When Pope Francis was elected last March, even doctrinally dissident Roman Catholics like me cut the former Argentine cardinal some slack. “I want to believe,” I wrote then, “that his history as an advocate for the poor will bring him to see that today’s church is spending an inordinate amount of time, energy and ultimately moral credibility persecuting homosexuals, feminists and other ‘heretics,’ while it’s de-prioritizing its core Christian (and human) mission of compassion and redemption.”
I think I made the right call. In an interview that his fellow Jesuits published last week, the Pope seemed to answer the prayers of Catholics who are frustrated at seeing their faith increasingly defined by intolerant retro dogma. “We cannot insist,” Francis said, “only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” He criticized his church’s mania for “small-minded rules” and urged it instead to emulate Jesus’ emphasis on serving the indigent and unfortunate among us.
Francis even clarified a remark he made over the summer regarding homosexuality — “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” — by confirming that he wasn’t speaking only of gay priests but of all gay men and women. That’s not just a welcome change of tone from Francis, who as an archbishop called Argentina’s 2010 legalization of gay marriage a Satanic “anthropological regression.” It’s potentially a theological game-changer.
At a minimum it’s a fresh, humane perspective — and one that should be taken especially seriously in the Pope’s native region of Latin America, where the church hierarchy seems more obsessed with eliminating condoms than alleviating poverty. A good way to start, at least from a potent symbolic standpoint, is to push particularly hard, from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, for the canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Romero was assassinated — gunned down inside a chapel in 1980 as he celebrated mass — for practicing then what Francis is advocating now. As civil war flared up in El Salvador in the 1970s, Romero had publicly called on the country’s reactionary oligarchy and its military enforcers to stop brutalizing the poor. In his last Christmas Eve homily, he implored Salvadorans to find the infant Christ among the nation’s hundreds of thousands of “children who go to bed with nothing to eat, among the boys who sleep covered by newspapers in doorways.”
Although Romero was no left-winger, everyone knew that even he was now a target of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads. But at that time, the Vatican was spooked by a Marxist trend among many Latin American clergy known as liberation theology. Rome made Romero even more vulnerable by seeming to lump him in with that wave — Pope John Paul II all but snubbed him — and 34 years after Romero’s martyrdom, church conservatives still campaign to prevent his sainthood.
The church definition of martyrdom, in fact, is their preferred technicality: They insist that Romero was murdered defending not his faith but his politics. But Francis last week defined exactly what Romero was defending – Catholicism, not communism. His Holiness may as well have issued confirmation that Romero was a 20th-century Thomas Becket. At this point, it’s simply a matter of rendering “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” into Spanish.
Until last April, efforts to beatify and canonize Romero had been blocked inside the Vatican. And It’s even more apparent now that Francis’ elevation as pontiff the month before played a large role in unblocking the process. The next step is for the Pope, who in May received a piece of Romero’s blood-stained vestment from Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, to formally declare Romero a martyr.
The next step for the Latin American church should be a lobbying campaign on Romero’s behalf before the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. But more important, that church needs to embrace Francis’ latest admonishments, especially if it wants to stop the mass exodus of Latin American Catholics to evangelical and other Protestant congregations.
I’m not naive enough to overlook the fact that Romero, like Francis, was ultimately loyal to Vatican doctrines that polls show most Catholics disagree with today. He publicly objected, for example, when El Salvador liberalized its abortion laws in the 1970s to allow it in cases of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is in danger. (The Vatican still bans abortion even under those circumstances.)
But, also like Francis, Romero seemed to understand that the church above all has to confront the destitution that so often prompts women in developing regions to seek abortions in the first place. Unfortunately, the Salvadoran church since Romero’s murder has been far more determined to reverse the country’s reproductive reforms than its poverty rate, which remains above 50% in rural areas. Abortion is now illegal again in El Salvador under any circumstance — and the country has hundreds of women in prison for having abortions, some serving sentences as long as 30 years.
In Latin America, that benighted situation is hardly unique to El Salvador. Which is why the region’s bishops and priests need to do more than bring samples of Romero’s bullet-torn vestment to Rome. They need to do a better job of carrying his example, and now Francis’, to their own backyards.