Óscar Romero, Pope Francis and Liberation Theologies

This past Tuesday, February 3, the Óscar Romero Roman Catholic Church officially recognised the martyrdom of the Salvadorian Archbishop Óscar Romero. Fifteen years after he was assassinated in the middle of mass, the Pope’s decision brings Romero one step closer in being declared a Saint. While many hoped he would be declared a martyr much earlier, some suspected this process was delayed by Romero’s association with Latin American liberation theology.1

In Latin American,2 liberation theology was a movement that began in the 1960-70s, emphasising the ‘preferential option for the poor’. This was developed in light of the great divide between the rich and the poor, the extreme corruption in many Latin American governments, and the oppression of the poor and the vulnerable. The Vatican in particular was not very enthusiastic about it because many of its originators, people like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Jon Sobrino, and Leonardo Boff, tended to utilise Marxist ideas in their formulations.

It must be noted that Romero initially was not very fond of liberation theology. In a sermon in August 1976, for example, Romero preached against ‘new Christologies’ – reacting directly to a newly published book by the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino.3 Hence, many progressive Catholics were not very enthused when Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. However, Father Rutilio Grande, his good friend and a progressive priest known for his work among the poor, was gunned down just three weeks after Romero’s appointment. Grande’s death had a significant impact on Romero. From that day forward, the Archbishop would be known for speaking out against poverty, social injustice, and assassinations. He would be killed three years later while offering mass – the day after challenging soldiers and police officers to not obey orders to kill innocent lives.

Does this mean Romero was a Marxist? No. In fact, several months before his death, Romero preached against the oppressive reality of Marxism, its atheist orientation, and its emphasis on political praxis. He also preached against the oppressive reality of Capitalism. He writes:

[I]t must not be forgotten that some anti-Marxist declarations and courses of action that Christians may make can turn into support for capitalism.… And in concrete terms, capitalism is in fact what is most unjust and unchristian about the society in which we live.4

The best way to fight Marxism, Romero believed, was with the Christian understanding of the preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable.

It is great to see the compassion of both Archbishop Óscar Romero and Pope Francis, both of whom have been labeled advocates of liberation theology.  Even the Roman Catholic church now uses the phrase ‘preferential option for the poor’ in many of its documents.  This does highlight, of course, that there is a spectrum of liberation theologies (in the plural), which include Marxist orientations as well as those of Romero and Pope Francis.5  Moreover, other forms of Latin American Christianity – including Evangelicalism6 and Pentecostalism – have developed very strong social consciences.  After all, you would think that Christians should be the ones who show the same kind of compassion that Jesus called his followers to live out.

  1. This was part of the subject of an interview I had with BBC Radio Scotland on 7 February 2015. 
  2. Though ‘liberation theology’ is best known within its Catholic, Latin American variant, there are quite a number of liberation theologies around the world, from North American Black theology, to South Korean Minjung theology and Indian Dalit theology. 
  3. Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978), originally published in Spanish in 1976. 
  4. Óscar Romero, Voice of the Voielesss: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 146. 
  5. The first official Vatican document warning of the dangers of Latin American liberation theology came out in 1984. Even then, the Vatican recognised the multiplicity of what they termed ‘theologies of liberation’. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”‘, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith August 6, 1984, available online
  6. David Kirkpatrick, a PhD student of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity in the University of Edinburgh, has recently blogged about the Ecuadorian Evangelical René Padilla and his social teaching, misión integral, or integral mission.