Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Oscar Romero, Martyr

Today (February 3) the Holy Father received in audience the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints and authorized the Congregation's promulgation of a decree acknowledging the martyrdom of Servant of God Oscar Romero (1917-1980), who is now officially declared to have been killed out of hatred of the faith (ucciso in odio alla fede).

Romero's cause for canonization has been vigorously advocated by many (especially in Latin America) for quite some time. It has also, however, been something of a political hot potato, because of continued controversy about how to interpret his role in the complicated political conflict of the time. Romero was one of some 75,000 who may have met violent deaths during El Salvador's notorious civil war. His murder inevitably associated him with one side in that civil war, despite the fact that he was in many ways a priest of very traditional piety and was hardly a Marxist in any philosophical sense.

Politics aside, the substantive concern about acknowledging Romero as a martyr was whether his murder met the traditional criterion of being done out of opposition to the faith. It could be argued that he was killed because of his political advocacy, that his killers (presumably also at least nominal members of the Church) were motivated more b political hatred than by religious hatred. 

There may indeed be something to that argument. But could not one say something similar about the case of Saint Thomas Becket, for example? Becket, after all, was killed as part of a power struggle between the Church and England's King Henry II. While the rights and freedom fo the Church were in some sense at stake, the presenting issue was whether civil courts should have jurisdiction in criminal case over clergy or whether they should be exempt from such jurisdiction and subject solely to the disciplinary authority of the Church. Not only does the Church no longer make such claims in the modern world, but in today's climate is increasingly challenged to cooperate completely with civil authorities in criminal cases involving the clergy.

Of course, Becket was murdered in his own cathedral where he was about to celebrate Vespers, a sacrilege which shocked Christian Europe. Undoubtedly that strengthened his cause. But, of course, Romero was also sacrilegiously killed - in his case, in the very act of celebrating Mass. In both cases, the sacrilegious character of the crime contributes to the presumption that the killers were attacking him as a religious figure. Certainly his political opponents were attacking a political enemy, whose opposition they recognized as motivated by religion. Likewise, Romero's opponents were certainly attacking someone they saw as a political enemy, but a political enemy whose religious motivation they implicitly acknowledged by murdering him as they did at Mass.

Other recent causes (e.g., Saint Maria Goretti and Saint Maximilian Kolbe) have also amplified our understanding of the appropriate criteria of martyrdom. The case of Archbishop Romero, whose beatification we may now confidently expect to follow sometime soon continues this important development in our appreciation of martyrdom in the life and mission of the Church.

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