Oscar Romero’s Opposition

Oscar Romero

In 1979-1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was a passionate, persistent, public, brave critic of the human rights violations by the government and the paramilitary groups in El Salvador.[1]

Such conduct did not go unchallenged.

Many local newspapers criticized Romero in hostile terms. They called him “a demagogic and violent Archbishop . . . who preached terrorism from his cathedral.” Sometimes the newspapers even made veiled threats like “the armed forces should begin to oil their weapons [to kill Romero].”[2]

The right-wing civilian and military personnel were angry about Romero’s pronouncements and viewed him as a subversive. In a February 1980 television address in El Salvador, Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former military officer, founder of the ARENA political party and organizer of death squads, included Romero and Attorney General Zamora on a list of “subversives.” Before the month was over, Zamora had been assassinated, and the church’s radio transmitter that was used to carry Romero’s homilies throughout the country had been destroyed with a bomb.[3]

Romero also received anonymous letters threatening his life. On March 10th a brief case with an unexploded bomb was found behind the pulpit at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart where Romero had preached the prior day.[4]

Another major player in the Salvadoran drama of this period was the Carter Administration and the United States Government. U.S. officials, believing that left-wing repression inevitably would be worse than that of the right-wing, were worried about the July 1979 Sandinista victory in Nicaragua and about a possible left-wing FMLN takeover in El Salvador.  As a result, the U.S. was providing financial and military support to the Salvadoran Junta. In addition, in February 1980, the U.S. helped to thwart a right-wing coup that was seeking backing from the U.S. The U.S. Embassy told “all conceivable participants in a rightist coup, particularly the military” that the U.S. supported the Junta and would terminate U.S. aid  if there were a coup.[5]

Romero in February 1980 publicly asked President Carter for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador and for a pledge of non-intervention.[6]

The very next day, February 18th, a bomb destroyed the church’s radio transmitter that carried Romero’s homilies throughout the country. The same day Romero received news that this homily had caused a “furor” at the Vatican.[7] Later that same week a U.S. diplomat visited Romero and explained what the U.S. deemed to be the legitimate reasons for U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Romero, however, responded that any kind of military aid would cause greater repression of the people because it was controlled by the Minister of Defense. In addition, Romero suggested that any military aid be conditioned on the Salvadoran government’s beginning to carry out its promised reforms. There is even the suggestion that the U.S. diplomat said, “If a stick [Romero] doesn’t break, you have to break it.”[8]

The formal U.S. response to Romero’s plea came in a March 11, 1980, letter from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. It rejected Romero’s plea for ending U.S. financial assistance to the Salvadoran government. Vance said the Junta had shown itself to be “moderate and reformist” and the “best prospect for peaceful change toward a more just society,” thereby justifying U.S. assistance to the Junta. The vast bulk of this assistance, Vance asserted, was economic support for reform efforts while the military assistance was “to enhance the professionalism of the Armed Forces so that they can fulfill their essential role of maintaining order with a minimum of lethal force” coupled with U.S. monitoring any misuse of the assistance to prevent injury to human rights of the people. [9]

Vance’s letter then made seeming compliments of Romero that, in my opinion, were veiled criticisms of the Archbishop’s actions. The U.S. hoped, Vance said, that Romero would “agree that a less confrontational environment is necessary to implement the kind of meaningful reform program you have long advocated.” (Emphasis added.) Vance continued, “The great moral authority of the church, and your uncompromising defense of human rights and dedication to nonviolence, place you in a unique position to use your influence with other people of goodwill in a cooperative effort to quiet passions and find peaceful solutions. . . . You have a major role to play in helping your fellow countrymen find peaceful solutions to their problems. May God give you wisdom and strength in this difficult task.” (Emphasis added.)[10]

Meanwhile, the U.S. worked behind the scenes to try to get the Vatican to muzzle Romero. In January 1980 National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski noted that the U.S. already had contacted Pope John Paul II about Romero and had suggested that the Pope be urged to call Romero to Rome for consultations. The U.S. State Department then prepared a draft letter for Brzezinski to send to the Pope that said Romero had rejected prior U.S. requests for him to support the Junta and that asked for “the wise intervention of Your Holiness to ensure that the Church plays the responsible and constructive role on behalf of moderation and peaceful change.”  Although it is unclear if this letter was ever sent, Brzezinski in early February 1980 had a personal communication with Pope John Paul II, his fellow Polish national, seeking help to restrain Romero and probably voiced some of the same sentiments. At about the same time President Carter had drafted a letter to the Pope about the more general U.S. concern that “[e]lements of the extreme left” in Central America were engaged in “violence and terrorism designed to destroy the existing order and replace it with a Marxist one which promises to be equally repressive and totalitarian.”[11]

