The Beatification of Oscar Romero: Liberation Theology, Division within the Church, and Catholic Social Thought

Today, a new saint has been added to the Church’s repertoire of holy men and women to be venerated. The creating of a new saint is a big deal. It is, both implicitly and explicitly, a declaration that this man or woman’s life is a model of how to live the Gospel, their teachings (for the most part) are in line with Biblical and Magisterial teaching, and that, in general, this person is a model of Christian holiness.


There have been, in fact, two saints beatified today – Pope Paul VI and the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero. Depending on who you speak to, this is either a high point for the Church or it is a dark day which showcases everything wrong with the Francis papacy. Both of these men are taken to be heroes of the theological left within the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI, for example, was the Pope who oversaw the Second Vatican Council after the death of the Pope who called it to order (Pope John XXIII), and who afterwards promulgated a series of new liturgical rubrics to be used by the Church, those used by the majority of Catholics today. For liberal Catholics, Pope Paul VI is to them what one of the ungodly number of popes named Pius are for traditionalists – he is seen as the epitome of all that they stand for. Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI gave the Church a much-needed update, bringing it out of the way things had been within the Church up until that point, which was, in their view, dominated by legalism, blind obedience to tradition and authority, and a hatred of all things outside of the Church, particularly all things modern. Further, the form of worship he promulgated was geared more towards fostering a sense of community, thereby allowing the average, everyday Catholic in the pews to be more aware of what was going on during worship, even to actively participate. More theologically moderate Catholics (centrists and conservatives) have a slightly different view. While not thinking badly of the late pontiff, they also reject the narrative put forward by the left. Vatican II was not meant to abandon or change any Church teaching, but rather was meant to use what is best in the modern world as a means by which to evangelize. The more modern or contemporary forms of worship within the Church were meant to promote active participation, without in any way watering-down the traditional principles governing Catholic worship. All of this was what was intended by Pope Paul VI, which is very different than how things turned out. Moderates in the Church claim that the far-left, borderline heretical interpretations of the Second Vatican Council which use the Council as a perpetual excuse to  change the traditional teachings of the Church, and the liturgical abuses which have taken part in certain sectors of the Church over the course of the past 50 years, is not what was intended by Pope Paul. Thus, while recognizing the problems involved in his papacy, moderates in the Church reject many of the false and radical ideas or movements which both his supporters on the far-left and his opponents on the far-right attribute to him, and, in line with their more moderate interpretation, hold up the teachings and actions of Pope Paul as being nothing more and nothing less than a variation on the larger struggle against the errors of modernity and the attempt to rechristianize contemporary Western society undertaken by most Popes since the dawn of the modern era. Traditionalists, on the other hand, have been loosing their minds in the days and weeks leading up to Pope Paul VI’s beatification. They see the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reforms that took place afterwards as the cause of all the problems that have plagued the Church over the past 40 or 50 years. The contemporary liturgy – which lacks the sense of beauty that the older forms of liturgy had (and which, according to some, may even have certain heretical beliefs built into its rituals and prayers) – along with the watered-down form of Catholic theology being preached from the pulpits is one factor among many in the decline in mass attendance and priestly ordinations. Further, unlike moderates, who claim that all the problems within the Church are caused by a misinterpretation of the teachings of the Council, traditionalists assert that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council itself are problematic, or even outright heretical. The view of ecumenism promoted by the Council walks too close to the heresy of indifferentism, and the Council’s view on religious liberty is an outright contradiction of traditional Catholic views on religious liberty and the relationship between Church and State. Pope Paul VI is either the Pope who saved the Church from itself, the most misunderstood Pope in modern history, or the man who single-handedly destroyed the Church.


Archbishop Romero, on the other hand, is seen by liberals as a martyr par excellence. He devoted his life to helping the poor and fighting against a corrupt and totalitarian regime, and died while celebrating mass, shortly after delivering a sermon in which he condemned some of the recent abuses by his government. For traditionalists, Romero is seen as one of the highest examples of liberation theology, a Marxist or pseudo-Marxist ideology attempting to pass itself off as authentic Catholic social teaching. These attitudes can be seen in the past two popes, with Pope Benedict XVI seeing Romero as a political radical whose interpretation of Catholic social thought leaned too far to the left, while Pope Francis, a native of South America, was heavily influenced by Romero. [1]


Yet, these controversies did not prevent over 70,000 people from attending the mass that beatified Romero, Paul VI, and five other saints. [1] The beatification process of Romeo in specific has been caught in an on-again off-again situation since the late 1990’s. This process was often interrupted by events within the Church, such as the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. Yet, the beatification process was also slowed down by Pope St. John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict XVI’s reservations about Romero’s close connections to liberation theology. It was only under Pope Francis that Romero has been on the fast-track to sainthood, with Pope Francis declaring Oscar Romero to be a martyr in 2015. In a May 19 meeting with the cardinals, Pope Francis finally approved the canonization of Archbishop Romero. [2]

