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Was St. Óscar Romero a Martyr?

Compare the somewhat controversial case of Romero to that of St. Thomas Becket, and you'll see that politics and religion often mix

“Was the 1980 killing of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador motivated by a hatred of the Faith, or because of politics?”

That’s the question posed by an essay published in 2015 by the American district of the Society of St. Pius X. Despite the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the time unanimously voting to name Romero a martyr, the author suggested that “the burning question still remains: was he actually a martyr for the Faith?” This essay was then followed up with another, asking whether Romero might have been a “martyr for liberation theology” instead.

So what does it mean to be a martyr for Christ? Although St. Óscar Romero’s own feast day is March 24, the present liturgical calendar should lead us to ask that question. Late December is a rich time on the Church’s liturgical calendar, and these first few days after Christmas are surprisingly bloody ones. As Philip H. Pfatteicher points out in Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year:

[On December 26,] St. Stephen, Protomartyr, is celebrated by the Church as a martyr both in will and in deed. The next day, December 27, St. John is celebrated as a martyr in will although not in deed. Although he was willing to die for his Lord, he was, according to tradition, the only one of the twelve apostles not to die a martyr’s death. . . . December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, celebrated as martyrs in deed although, since they were all infants, not in will. They have been celebrated since the fourth century and on this date since the sixth century.

Collectively, Stephen, John, and the Holy Innocents are known as the companions of Christ, and their juxtaposed feasts highlight the myriad ways in which one can be a martyr (literally, “witness”) for Jesus Christ.

As regards Romero, perhaps the most instructive case is the feast of December 29, St. Thomas Becket. After all, recall the original question about whether Romero’s death was “motivated by a hatred of the Faith, or because of politics.” As Becket’s martyrdom reveals, the answer in many cases is “both.”

We get a sense of the messy interconnectedness of faith and politics in the fact that Thomas Becket was originally King Henry II’s chancellor, and it was the king who appointed him archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry no doubt expected that his old friend would be a faithful ally to the English crown, but Becket seems to have had something of a conversion upon becoming bishop. The two quickly found themselves on opposite sides of an important controversy.

As Frank Barlow notes in his biography of Becket, the particular dispute involved “the problem of how to treat criminous clerks, that is to say priests and clerks defamed or accused of committing a serious secular crime, a felony, for which, in the case of the laity, the penalty was death or mutilation as well as confiscation of their land and chattels.”

The king resented the Catholic clergy for treating their criminal members too lightly (particularly since ecclesial courts didn’t engage in the shedding of blood), the archbishop wanted to protect the independence of the Church from secular intrusion, and the pope (Alexander III) just wanted everyone to just get along. It was, in other words, simultaneously a Catholic question and a political question, and the result of it was that the Catholic knights of a Catholic king murdered their Catholic bishop in his own cathedral. And the Church has never hesitated to call Thomas Becket a martyr.

The same is true for modern saints, like Bl. Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984), whom the SSPX has praised as one of Poland’s “many martyrs of communism.” When Gen. Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, Fr. Popiełuszko “denounced the regime through homilies broadcast throughout the country.” In response, the Polish secret police kidnapped the priest while he was praying his rosary, before torturing and killing him. Was his death a political one? Certainly. But it was also a true martyrdom, as the Church has recognized. In standing up against communism, Fr. Popiełuszko was standing for the truths of the Faith.

The motive is important here because part of the traditional understanding of martyrdom is that the martyr is killed in odium fidei (“in hatred of the Faith”). If you’re in a religious procession and get hit by a car, that’s not, of itself, martyrdom. But if it turns out that the driver hit you on purpose because the sight of the procession enraged him, then it is martyrdom. It’s on this point that many people have concluded that Romero isn’t a martyr. His killers (who were never brought to justice) may well have called themselves Catholic, and they may have viewed Romero as a political threat. So be it—the same is true for Becket’s killers. Both King Henry II and the knights who assassinated Becket were Roman Catholics. Henry was the one who appointed him to the archbishopric in the first place, after all.

Thus also for Óscar Romero. It’s simply untrue that Romero was a liberation theologian. His own personal secretary attested to his lack of interest in liberation theology, and he spent his last day on earth at an Opus Dei retreat led by his confessor (and successor as archbishop of San Salvador), Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a noted opponent of liberation theology. What Romero was was a lover of the poor and downtrodden. As such, he stood up to the brutal and inhumane political regime in his country, just as Fr. Popiełuszko did in his own. That’s not communism; that’s Christianity. And for it, Romero was murdered by a death squad while celebrating Mass.

All of this points to why the controversy of Romero’s martyrdom—whether it was political or religious—is founded upon a false choice. Such a view of the world misunderstands something basic about Christianity and the kingdom of God. Even in Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, we see a remarkable blending of faith and politics. Christ’s concerns are obviously religious ones, and he famously declares to Pilate that “my kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36). Nevertheless, Pilate reneges on his original plan to release Jesus when the Jewish leaders shout out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar” (19:12). So was Jesus put to death for religious or for political reasons? Both. And if our bar for what it means to be a martyr is so high that even Jesus may not pass it, something is obviously askew.

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