Barack Obama visited the grave of Oscar Romero today. That worries me

The TV news agency, Rome Reports, has reported that President Obama visited the grave in El Salvador of Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated on March 24 (today), in 1980 as he celebrated Mass. The report says: “Romero is widely recognised as a champion of human rights and the cause for his beatification is being reviewed in the Vatican”, adding that “Some have worried that Obama’s visit will shed an unnecessary amount of political focus on Romero that could affect his road to sainthood.”

President Obama’s visit would worry me too. When people bandy about the phrase “human rights” they often mean entirely different things. For Obama, it means the right of the world’s poor to “reproductive health” which, in turn, means giving them access to contraception and abortion. (I know some people want to separate the two words but it can’t be done; contraception can be abortifacient and abortion is widely seen as what happens when contraception fails.) When the Church uses the expression, she means the right to life, the right to be treated with dignity, the right not to be coerced into sterilisation programmes and so on.

I notice that Cafod’s London address is “Romero House”. That also worries me. Cafod, as pointed out by some of the posts in response to William Oddie’s excellent blog about Red Nose Day, is well documented as giving support to unethical contraceptive programmes in the Third World. Of course, they also do very good work to alleviate poverty but, as a friend once pointed out to me: “Would you eat a cake, otherwise excellent, if it had a sliver of glass in it?” So we have the Church, Obama and Cafod all meaning different things in one small phrase.

What about Oscar Romero himself, who appears to have been hijacked both by American Democrats and English left-wing liberal Catholics? I recently checked out a book about him by Scott Wright, published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll. Making allowances for the fact that it is written from the implicit assumptions of liberation theology, which tried to harness the Gospel to a Marxist interpretation of social justice, Romero comes over as a true martyr. In the three years of his time in office as Archbishop of San Salvador, from 1977 to 1980, he courageously and consistently put his own life in danger as he championed the poor people of his country, caught up in an endless, vicious cycle of violence in which they were, as he put it, “fated to disappear, to be tortured, to be held captive and to be found dead”. This was also true of several of his priest-friends, murdered by death squads, at whose funerals he wept.

His episcopal motto, interestingly, was “To be of one mind and heart with the Church”. Like Christ, the archbishop lived among the poor and outcast in a country, ostensibly Catholic, that was marked by extremes of wealth and poverty. In his homilies he constantly upheld the Church’s social teaching, knowing the hostility this would provoke. He admitted to his confessor that he was frightened to die but unafraid to speak the truth.

On January 21 1979 he told his congregation: “I wish to affirm that my preaching is not political. It naturally touches on the political as it touches people’s real lives, but it does so in order to illuminate these realities and to tell people what it is that God wants…” Today there is a statue of him by Westminster Abbey, next to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and near to Dr Martin Luther King. Wright comments: “Each of these three martyrs stood in solidarity with the oppressed and stood against the powers of the state, as it oppressed the Jews, the blacks, the Salvadorean poor.” Sometimes it is hard to disentangle the person from the politics surrounding them, and harder still to rescue a holy man from those who want to exploit his memory for their own ends.

I see Romero as a martyr and a man of God. Let the Church beatify him – but not feel that this means also making donations to Cafod.