Catholics’ clash over U.S.-Salvadoran policy in Romero’s time recalled

A flag with an image of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero is seen during a march prior to the 33rd anniversary of his assassination in San Salvador March 16. (CNS/Reuters)

A flag with an image of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero is seen during a march prior to the 33rd anniversary of his assassination in San Salvador March 16. (CNS/Reuters)

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The upcoming beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero has inspired many U.S. Catholics to book flights to El Salvador for the May 23 ceremony in San Salvador.

The long hoped-for event has also reminded many that Catholics and other religious groups implored the U.S. government to change its policy toward the Salvadoran government before and after Archbishop Romero was gunned down during a March 1980 Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador.

Throughout the 1970s, the U.S. government paid close attention to political upheavals in Central America. Among the factors driving policy decisions were fears that the Soviet Union would gain influence by propping up communist regimes, as it had in Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution. Populist movements in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were sources of concern, said Tom Quigley, former foreign policy adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It was a Cold War-driven policy, Quigley told Catholic News Service. Congressional and administration analysts feared the Central American countries would go the way of Cuba as it all but became a Soviet satellite following its 1953-59 revolution, he said, and the Soviets would gain a foothold in the Americas.

The administrations of President Jimmy Carter and later President Ronald Reagan supported military aid for the Salvadoran government to fend off insurgencies under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, an umbrella organization of five guerrilla groups.

While he had previously been thought of as a supporter of El Salvador’s ruling class, when then-Auxiliary Bishop Romero became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he emerged as a champion for the poor and an uncompromising critic of a government he said legitimized terror and assassinations.

While the new archbishop had no affection for the rebels, he strongly opposed North American military intervention or aid to a government he saw as oppressive.

“Many U.S. Catholics cited Romero in arguing for a change” in U.S. policy, said Theresa Keeley, a historian of foreign relations and religion and a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University.

First the Carter administration and then the Reagan administration in the 1980s “characterized the Salvadoran government as centrist and in need of U.S. aid to withstand attacks from both the right and left,” Keeley told CNS.


Archbishop Romero used his pulpit to denounce actions of the government including its use of death squads and other violence and military occupation of churches, said Julian Filochowski, chairman of the Archbishop Romero Trust in London.

U.S. bishops and their policy staff listened to Archbishop Romero and began to lobby their own government to stop sending military aid to El Salvador, Keeley said.

Then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, who was president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, issued a major statement in July 1977 on persecution of the church in Central America. That was followed by congressional testimony on behalf of the church that same month, focusing mainly on the threats against the Jesuit community in El Salvador, following the murder of Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, Quigley said.

“No one was in any doubt, least of all those in the State Department or the White House, that the official (U.S. bishops’) position was highly critical of much of U.S. policy toward the region and was especially opposed to the provision of military aid to any parties in conflict there,” he said.

“Despite requests from religious groups that Carter end military aid to El Salvador as Archbishop Romero implored, the Carter administration continued with its request for Congress (for) $5.7 million for military aid to El Salvador,” Keeley said. “In fact, the Foreign Operations Subcommittee approved the administration’s request the day after Romero’s murder.”

Though the U.S. bishops were inspired by Archbishop Romero during his three-year tenure as archbishop of San Salvador, they were incensed by his assassination and it galvanized them to press their country’s leaders even harder to change course on Salvadoran policy, Quigley said.

Among U.S. critics of American policy, the bishops led the field.

“Local, national and international radio and television units interviewed (U.S. Catholic leaders) on what seemed at the time an almost routine basis,” Quigley said. “In 1980 and 1981 alone, (the U.S. bishops) issued no fewer than 14 official statements or letters expressing opposition to military aid.”

The Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992) brought more bloodshed to El Salvador, especially after Archbishop Romero’s murder. In December 1980, four churchwomen — Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan – were raped and murdered outside San Salvador.

“It was really the murders of the churchwomen… that galvanized a larger number of U.S. Catholics” to begin protesting support for the Salvadoran government, Keeley said. A major guerrilla offensive in January 1981″did not see the kind of spike in activity as these murders did.”

The war also took a toll against non-combatants, including the Nov. 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuits and two women at Central American University in San Salvador.

“The U.S. government, in my recollection, had little to say about the several murders of religious in the region except for those who were U.S. citizens,” Quigley said. “The church, however, was active in pressing the human rights and religious freedom issues throughout the region.”

Despite reports of the savage murders of men, women and children in El Salvador, the U.S. continued to provide the Salvadoran government with weapons, money and political support into the early 1990s.

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