Whether the Pope needed U.S. urging or not, the Vatican did attempt to restrain Romero’s public opposition to the Salvadoran government and military. On January 30, 1980, Romero was in Rome, where the Pope told him that although he understood the difficulties facing El Salvador and the need to defend social justice and love for the poor, Romero needed to be careful of ideologies that could produce greater violations of human rights in the long run. The next day the Vatican’s Secretary of State told Romero that the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican (Robert Wagner, the former New York City Mayor) had expressed concern over Romero’s apparent support of a “revolutionary line of action.” In part, these Vatican actions stemmed from Pope John Paul II’s opposition to liberation theology and its assertion that economic justice required deep structural changes to increase the power of the poor; for the Pope such thinking was too secular, too reliant on Marxist concepts of class warfare and too challenging to the authority of the Pope.[12]

Even the Salvadoran Conference of [Roman Catholic] Bishops did not support Romero. They had complained to the Vatican that Romero was too political. On March 11, 1980, a representative of the Pope came to see Romero to discuss the need for greater unity among the Salvadoran bishops. When Romero talked about the difficulties facing El Salvador, the papal representative expressed fear that the country’s popular organizations were communists. Romero said that he would be glad to yield on minor issues, but “never in my convictions about faithfulness to the gospel, the new directions of the Church and my dear people.”  The next day, March 12th, at a meeting of Salvadoran bishops with the papal representative, Romero set forth what he was trying to do, but the other bishops with the exception of Bishop Rivera, “were against the direction of [Romero’s] archdiocese.” And the other bishops surprised Romero by refusing to elect a Romero supporter (Bishop Rivera) as vice president of the conference and instead electing a Romero opponent (Bishop Aparicio), and by making what Romero saw as  “aggressive” attacks on him.[13]

Romero, however, had the support of many Salvadoran people and of Christians from other countries. He received honorary degrees from Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, in early 1978 despite opposition from the Vatican, and from Belgium’s University of Louvain, the oldest Catholic university in the world, in early February 1980. In addition, in early March 1980, he received an award from Sweden’s Ecumenical Action group.[14]

Nevertheless, Romero was increasingly threatened and isolated in early 1980. Yet he continued to speak out against the repression. He was not deterred by the death threats he had received. He said in early March 1980 to a Mexican journalist, “I’ve been threatened with death many times, but I should say that as a Christian, I don’t believe in death. I believe in resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. . . . A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” Romero added, “Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”[15]

[1] See Post: Archbishop Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011).

[2] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 128 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html%5B“Truth Commission Report”].

[3] Id. at 127-28.

[4] Id.; Oscar Romero, A Shepherd’s Diary at 441, 501 (St. Anthony Press 1993)[“Diary”]; Betty Glad, An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy at 254 (Cornell Univ. Press 2009) [“Outsider”]; Maria Lopez Vigil, Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic at 298, 359-60, 382-84, 395-96 (EPICA 2000) [“Mosaic”].

[5]  Outsider at 250-53; John A. Soares, Jr., Strategy, Ideology, and Human Rights: Jimmy Carter Confronts the Left in Central America, 1979-81, 8 J. Cold War Studies 57-67, 78-89  (No. 4 Fall 2006)[“Strategy”].

[6]  See Post: Archbishop Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011).

[7]  Diary at 493; James Brockman, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero at 202-09 (Orbis Books 1982).

[8]  Diary at 494, 496-97; Mosaic at 378-79.

[9]  Outsider at 25; Strategy at 87-88; letter, Cyrus Vance, U.S. Secretary of State to Archbishop Oscar Romero (3/11/80)[Carter Presidential Library].

[10]  Id.

[11]  Outsider at 250-53; Diary at 461, 468, 493, 524-25; Mosiac at 378-79; Strategy at 66, 87-88.

[12]  Outsider at 250, 252, 257-58; Diary at 465-69, 493; Mosaic at 374-76.

[13]  Diary at 438, 460, 494, 520-22; Outsider at 257.

[14]  Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements at 162-88 (Orbis Books 1985); Outsider at 257.

[15]  Mosiac at 396; Outsider at 255.

Published by


As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

Leave a Reply