HE WAS ALREADY a popular saint. For years the faithful have congregated every Sunday for mass by his tomb in the crypt of the cathedral in San Salvador, inspired by the man they called San Óscar or San Romero de América. Now it is official. On October 14th in Rome, Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero was canonised, almost 40 years after he fell to a gunman’s bullet while finishing a private mass at a chapel that is today a site of pilgrimage. He had recited the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
If it took the Vatican almost 40 years to recognise Archbishop Romero as a saint, that is because his example has been controversial. Often seen as ideologically left wing, he was above all a martyr for his faith and his church. Born in a modest household in a mountain village, he was regarded as a conservative when he was named archbishop in 1977. It was his country’s circumstances that made him a radical.
El Salvador had been ruled by the army and a coffee oligarchy for almost half a century. In the 1970s their grip was challenged by left-wing trade unions and peasant groups, with help from radical priests. Nowhere else in Latin America did “liberation theology” have a bigger impact. At a conference in 1968 Latin American bishops had adopted the liberation theologians’ “option for the poor” and denounced the “institutionalised violence” of capitalism and poverty. “We should not be surprised that ‘the temptation for violence’ arises in Latin America,” they went on.
That seemed to describe El Salvador, where the army blocked peaceful change. In 1972 a reformist coalition was denied victory in a presidential election by fraud. The left took up arms. As guerrilla groups emerged, they were met with repression, backed by the United States. The church was a particular target: 12 priests were murdered before the archbishop, and others were later.
Archbishop Romero said he had to defend the church, and that meant criticising the ruling junta. “We do not overlook the sins of the left,” he said weeks before he died on March 24th 1980. “But they are proportionately fewer than the violence of the repression.” The day before he was killed he had beseeched: “no soldier is obliged to obey an order to kill if it is against the law of God.” The ferocity of the repression in defence of what he saw as an unjust regime had led him to the verge of proclaiming a just war. When a dictatorship “closes all channels of dialogue…the church speaks of the legitimate right to insurrectional violence,” he said.
That was perhaps morally defensible. But it was politically problematic. The guerrillas were too weak to protect their supporters. More than 60,000 were murdered by the army and its allies. But had the guerrillas triumphed militarily, they would almost certainly have tried to impose Cuban-style communism in El Salvador—in denial of the human rights that Romero championed.
Instead, his martyrdom would eventually contribute to a different outcome. El Salvador descended into civil war. But his murder, ordered by an army-linked death squad, and that of three American nuns months later, brought international condemnation of the junta. Even as it continued aiding the murderous regime, the United States would slowly push for a democratic transition and coax the army to accept a peace deal, signed in 1992. It offered El Salvador hope of a fresh start.
Tragically, that has been dashed. Gang violence makes El Salvador one of the world’s most violent countries and the economy is stagnant. In a country named for the saviour, prosperous citizens have never been prepared to pay the taxes needed to provide public security and equal opportunity.
Liberation theology can boast some lasting achievements. It was a catalyst for the human-rights movement in Latin America. It trained a generation of grassroots leaders who have fought peacefully for social justice, and have helped to put the reduction of inequality on the region’s political agenda. But it ultimately failed. It didn’t offer a way out of poverty because it was anti-capitalist and championed collectivism. Many of the poor prefer the messages of self-betterment offered by evangelical Protestantism.
Four decades after San Óscar’s murder the church has preoccupations other than social justice. Its credibility has been damaged by its cover-up of abuse by paedophile priests. The church today needs champions as saintly and beloved as San Óscar.