to the CDF. In an account given by Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, and reported in the Vatican Insider, the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) affirmed the doctrinal orthodoxy of Romero’s various writings, but its deliberations were stalled by Vatican officials who opposed the beatification because of Romero’s supposed links to liberation theology and the fear that his cause would be used for “political ends” (the article specifically identifies Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who had been a fierce opponent of liberation theology since the 1970s, when he was General Secretary of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Ratzinger then put the process on hold. What happened after 2005, when Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, is less clear, but on his way to the gathering of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference at Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, Benedict stated his opinion that Romero “merits beatification, I do not doubt,” and both Bishop Rosa and Cardinal Müller claim that Romero’s cause was in a sense already “unblocked” under Benedict (perhaps not coincidentally, Cardinal Lopez died in 2008).

Contrary to Vallely, then, there is little evidence that Romero’s cause for canonization was stalled through either theological or political opposition to Romero himself by John Paul or Benedict. The blockage seems to me to have been the result of church politics, an effort by Ratzinger/Benedict to temporarily appease powerful figures in the Vatican despite his own sense of Romero’s holiness, and therefore, if anything, John Paul and Benedict can be faulted for a lack of energy in pushing Romero’s cause through despite this opposition. Here, then, is where we do see a real shift in Francis’s papacy; there does seem to be more of a push to have Romero beatified.

What is the role of liberation theology in all of this? As Political Theology Today’s symposium on Pope Francis and liberation theology (with contributions here, here, and here) made clear, the relationship between the Vatican and liberation theology has been complex and cannot be reduced to a narrative of Francis’s support for liberation theology after two pontificates of opposition. Unfortunately Vallely adopts this narrative in his attempt to explain Romero’s changing fortunes in the Vatican. I invite the reader to read these earlier posts rather than repeat their contents here, but it is worth responding to some of Vallely’s claims.

First, he attributes John Paul’s opposition to liberation theology to suspicion of the notion of a “preferential option for the poor” in the Vatican, but this is far from the truth. John Paul made the preferential option for the poor a central part of his teaching, affirming in his 1987 social encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that the “option or love of preference for the poor” is “a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity” that leads Christians to “embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future” (#42). Vallely also claims that Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, issued two critiques of liberation theology in 1984 and 1986, but in reality the second of these documents, the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, attempts to present an authentic liberation theology, and clearly adopts some of the main themes of the liberation theologians. Lastly, it is only a minor point, but Vallely makes much of Francis’s recent reinstating of the priestly ministry of Miguel d’Escoto, who was barred from exercising that ministry in 1985 by Pope John Paul II because of his participation in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. But John Paul’s action had less to do with d’Escoto’s support for liberation theology than with his participation in partisan politics, as John Paul’s dealings with other priests such as U.S. Representative Robert Drinan demonstrate. Besides, Vallely fails to mention that d’Escoto has not engaged in partisan activity since 1991 (although he has since served as an ambassador, and even as president of the United Nations General Assembly in 2008 and 2009), and Francis only reinstated d’Escoto after the latter requested it.

Returning to the question of Romero, in his comments, Pope Francis states that, in his mind, the remaining question is that of martyrdom, “whether it can occur either for having confessed the Creed or for having done the works which Jesus commands with regard to one’s neighbour.” Since Romero was almost certainly killed for the latter reason rather than the former, this question is directly relevant for the timing and process of his beatification, although not its ultimate outcome; a martyr can be beatified without a miracle attributed to the would-be saint taking place. At least for this question, liberation theology is directly relevant. Liberation theology affirms that faith cannot be separated from one’s engagement with the world, and that the defense of the poor can be an act of faith. Popes John Paul and Benedict seem to have agreed with this, both affirming that Romero was a “martyr for the faith,” although it will most likely be Pope Francis who officially recognizes this fact by beatifying Romero.

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