It’s just been announced that Pope Francis will beatify Archbishop Oscar Romero. And rightly so, since Romero was a holy pastor who was slain for defending El Salvador’s victims of repression while celebrating Mass in 1980. Much of the media (including outlets like the National Catholic Reporter or America), however, will use Francis’ decision as another way to bludgeon his predecessors. The pundits will almost certainly soon resurrect an ancient myth: that St. John Paul II, blinded by obscurantist Polish anti-communism, mistreated Romero. Let me deconstruct this fantasy in advance.
In his obituary published on John Paul’s death in 2005, John L. Allen Jr., a major voice of progressive American Catholicism, wrote that the pope “went on to discipline people risking their lives or careers to bring to Latin America the freedoms he himself wanted for Poland. Shabby papal treatment of El Salvador’s martyr-archbishop Oscar Romero is only the best-known example.”
In his History of the Popes, John W. O’Malley S.J. claims that John Paul was “displeased” with Romero, and only respected him posthumously by inaugurating his beatification cause.
Meanwhile, in the ABC made-for-television movie Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II, the pontiff, played by German actor Thomas Kretschmann, fanatically scolds Romero and tells him to be obedient to Rome. Only after the bishop’s assassination does he feel remorse and pray at Romero’s tomb in San Salvador.
These are just several examples of the enduring myth that John Paul II mistreated Romero. What really happened?
In Romero’s diary, we read about the two audiences John Paul II granted him, in 1979 and 1980. During the first meeting, Romero spoke of the difficulties of his ministry in a country lacerated by political violence. John Paul listened attentively, and compared these experiences with his own in Poland, yet encouraged “prudence.” Romero’s impressions were that the pope listened to him, but did express worry that John Paul II’s aides had told the pontiff critical things about him: “Although my first impression was not altogether satisfactory, I believe it was a most useful visit and talk, since he was very frank.”
Before the second meeting, however, John Paul’s collaborator, Argentinean Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, gave the pope a glowing report of Romero. The Holy Father encouraged the archbishop to fight courageously, hugged him and told him he prayed for El Salvador daily.
The future martyr was joyous. In his diary, he writes that he felt full approval from the pope and “God’s confirmation and his force for [his] poor ministry” and that the day was “filled with great satisfaction and much pastoral accomplishment.” Shortly afterwards, Romero quoted John Paul II in his Lenten homilies.
After Romero’s death, John Paul II defied prelates who painted him as a crypto-communist. After Romero’s assassination in 1980, he sent a telegram condemning the killing and sent his personal delegate, Mexican Cardinal Ernesto Carripio, to preside over the funeral Mass.
In 1983, he visited El Salvador. Latin American prelates begged the pope to not visit Romero’s tomb, yet during the motorcade he unexpectedly turned his popemobile towards the cathedral. It was closed, but John Paul II stubbornly waited until someone got the key. He then prayed at Romero’s tomb, praising him as a “zealous pastor who tried to stop violence.”
He prayed there again in 1996. During a 2000 ceremony in Rome’s Coliseum, some Latin American cardinals begged John Paul II not to invoke Romero as an American martyr. Wojtyła did so anyways.
Why, then, do we have this popular image of Pharisee John Paul II wagging his finger at Romero?
The people who promote this narrative want to use Romero as a tool to criticize John Paul II. They paint him as a reactionary anti-communist, deaf to the suffering of people living under right-wing dictatorships. They also want to criticize him for cracking down on heresy, including Marxist interpretations of liberation theology.
Naturally, that is a caricature. Yes, John Paul II was anti-communist. Even historians who dislike the Church admit that his visit to Poland in 1979 inspired the rise of Solidarity, which played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet empire.
But John Paul II was no Henry Kissinger in a white cassock. He visited many countries ruled by dictatorships where anti-communism was an alibi for tyranny – Brazil, Chile, Haiti, Paraguay, Cuba – and condemned oppression. These visits were often instrumental in restoring democracy.
Similarly, the view of Romero as a Salvadoran Camilo Torres is balderdash. As I have written elsewhere, in addition to condemning income inequality and the abuses of El Salvador’s junta, Romero also rejected a Cuban solution to his country’s problems and criticized Soviet imperialism and leftist terrorism.
There is no evidence that Romero read liberation theology (at most, it indirectly influenced him though his befriending of several liberation theology-inspired Jesuits). His homilies quote the Scriptures, papal encyclicals and documents of Vatican II and the Latin American Episcopal Conference, never Marxism or liberation theology, which he carefully avoided.
Some people close to John Paul II tried to slow down Romero’s beatification. The late Colombian Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo – former president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, a bold defender of the natural law – opposed Romero’s beatification because he believed he was killed as a result of anarchic political violence not in odium fidei. He was similarly skeptical about beatifying Pino Puglisi, an Italian priest killed by the mafia in 1993.
John Paul himself, however, never intervened to slow down Romero’s cause and in fact told American journalist Kenneth Woodward that the fact that Romero was slain while celebrating Mass for a deceased friend was sufficient to merit acknowledging him as a martyr.
Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Oscar Romero are among the greatest Catholic advocates for peace in recent history. We need to understand them both as they truly were, not paint their legacies using crude caricatures and distorting their true relationship – one of mutual appreciation and respect.