book review, liberation, Oscar Romero

Romero’s Pastorals and Other Statements

A Review of:
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements
(Orbis Books, 1985)

The Volume
Voice of the Voiceless has a plurality of voices, but central to all of them are the concerns of Archbishop Oscar Romero. As a volume, the work functions as an introduction to Romero and his thought, while at the same time attempting to situate and legitimate him within Catholic tradition. Ignacio Martín-Baró introduces Romero and his historical context in a brief essay, but it is the justifying theological work of Jon Sobrino that gives the volume its dual purpose. In thirty pages, Sobrino, an established liberation theologian in his own right, gave “A Theologian’s View of Oscar Romero” that placed the martyr and his liberation theology strongly within Catholic orthodoxy. The importance of Sobrino’s work should not be underestimated. A fellow theologian’s evaluation is important, but this essay goes beyond such an endeavor; Sobrino wrote a justification to not only keep Romero and his work remembered, but that Romero’s legacy is the proper outworking of Catholic orthodoxy. Within the institution, a perfectly orthodox Archbishop lived and died for the Gospel – a liberation theology that made primary the preferential option for the poor. Thus, within fifty-one pages, and before the reader even begins the pastoral letters, instead of made voiceless by critics, Romero’s legacy is a challenging voice.

Romero’s four pastorals do fit within their genre as pastoral letters written to all. The first is both an introduction by Romero and a meditation on the Easter church. The second expanded on “The Easter Church” as the body of Christ in relation to the world. Written after Romero’s trip to Rome and his encouraging meeting with Paul VI, the third builds further upon church interaction with the world, specifically outlining a rubric for engagement with political organizations. The fourth, and last pastoral, introduces and interprets Puebla for the Salvadorians. The fourth is also in a line of continuity with the previous pastorals, serving as the most detailed outline for an ecclesiological politics.

Following the pastorals in the volume is a small selection of Romero’s other theological work: to Georgetown, acknowledging the honorary doctorate and calling for solidarity; to the National Council of Churches, outlining the backbone of a liberative ecclesiology in the face of violence; to Louvain, a political theology from the preferential option for the poor; a letter to then President Carter, calling him to cease sending weapons and training to El Salvador; and his last homily, stopped short by an assassin’s bullet.

Theological Themes
Romero begins his grounding of the church with the Easter story: “I wanted to dwell on the circumstances, both liturgical and actual, of lent, passiontide, and Easter that marked that ‘moment of replacement’” (115). As the church is formed by the foundation of the Christological passion and divine hope, it is the body of Christ today in the world and maintains the same Christological mission (65-69, 73-75). By remembering the Christological work of the cross and resurrection, and making such a memory singularly formative by way of scripture and tradition for the ecclesial community, the church embodies the life of Christ (57, 69-73).

After establishing the incarnational quality of the church, Romero can then properly situate the church politically, and indeed he does. While the church is not a political organization per se, it does have a political theology and life (78, 95-99). As the church is incarnated with the poor and seeks the justice of God’s rule, the political implications inherent to seeking the gospel in a broken world moves the church into an active push for liberation from oppression: the preferential option for the poor (71, 179-185). However, Romero lifts the voice of the poor without ignoring the rich. Romero does recognize the dialogical relationship between the oppressor and oppressed; he does not ignore the elite or oppressor, but rather notes that in the holistic liberation of the poor, the oppressor is rehabilitated as well as they are called into solidarity with the oppressed (66, 74, 97-99, 141-142).

Romero condemns idolatry, specifically the absolution of wealth and private property, of national security, and of organizations (122, 133-136, 173). It is this greed and idolatrous identification that generates disunity and oppression, so as to create a wealthy and powerful life for a few at the expense of many. Romero then challenges the status quo as he calls for structural change as he confronts the idolatry.

Romero, following the logical outcome of his Christological and ecclesial liberation theology, also condemns most forms of violence. He specifically notes institutional violence, arbitrary state violence, violence from the extreme right, and terrorist violence that work to the status quo and its idolatry (106-108, 142-144). He does make allowances for special circumstances, like certain forms of insurrectional violence and defense (108-109, 144-145). Romero more than once emphasizes a strong and resilient pacifism in the face of violence (110, 145).

Within such a Christological, ecclesiological politic, Romero addresses Christian involvement in political organization. While he respects the autonomy of the political sphere, he makes a careful categorical distinction between faith and politics and set limits on types of political involvement and in what direction that involvement may run (100-105): Christian political involvement must be “consonant with their faith” (101) – a faith that Romero argues is rooted in an Easter church.

Certainly this volume is not an all-encompassing systematic work; however, that is not the point of Romero’s work. Rather, he wrote a constructive backbone and the interconnections that a systematician craves, came as he lived it daily. Simply, this work under Romero did not academically mature, but it did reach a full maturity in actuality. The rudiments were constructed, as shown above, for a theopolitical, Christological life for the church. It was this foundation rightly set, in the right memory of the Easter story, that pushed towards a liberative orthopraxy and allowed for an ending (or perhaps beginning) in martyrdom. Christologically and ecclesiologically, Romero’s political theology reached maturity because Romero was mature in his faith and how he executed his office as Archbishop in continuity with tradition and official teaching. This is the argument that Sobrino makes in the introduction of the volume: this liberative theology lives because of its Christological nature and how it impressed itself upon Romero in his life and teaching.

The largest problem with the volume is the great magnitude to which it is historically determined. Even the theological moves that Romero makes, within his context, are largely conditioned by their culture, time, and geographical location. While the United States certainly still functions as a colonial power, and there are a multitude of conflicts all too similar to El Salvador during Romero’s work, Romero often can function as an example and encouragement, rather than speaking in guiding detail about another, later conflict. The response by the Vatican to liberation theology since Romero makes it also difficult to reach back to Romero in many ways. Sadly, this volume mentions nothing of the hierarchical obstruction.

Nevertheless, Romero’s voice is not gone, and neither are his theological moves, to both I am very sympathetic. Thankfully, his foundation for a political theology still seems viable. Indeed, the structure of Romero’s fundamental, political theology is a strong position for those carrying on in political theology. I find it coherent, convincing, and usable still. In fact, the built in flexibility inherent to Romero’s simple but nuanced theology gives him a piercing clarity into other theological projects; Romero can be joined to numerous other theologies without a great deal of trouble. I have previously used his work in just such a way.

I found this volume very helpful and if I were to introduce a person or a class to Romero or political theology (or a theology for social engagement), this is a book I would use. I might even begin with this book.

As an introduction, I do wish it ended with a small story about Romero’s assassination. For an introduction to Romero, one hundred and seventy pages after the essay on his life might have been too far from Romero’s last homily at the end of the book, but as someone familiar to his story, I thought it very fitting that the volume ended with his words. All in all I am very positive about this book. The largest complaint I have is that it could use an update.


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