In the 1970s, in the face of government injustice and violence in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero led the church and everyday people into the public square with moral courage. He paid the price and was shot and killed in 1980 inside a church while he celebrated holy communion. Romero was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2018. In this interview with Edgardo Colón-Emeric about his book “Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor,” we discuss what Romero teaches us about facing today’s challenges of injustice and abuse of political power. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Colón-Emeric was installed as dean of Duke Divinity School in September 2021. He is also a professor of reconciliation and theology and director of the Center for Reconciliation.
MCC UN Office: What moved Romero to publicly criticize government and military leaders, in spite of the risk?
Colón-Emeric: When Romero became archbishop, he felt responsible for not only the archdiocese but for the church and people of El Salvador as a whole. There was also the murder of his friend, a fellow priest, by a government death squad, which happened at the beginning of his tenure. His homilies changed—there was no stepping aside, no going around the unjust realities of his context. He had the sense “this is what I’m here for.”
How did Romero think the world of politics needed the church?
Colón-Emeric: Romero understood life in this world in its complexity as a concern of the church—politics, economics, government action. This was different from partisan politics which favours one platform over another. Romero publicly affirmed what was good in a particular political option, and critiqued what is not right. He spoke directly to three platforms—the government, the opposition on the left and the oligarchy. The latter, he said, the church simply must reject; it is out of line with human dignity. The left had elements that could be affirmed and others rejected. For Romero, the church must not yoke itself to any political platform, keeping its independence. Only in this way can the church be of true service to the world of politics.
You write that “when it comes to the ‘voiceless,’ the choices for those in positions of privilege are constricted to either paternalism or silence. Advocacy has reached an impasse.” How did Romero navigate this?
Colón-Emeric: For Romero, the church is the voice of the voiceless, not himself. For him, Christ identifies himself with the voiceless, so Romero saw a Christological dimension to the church’s advocacy. The church needs to first of all listen to Christ speaking through those who are not heard—not because they lack a voice, but because they are excluded, not given a microphone, not given social standing. The church listens to the Spirit speaking through the voiceless. That was the importance of Romero publicly reading letters from victims of atrocities, whose family members disappeared. He literally invited them to the microphone. So it’s not that they are voiceless, but rather that they are not given a hearing. The church is called to be a microphone kept close to those who are not heard by the world. For Romero, then, there is a mystical dimension to advocacy work.
Some say advocates need to get access to power to make change happen. Others say advocates must keep distance to maintain a prophetic voice. What about Romero?
Colón-Emeric: Historically Catholicism in Latin America had access to power and jealously guarded that access. As Archbishop, Romero had the access which traditionally came with the office and yet he distanced himself in important ways. If too close to power, the church cannot serve the country well. It loses its power to illuminate reality, like a flashlight pressed against the wall. The church has to pull back for the light to show what is happening. Romero’s homilies were heard all across the country. He became very appreciated by some, but also rejected by others and ultimately killed. The prophetic word will inspire crisis—some will receive it, and some reject it. In sum, for Romero, the promise and perils of advocacy are measured not so much in terms of distance from the levers of power as in terms of intimacy to God.
Was Romero effective? Did change happen in El Salvador during his lifetime?
Colón-Emeric: In some measures, Romero’s ministry failed. A civil war lasted for decades after his death and the country is still polarized. While he was alive, the civil war did not happen, it was kept at bay. Romero was holding out hope for a different, deeper solution. El Salvador is a very Christian country. The abusive police, the oligarchs, the corrupt officials, all were baptized. So he saw the problem as a betrayal of baptism, and called for a renewal of the baptismal vocation. He also believed solutions have to come from people. Romero saw his role as telling people the truth about God and about El Salvador. One expression of this truth was the importance of the “violence of love”. It is an enigmatic expression. It speaks of a love that is not simply passive. It is an active, powerful force. It will not let go, not let any obstacle get in the way of achieving the goods that love aspires to. While committed to nonviolent solutions to the countries’ problems, Romero also spoke of the “violence of nonviolence” and “holy aggressiveness” of the disciples gathered at the Transfiguration. Not saying “God will take care of it” but love driving you to extremes—extremes of love, self-denial, going against the current, actions that go beyond the pale, as a lover will never say “that’s too much.” This is what love looks like in a world that is against God. Was Romero effective? God was effective through him and the people of God in El Salvador in witnessing to love and sowing seeds of justice and peace.