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Is the Oscar Romero case asking the right question?

January 12, 2015

I have no doubt that Abp. Oscar Romero was a hero of the Catholic faith and the Salvadoran people. I have no doubt that he was murdered by soldiers in retaliation against what he bravely stood for, namely, Christian charity toward all. And I have no reasonable doubt that he is or is destined (hedging only because God works outside of time, so I am not sure what “now” and “later” exactly mean here) to enjoy eternal life with God.

Bearing that in mind, I thought that Pope Benedict XVI shared these basic views but was cautious about calling Romeo a “martyr” because the archbishop’s political enemies were clearly behind his murder—a view I thought at the time missed the central point. So what if the archbishop’s political enemies wanted him dead? Murder can still be martyrdom if, among other things, it is done in odium Fidei, regardless of whether other motives contributed to the deed. A pontifical commission seems to have reached this conclusion, too. I think they are, in that respect, correct.

But there is another question about the alleged martyrdom of Romero that I don’t see being squarely faced: traditionally, a martyr makes a choice to accept death instead of renouncing the faith. That is not quite the same thing as one’s being murdered because someone else hates the Faith. The martyr knows that death is not an abstract possibility but that it is facing him right here, right now, and that he can escape that death by renouncing the Faith right here, right now. My question about Romero’s murder, then, is whether his being ambushed at Mass satisfies that criterion of martyrdom. Yes, the man of God was gunned down because he proclaimed Christ in the midst of chaos—that, and other things of course, make him a saint. But does simply being murdered because someone hates our Catholic Faith make one a martyr?

I don’t know. 

Now, maybe the traditional understanding of martyrdom is not as cut and dried as I have come to understand it; if so, scholars can clarify that misunderstanding for us. Or, maybe the traditional understanding of martyrdom is not adequate for today’s complex world; if so, the Church can modify her understanding of martyrdom. But, maybe, the traditional understanding of martyrdom is clear, and is correct, and should be retained. Which would make Romero a magnificent saint, but not strictly a martyr.

I doubt the answer to this question makes much difference to Romero, but it would, I suggest, help us to think more clearly about Faith and life and death in this Valley of Tears. Especially as the question is bound to rise again.

Postscript: Yes, I am reasonably familiar with the Maximilian Kolbe and the Edith Stein cases. Without offering an opinion on them, may I say, they rest on significantly different facts than does the Romero case and they raise some different questions. Here I am looking only at the Romero case and those substantially like it.

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