A funny thing happened on the way to canonizing Romero.

Lots of interesting things were said during the Vatican press conference announcing the long-delayed beatification of Oscar Romero, which will take place before the end of the year. Romero was a "martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council," said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of Romero's cause for sainthood. He was murdered because he "followed the evangelical experience, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, of Medellin [and] had chosen to live with the poor to defend them from oppression," Paglia continued.

So why has it taken decades to move Romero's canonization process forward? "Misunderstandings and preconceptions," according to Paglia. While Romero was archbishop of San Salvador, Paglia explained, "kilos of letters against him arrived in Rome. The accusations were simple: He's political; he's a follower of liberation theology." Romero freely admitted it, Paglia said, but clarified: "There are two theologies of liberation: one sees liberation only as material liberation; the other is that of Paul VI. I'm with Paul VI."

That never convinced Romero's "enemies" at the Vatican--including conservative Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who died in 2008. For most of his career, Trujillo's bête noire had been liberation theology, which he identified with Marxism. Fearing that naming Romero a saint would signal the church's approval of a politics that was incompatible with Catholicism, Trujillo led the Latin American bishops who worked to stifle Romero's canonization case under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For years many assumed that both pontiffs shared Trujillo's view of Romero. But at the press conference Pagila said that the one who first "unblocked" Romero's cause was not Francis but Benedict--a confusing claim, because in April 2013, Paglia announced that Francis had unblocked the cause. So which was it? Did Benedict--the man who had warned against some forms of liberation theology--put the process back on track or did Francis? The answer, it turns out, may be both.

During last week's press conference, Paglia reported that on December 20, 2012, Benedict told him that Romero's case had moved from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where it has been languishing for decades, to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints. (In 2000, the CDF had been tasked with examining Romero's writings to make sure they were sufficiently orthodox. After no errors were found, Trujillo reportedly put the brakes on the process.) That in itself wasn't news. Back in 2013, Andrea Tornielli reported that Gregorio Rosa Chávez, an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador who worked with Romero, told a Portuguese magazine that in 2012 Benedict had asked Paglia to move ahead with Romero's case. Tornielli also reminded readers of one of the stranger episodes in the Romero saga--one I had forgotten about: The time Benedict told reporters that Romero deserved to be beatified but the official transcript of his remarks omitted those comments.

During a 2007 in-flight press conference, Benedict was asked about Romero's canonization process. He said he considered Romero a “great witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship and was assassinated while celebrating Mass. Consequently, his death was truly 'credible,' a witness of faith.'" The problem "was that a political party wrongly wished to use him as their badge, as an emblematic figure,” Benedict XVI continued. Whether Romero "merits beatification," the pontiff said, "I do not doubt." That comment was scrubbed from the transcript released by the Holy See press office, as though the dozens of reporters present for the remark wouldn't report it.

So apparently Benedict did want to see Romero beatified. But that was 2007. If he had no doubt that Romero should be beatified, then why did he wait five years to tell Paglia that the case was moving forward--news that was not reported until 2013? Trujillo died in '08, so if he was puppet-mastering the resistance to Romero's canonization, did someone else take the strings? Or was this another lever of curial power Benedict struggled to pull? And if Benedict had already unblocked the cause, why did Paglia report last year that Francis had unblocked it? Hard to say, but one could be forgiven for wondering about Benedict's commitment to Romero's cause.

But there's no need to speculate about Francis's. During the 2007 Aparecida meeting, Bishop Rosa Chávez told that Portuguese magazine, a Salvadoran priest asked Bergoglio about Romero. "To me he is a saint and a martyr," the future pontiff said. "If I were pope I would have already canonized him."

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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