Critics claim that Romero’s canonization is an implicit endorsement of liberation theology. Liberation theology first emerged in the middle of the 20th century, and is a theological system which asserts that we need to interpret the Bible in light of the struggles of the poor. Taking their lead from Matthew 25:40-46, supporters of liberation theology state that since how we treat one another has a major impact on our relationship with Jesus, particularly with regard to how treat the poor and the oppressed, helping the poor and the marginalized is thus a major part of our personal salvation, and the oppression of the poor is one of the worst or most offensive sins in God’s eyes, based on texts such as Malachi 3:5. Jesus ultimately came as a liberator of the poor (as seen in such texts as Luke 4:18), and all Christians have a duty to continue Christ’s mission and fight against all forms of social injustice. Liberation theology first became popular among Catholic theologians in South America, and was inspired by the political turbulence that marked that region in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During this time, populist regimes came to power in places like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil which were defined by strong nationalist tendencies and were permeated by capitalist undertones. As they promoted industrialization, the rich and middle class living in the urban areas saw their wealth increase, but the economic state of the poor living in the rural regions began to either stay the same or get worse. Hence, during this time, many members of the poor and working class began to mobilize against these regimes, who then often resorted to the use of military force to suppress the political activity of their own citizens. Many of these countries became de facto dictatorships. The resistance to these governments quickly took on a religious undertone as the Church got involved. Several Catholic organizations formed throughout South America dedicated to helping the poor. Similar organizations formed among other religions as well, such as the Protestant organization Church and State in Latin America, which worked closely with several Catholic organizations. The Catholic Church in that region officially endorsed these efforts during the second meeting of the Council of Latin American Bishops, held in Medellín, Columbia in 1968. Certain ideological trends became common among supporters of these movements, and they were systematized by the works of the Peruvian-born scholar and priest of the Dominican Order Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez lectured widely throughout the 1960’s, with a particular focus on applying the teachings of the Second Vatican Council to the plight of the poor in South America, and in December of 1971 published one of his best known books, A Theology of Liberation, which was one of the earliest and most influential texts in liberation theology. In spite of gaining much popularity, it also drew much criticism for making use of Communist economic policies in order to implement its ideologies. [3]


Whereas Gutiérrez and those who came before him were some of the ideological influences on liberation theology, Archbishop Romero was one of the prime examples of liberation theology in practice. Yet, this is an oversimplification. Born in 1917 in the city of Ciudad Barrios, in northeastern El Salvador, Romero began to study for the priesthood at a young age, entering into the minor seminary as a teenager, before entering into the national seminary in the capital city of San Salvador. Upon his graduation from the seminary, he attended the Pontifical Gregorian University, one of the most prestigious schools of theology in Rome, and was ordained a priest a year after graduating, in 1942 (at the age of 25). After being called back to his home country, he would spend the next almost 30 years as a parish priest, as well as a rector of the seminary in San Salvador, the editor and later the director of a newspaper associated with the Archdiocese of San Salvador, and as the secretary to the Bishops’ Conference of San Salvador. In 1970, at the age of 53, he was appointed to be the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, and in 1974, he was appointed to be the Bishop of Santiago de María, a poor rural region in eastern El Salvador. In 1977, at the age of 60, Romero was appointed to be the Archbishop of San Salvador. At first, Romero was theologically, politically and socially a conservative. It is for this reason that the government in that region did not have a problem with Romero’s appointment to the episcopacy, and why the people often took issue with Romero’s appointment. Yet, shortly after his appointment to the position of Archbishop of San Salvador, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande – who Romero had ordained and with whom he was close friends – was assassinated for his attempts to help the poor. From that point onward, Romero dedicated the rest of his career to speaking up for the poor in his country. He dedicated his sermons and other public speeches to pointing out the various abuses brought about by the government, especially against the Church and those involved with the poor. He continued to do so until he was assassinated in March of 1980, while celebrating Mass in a chapel attached to a local hospital. [4]


Romero’s relationship with liberation theology is complex. Monsignor Jesus Delgado, who served as a secretary to Romero while bishop, said that Romero was asked whether he supported liberation theology. Romero answered, “Yes, of course. However, there are two theologies of liberation. One is that which sees liberation only as material liberation. The other is that of Paul VI. I am with Paul VI.” [5] The implication here seems to be that Romero, like the opponents of liberation theology today, was criticizing liberation theology for reducing Catholic theology merely to some socio-economic plan to help the poor. True liberation was what was promoted during the Second Vatican Council and in the theology of Pope Paul VI. In proclaiming the Gospel anew in the modern world, we take part in both the spiritual and material uplifting of the people. This was true liberation.


