VATICAN CITY — Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the outspoken church leader who was killed in 1980 as he celebrated Mass, has become as polarizing in death as he was in life.
The campaign to make him a Roman Catholic saint appears to be languishing as Vatican officials privately debate whether Romero was a martyr for the faith or for the political left.
The sensitivity of the issue was clear in remarks last May by Pope Benedict XVI, as he was flying to Brazil — his first visit to Latin America as pontiff.
Benedict told reporters that “Romero as a person merits beatification,” but Vatican officials removed that quote in an official transcript, keeping only the pope’s general praise of the slain prelate as a “great witness to the faith.”
El Salvador was headed toward civil war in 1977 when Romero was appointed archbishop of the capital, San Salvador. Suspected guerrillas and leftist opponents of the military-led government were being killed daily.
The archbishop responded with emotional homilies condemning human rights abuses by the dictatorship and paramilitary groups, and advocating for the many impoverished Salvadorans who were being terrorized.
“Every radio station in Central America was tuned to his broadcast, because what you had was a leader, a man of great passion and intelligence, who was telling the reality as the poor people of Central America perceived that reality,” said Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time. The day after Romero called on the nation’s military to halt its repression, he was shot while leading worship in a hospital chapel.
But the archbishop’s activism was not universally admired. Romero was pressing for social justice at a time when Vatican officials were battling Marxist-inspired liberation theology in Latin America. The archbishop’s work was of great concern in Rome.
Romero also had a difficult relationship with his fellow Salvadoran priests, and at one point the Vatican received a request to send an apostolic visitor to El Salvador to either replace Romero or appoint a superior to control him, according to Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, who wrote a 2005 biography of Romero called “Primero Dios.” The archbishop’s detractors within the clergy — in El Salvador and Rome — may still oppose his beatification.
It didn’t help that Romero became a political hero in the region; his image routinely appears on fliers next to Che Guevara and Salvador Allende — icons of the Latin American left. Vatican officials worry that elevating Romero could unintentionally advance a political agenda.
“There was the problem that a political side wanted — wrongly — to take him as their flag, as an emblematic figure,” Benedict said. “How should we rightly bring to light his persona, shielding him from these attempts to use him? This is the problem.”
Morozzo della Rocca, a historian at the prestigious Roma Tre university, says Romero didn’t embrace liberation theology and “wasn’t a revolutionary.”
“He wanted justice. It’s a different thing,” the professor said. “He wanted that this social justice occur without massacres, without war, without blood being spilled. He wanted a peaceful way.”
Morozzo della Rocca’s biography has helped allay some fears about his activism.
Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador and a close collaborator of Romero’s, says Morozzo della Rocca’s book has been key to Romero’s cause since it “proves how he was a bishop who was loyal to the church.”
Benedict cited “Primero Dios” during his in-flight news conference, saying the biography was “important” and that it had “clarified many points of the question.”
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviewed all of Romero’s writings as part of the beatification process to determine if he was doctrinally orthodox. Supporters say he cleared the review.
The Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has acknowledged the deletion of the pope’s endorsement of Romero’s beatification from the Vatican’s transcript. But he argued that the Vatican routinely cleans up the pope’s remarks and that the pope also “wanted to be very respectful” of the saints’ congregation, which is still considering the case.
Both Pope John Paul II and Benedict have said publicly that Romero was indeed a martyr for the faith, which means he could be beatified without the Vatican having to confirm a miracle attributed to his intercession. But the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has made no public determination on the question.
Another obstacle to sainthood lies outside the direct influence of the Vatican.
The U.N. truth commission on El Salvador reported in 1993 that Romero had been ordered killed by El Salvador’s notorious death squad leader, Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson. Today, El Salvador is governed by the conservative political party D’Aubuisson founded, the Nationalist Republican Alliance.
In July, the Salvadoran government said it would formally ask the Vatican to beatify Romero, although it would not accept responsibility for his slaying. El Salvador’s ambassador to the Holy See, Francisco Soler, called Romero a divisive figure during the war, but said the archbishop is seen differently after so much time has passed.
“I think we have matured dramatically in the last 12 to 14 years since the end of the conflict,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t think it (beatification) would be very disruptive.”
Still, Rosa Chavez said that beatification is unlikely to come quickly.
“Certainly, it’s something very complicated for the government to accept, that its founder organized the assassination of Romero,” he said during a recent visit to the Vatican.
“But the people themselves understand more clearly who Romero was. So I think the church prefers to wait a little, but I think the final decision is clear: Romero will be beatified.”