New Saints: Paul VI and Oscar Romero

The Vatican announced last week that Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero will be canonized in October. My immediate reaction, on both counts, was satisfaction – though I’ve been trying to explain to myself exactly why.

Saints, of course, can have serious shortcomings. The Apostles abandoned Jesus when He needed them most, and Peter even denied knowing Him. But we sense that it had to be that way: Jesus had to be abandoned by all mankind, and it seemed, almost by the Father Himself, to reach the furthest depths – and thereby bring back up everyone and everything.

More recent saints, though, may give us pause. About Paul VI, for instance, there’s much that – to me – was of doubtful value. A cautious man by nature, he had Vatican II dumped in his lap when John XXIII died and he was elected pope. That and the whole mess of the 1960s and early 1970s was not something that a man of his background and character was well suited to face. Yet he’d been elected pope. Amletico – “Hamlet-like” in his indecision – is a phrase I’ve heard Italians use about him.


And they’re surely right, to a degree. He allowed himself to be used – and openly lied to – by liturgical reformers like Annibale Bugnini. (In his memoirs, Louis Boyer calls Bugnini “a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty.”) When Paul finally saw the light, he sent Bugnini as pro-nuncio – to Iran. But it was too late. Our liturgy was wrecked and is still waiting for renewal.

Paul was also deeply naïve, I believe, about global affairs. Populorum Progressio (1967) is a Jekyll/Hyde concoction: sound in its Catholic social principles, progressive to the point of uselessness in its (gratuitous) policy recommendations. Happily, all that disappeared without affecting much of anything.

But Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae the very next year. His Hamlet-like dithering about the decision probably made the reaction worse than it had to be. Still, he did the right thing, heroically, when nearly everyone told him he was wrong. If the Church had caved on contraception, marriage and family would have soon followed – as has happened in the liberal Christian churches.

God forbid that, after all that, we see a “new paradigm” for re-reading that encyclical on its 50th anniversary.

I was a Fulbright student in Italy the year Paul died and took my wife and parents to see him lying, very badly embalmed, in state. Even then, I felt he was at bottom a very good man who resisted a fatal error almost single-handed. The canonization process and miracles seem to confirm that.

He was a man out of his time and it’s hard to say why the Holy Spirit guided the papal electors towards him. But quite apart from controversies and errors, he kept his head about the main thing when all about him were losing theirs.

My attitudes towards Oscar Romero have been quite different – and changing. He was assassinated in 1980, a few years before I moved to Washington. Inevitably, in those Cold War years and the proxy wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and many other nations, you tended to judge a leader’s actions by how they shook out in the great East/West divide.

I didn’t know much about Romero, except that he was a hero to people I thought wrongheaded about almost every political question. I assumed he was of the same mold.

Twenty years later, when I came to write my book on the Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, I discovered I was wrong. In a way, Romero – like Paul VI – was a man ill-suited to the crisis in which he found himself. He came from a very humble background in El Salvador and rose to leadership through sheer intelligence and ability.


Unfortunately, that meant he was placed squarely in the middle of the armed conflict between Marxist guerrillas and a wealthy oligarchy not reluctant to use private death squads to repress the revolutionaries.

His emotional and mental stability suffered. He underwent psychological counseling – John Paul II called him to Rome several times to strengthen him in the struggle. Just prior to his being shot by a paramilitary assassin during Mass at a cancer center, he made a local retreat with Opus Dei – not exactly a hotbed of liberationist thought in Latin America.

When I read seriously into his life, I discovered several things I hadn’t previously suspected. He, of course, didn’t know what to do about El Salvador. No one did. Some of his priests had taken an unfortunate turn to preaching Marxism. He tried to reel them back in, but death squads knocked several off. On the other side, Romero knew Marxism would bring his people no good.

If you read through his sermons and pastoral letters, he walks a very fine line: truthfully denouncing the repression and injustice of the ruling clans but also the violence and ideological dangers of the Marxist guerrillas.

I was very careful not to canonize Romero in my book – that was up to Rome. Though it was translated into several languages, it never appeared in Spanish – according to Latin American friends because of my somewhat sympathetic pages on Romero. And my chapter on the martyrs during the Spanish Revolution put off the left-wing publishing houses. Such are the ideological divides, even in the Church.

It’s myopia, nonetheless, to see everything in political or ideological terms, and especially declarations of sainthood. The Vatican, no doubt, has complex reasons for canonizing these two men just now. Those are reflections for another day.

For now, it’s simply good that these two fellow Christians, who lived through some of the worst moments in recent decades for both the Church and the world, will be declared saints. And that we, who are also facing deeply troubling times, will be able to ask them to pray for us.


*Image 1: Paul VI mosaic, artist unknown [Rome]

**Image 2: Oscar Romero, artist unknown [El Salvador]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.