A Theology of Resistance?

Edgardo Colón-Emeric | Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor | Notre Dame Press | 2018

reviewed by Charles Hughes Huff

St. Óscar Romero was shot to death by order of a far-right death squad leader. In Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision, Edgardo Colón-Emeric presents this end in its context of a theology preached and practiced. He renders Romero as the first Latin American church father, a nouvelle liberation theologian practicing “ressourcement from the margins” for the glory of God in the lives of the poor. That is, he brings together the Second Vatican Council, with its focus on a renewed interest in the use of Scripture and Tradition adapted for a broad, multi-cultural Church, and the Second Episcopal Conference of Latin America at Medellín, which paved the way for a liberation theology from the heart of the institutional Church.

In one homily, Romero transforms a favorite Vatican II Irenaeus dictum—Gloria Dei, vivens homo, “the glory of God is the living human”—for a Salvadoran context—‌Gloria Dei, vivens pauper,“ the glory of God is the living poor.” Colón-Emeric sees in this ressourcement “a lightning flash that illumines an entire room, revealing previously unseen art and furnishings” (241) akin to the Transfiguration. In El Salvador, the Feast of the Transfiguration coincides with the feast of El Salvador del Mundo, a celebration of the founding of San Salvador. The glory of God seen in Romero’s Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology is the Transfiguration glory of Mt. Tabor, the hope for the transformation of everything human into full divinity.

Colón-Emeric presents the Archbishop of San Salvador as a model of fortitude: he stood with the church of El Salvador, especially the poor of that church. He rushed from airports to preside at masses. He visited cancer hospitals and remote villages. He stood with the campesinos, peasant farmers, and he died with them. Colón-Emeric explores the theological reflection behind these decisions, but at the same time stands at a distance from Romero’s political conflicts. Why did Romero refuse to attend the inauguration of President Carlos Romero? What was the significance of holding one unified mass for the entire country, with over 100,000 participants and 150 concelebrating priests, when Rutillo Grande, S.J., was murdered? Why were the radio stations that broadcasted his homilies bombed? Why was he shot?

These questions aren’t answered but lurk behind Colón-Emeric’s analysis of homilies (he summarizes many, perhaps too many, Romero homilies in this book), pastoral letters, journals and Salvadoran hymns, liturgies, statues, images, harrowing photographs of corpses, popular music, later testimonies of Salvadorans converted from gangs, and patristic (mostly Irenaeus) and liberation (mostly Jon Sobrino) side trails. The crucial question crops up in the chapter on Romero’s eschatology: how is it that the living poor are the glory of God? Is this merely a romantic gloss for human suffering?

Answering this question takes us to the heart of Romero’s integral liberation, which involves several movements: the church must always follow Christ’s kenosis, that is, his emptying himself and descent to human flesh in solidarity with human suffering and death, and seek out, live with, and prophetically amplify the voice of the poor. Christ becomes poor, his Mother is poor, he enjoins his disciples to a generous poverty, and he is most accepted and best seen by the poor. This position of evangelical poverty, of giving, of living with, seeing, and raising up the oppressed, is not only the wellspring of theological substance (a “locus theologicus,” 178), the community in which Christ becomes flesh, but a hermeneutical standpoint (the “locus hermeneuticus,” 234) from which the glory of God in human beings is best seen. And this is but one movement. Accompanying the poor also means fighting conformismos, passive capitulation to systems of oppression (237). Evangelical poverty means new, self-emptying action for the church’s wealthy, but also new action for the church’s poor. Romero sees in Isaiah that the age to come will include an abundance of food, places to live, and communities in which to rejoice. Christians must live with the poor but not accept their poverty. The second movement of glory is the integral liberation of the poor—integral because derived from and heading to transcendent glory, something beyond resistance, a deep meaning for each human life, but also resistance itself: standing for human rights, for food, shelter, and freedom from tyranny and violence.

As Colón-Emeric points out, Romero was accepting of any and all organizations that sought liberation for the poor, and saw in them, regardless of their political perspective, truth that the church should receive and emulate. At the same time, he vehemently rejected any attempt to reduce the church or the gospel to such political organizations. He rebuffed Marxism; he scoffed at the idea that there should ever be a proletarian church. Colón-Emeric presents this as a crucial tension: Romero’s absolute fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church in all its hierarchies and Romero’s revolutionary fortitude on behalf of the Salvadoran poor. Romero’s motto, sentir con la iglesia, thinking, feeling, experiencing with the church, specifically refers to the “church militant” (184), those faithful to the magisterium who destroy every kind of idol, whether JRG, the right-wing dictatorial regime whose death squads were responsible for much murder, including Romero’s, or FMLN, the left-wing guerillas fighting violence with violence, and “give earthly liberationist movements their true horizon, their true strength, their originality, their highest reach” (183). The integral liberation Romero offers, like Maritain’s integral humanism, insists on seeing the glory of God, Christ’s own face, in humans, in those most oppressed. For Romero, the church militant can only be the church kenotic. Romero’s resistance to the far-right and its death squads was a persistence with the poor in the teeth of the violence that took him. In his theological kaleidoscope of a book, Colón-Emeric ends with Romero as an icon who sees the crucifixion over and over in the suffering of his flock around him and reflects the glory of God that he finds and fights for there. Colón-Emeric pays careful attention to Romero’s homilies, Salvadoran liturgy and art that he encountered, and Salvadoran artistic representation of his era and legacy. (Given this emphasis, Notre Dame Press’s choice of the Westminster Abbey statue of Romero rather than one of the plethora of Salvadoran Romero images for the book cover is astonishing.) He presents a coherent account of Romero’s theology, an account that reduces him neither to his conservative commitment to the Church nor to his increasing passion for the liberation of the poor. Colón-Emeric’s commitment to summarizing and presenting Romero’s homilies, especially, say, sections that treat all of Romero’s homilies on the Transfiguration, leads to sometimes tedious repetitions of themes. At the same time, some of Colón-Emeric’s most-cited Romeroisms (including ‌Gloria Dei, vivens pauper), come from homilies not so summarized. In his focus on chronicling Romero’s theological thought, Colón-Emeric fails to provide adequate political context or even to discuss the significance of Romero’s political actions. For example, when he briefly mentions Romero’s refusal to attend “the president’s inauguration,” he does not actually say which president he means (two ascended during Romero’s time as Archbishop). He gestures to the importance of the political situation throughout the book but doesn’t adequately explain it or trace its relationship to Romero’s thought. 

This conservative bishop committed to the hierarchy, a devotee of Opus Dei (which also goes unmentioned), ended up defying the Salvadoran government, embracing a liberation theology, and dying a martyr. Romero’s theology was formed in response to the far-right government slaughtering unionizing farmers and the priests who stood with them. Romero is thus an example of how true commitment to Christian love undermines the win-at-all-costs tribalism inherent in many far-right movements. Colón-Emeric’s book is rich in liturgical and homiletical detail, but glides over the contextual politics of Romero’s political theology.

Charles Hughes Huff

Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.