Recent studies of Romero’s pastoral documents while bishop also reveal much about his underlying mentality. Romero was, as the theologian Michael Lee pointed out in a recent biography on the late Salvadoran bishop, a strong believer of the notion that the leaders of the Church were responsible for the good of their people. Caring for the good of the people, within the context that Romero found himself, included protecting the poor against the oligarchy that ruled his country at that time. [6] On the other hand, Monsignor Delgado noted that Archbishop Romero was not that well-versed in the thought of liberation theology. He rarely read the books he owned by supporters of liberation theology or about liberation theology, and some of these texts he never read. He was, however, well-read in the works of the Popes and the Church Fathers, and his personal spirituality placed a strong emphasis on ecclesial unity and thinking with the mind of the Church. He condemned Marxist thought as “giving a false interpretation of religion,” and as being “untenable” from a Christian perspective. He further claimed that the methods used by Marxists to obtain their goals were incompatible with the Gospel message. Finally, he condemned the use of violence, even in resistance to the totalitarian regimes at that time, except in extreme circumstances. This even included the more radical supporters of liberation theology. Romero was thus described by the Catholic journalist Filip Mazurczak as an orthodox bishop whose legacy has been “obscured by ideology.” [7]


Romero was a good man who was able to empathize with the poor. At the very least, he understood the importance of Christ’s command to love our neighbor, especially the poor. But, having the desire to do what was right is not enough. Some of the more radical branches or schools of thought within liberation theology are misguided attempts to live out Church teaching, particularly on social, political and moral issues.


When all is said and done, when the dust has settled on many of the controversies within the Church – including those surrounding the Papacy of the current Pontiff – we can look back on our recent past with a more objective lens. Concerning the life or Romero, both sides have a certain ideological agenda. Whichever side history shows to be wrong, they will most probably not give in. But, even granting that certain aspects of liberation theology are problematic (which is an objective fact), and even granting that Romero was one of them, Catholic still know, by looking to Scripture and Tradition, what the guiding principles of Catholic social and moral thought are. One of the most basic principles was articulated, ironically, by Romero himself:


I put my whole love under the loving Providence of Jesus’ Heart and accept my death with faith in Him. Nor do I want to give it as an intention, as I would like, for peace in our country and for the flowering of our Church…because Christ’s heart will give it the destiny He wishes. It is sufficient for me, to be happy and confident, to know with certainty that my life and death are in Him. And, my sins notwithstanding, I have put my trust in Him… [5]


Through faith and Baptism, we die and rise with Christ. We can do so because Christ has died and risen for us. This showcases the immense love of His Most Sacred Heart. God’s Providence is rooted in the immense and infinite love expressed by the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thus God orders His Providence in accordance with His love. The Christian faith is not a social or political agenda to be fulfilled by human striving alone. Human destiny is determined and unfolded in accordance with the provident and loving Will of God. The Christian faith can thus, if anything, be reduced to this: confidently placing our trust in the loving care of God, and, moved by this, serving as vessels of Divine love, mercy and justice.



  1. Hanna Kozlowska, “Pope Francis names two controversial saints: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI,” in Quartz, October 14, 2018. Accessed on: https://qz.com/1423561/pope-francis-names-new-saints-bishop-oscar-romero-pope-paul-vi/
  2. Joshua J. McElwee, “Archbishop Romero, martyr, to be made saint at Vatican ceremony Oct. 14,” in National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2018. Accessed on: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/archbishop-romero-martyr-be-made-saint-vatican-ceremony-oct-14
  3. There are a few good resources that briefly describe the early history of liberation theology. One is a brief essay titled “A Concise History of Liberation Theology,” by Leonardo and Clovodis Boff (originally published as a part of the book Introducing Liberation Theology, published by Orbis Books, 1987), accessed on: https://liberationtheology.org/library/a-concise-history-of-liberation-theology.pdf. Another brief source is the article, “What is liberation theology?”, by Kira Dault, in U.S. Catholic, October 2014. To learn more about the Medellín Conference, see the entry for the Council of Latin American bishops found in the website of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, accessed at: https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/organizations/council-of-latin-american-bishops.
  4. Again, there are a wide variety of good online sources on Oscar Romero. One reliable source is the biography found on the Romero Center Ministries, accessed at: http://romero-center.org/archbishop-oscar-romero/. Another good article is, “Oscar Romero: Bishop of the Poor,” by Renny Golden, published in U.S. Catholic, February 2009, accessed on: https://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/oscar-romero-bishop-poor.
  5. Rocío Lancho García, “Archbishop Oscar Romero: Pastor and Martyr,” published on Zenit, February 4, 2015. Accessed on: https://zenit.org/articles/archbishop-oscar-romero-pastor-and-martyr/.
  6. Fr. Roger Haight, S.J., “How Oscar Romero theology sheds new insights on his life,” published in America: The Jesuit Review on June 5, 2018. Accessed on: https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/06/05/how-oscar-romeros-theology-sheds-new-insights-his-life.
  7. Filip Mazurczak, “Archbishop Romero and Liberation Theology,” in National Catholic Register, May 7, 2015. Accessed in: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/archbishop-romero-and-liberation-theology







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