Pope Francis on Feb. 3 officially declared that Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated by a right-wing death squad in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador, was a martyr for the faith, clearing the way for his beatification.
The move ends decades of fierce debate over Romero’s legacy, but it was not a complete surprise: Francis, the first Latin American pope, has often said he thought Romero was a martyr worthy of consideration for sainthood.
But his view contrasts with the conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which viewed Romero as an icon of the theological left who was killed for political reasons because he spoke out against poverty and human rights abuses.
As a result, Romero’s cause for canonization languished in the Vatican’s bureaucratic limbo despite his great popularity elsewhere.
That is set to change. the Feb. 3 declaration by Francis stated that Romero was “killed in hatred of the faith.” On Feb. 4, the Vatican is scheduled to hold a news conference with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, a Vatican official who is promoting Romero’s cause for canonization.
Mention the concept of “nonviolent resistance” and two names immediately come to mind: Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who led his nation to independence from British colonial rule, and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the struggle for civil rights in America. Tragically, both champions of nonviolence were assassinated: Gandhi in 1948 and King 20 years later. Today many people throughout the world revere both advocates of nonviolence.
While Gandhi and King were largely successful in their efforts, the question remains whether nonviolent resistance is always the most effective strategy in the face of radical evil, injustice, and aggression. After all, there remains a thin line between nonviolence and martyrdom.
Professor Charles DiSalvo of West Virginia University has recently published “M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man Before the Mahatma,” an excellent study of Gandhi’s 20 years as a young attorney in South Africa where he faced anti-Indian stereotyping and bigotry.
Interestingly, Gandhi’s two closest friends were Jews he knew in Durban and Johannesburg. But despite Gandhi’s personal friendships and his commitment to freedom and security for his own people, he was indifferent, at best, or naive, about the Nazi persecution of Jews.
From the moment news broke that U.S. journalist James Foley had been beheaded by Islamic State extremists in the Middle East, many Christians, especially Foley’s fellow Catholics, began calling him a martyr, with some even saying he should be considered a saint.
Yet that characterization has left others uneasy, and the discussion is raising larger questions about what constitutes martyrdom.
Foley’s parents seemed to validate the martyrdom label when his father, John, spoke at an emotional news conference outside the family’s New Hampshire home and said he and his wife “believe he was a martyr.” Foley’s mother, Diane, added that her son “reminds us of Jesus. Jesus was goodness, love — and Jim was becoming more and more that.”
In an interview two days later with Katie Couric, Foley’s younger brother, Michael, recounted how Pope Francis had called the family to console them and in their conversation “referred to Jim’s act as, really, martyrdom.”
Numerous commentators had already picked up on that idea, holding Foley up not only as a witness to the Christian faith but as a spur for believers in the West to take more seriously the plight of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East who are being persecuted to a degree that some say is comparable to genocide.
But in the Catholic Church, determining whether someone is a martyr is not so easy. Historically, two conditions must be met.
[Editor's Note: In anticipation of the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, God's Politics will feature a series of posts on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.