The Redemptive Personalism of Saint Oscar Romero
by Julia Smucker
On the day before he was killed, Oscar Romero, who on Sunday October 14 will be officially declared a saint in the Catholic Church, delivered an impassioned plea to members of the Salvadoran army:
Brothers, you are a part of our own people. You are killing your own brother and sister campesinos, and against any order a man may give to kill, God’s law must prevail: “You shall not kill!” (Exod. 20:13). No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to observe an immoral law. It is time now for you to reclaim your conscience…. In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise up each day more tumultuously toward heaven, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!
The significance of this famous entreaty goes beyond the appeal to nonviolence: the audience his plea was addressing was as significant as its content. In this and multiple other homilies throughout his tenure as Archbishop of San Salvador, Romero not only preached against the violent atrocities being committed in El Salvador during that time, but did so by appealing to its very perpetrators as human beings. These heartfelt appeals reflected a commitment to the principle of redemptive personalism – rooted in the recognition of the indelible humanity of all human persons, even those who commit the worst offenses against their fellow humans – which has broad implications for opposition to all forms of violence.
Central to redemptive personalism is the recognition that behind every act of human violence, there is a human person with a human conscience and human moral agency. Romero’s fundamental belief that no human being is irredeemable allowed him to hold out hope for a change of heart (in Christian terms, a conversion) on the part of those with blood on their hands, and not merely as a matter of personal devotion but one of public persuasion. Aware of the broad reach of his homilies, regularly broadcast by radio, he sometimes used them to address directly those responsible for carrying out the military-led government’s brutal crackdowns, calling them to choose a different path. In one homily a few years before his death, he invoked the murders of two fellow priests who had advocated for human rights, saying,
Who knows if my words are reaching the person whose hands are bloody with Father Grande’s murder or the one who shot Father Navarro? Who knows if I’m being heard by those who have killed and tortured and done so much evil? Listen, there in your criminal hideouts! Perhaps you are already repentant. You too are called to forgiveness! 
These appeals to conscience were deeply intertwined with the personalist conviction that nobody is beyond hope. Furthermore, coming from a context in which following one’s conscience against an unjust order often required great courage, they carry a weighty reminder that conscientious objection is always an option for those who are asked to participate in violence of any kind. Even in situations where conscience rights are not recognized, nobody can be forced to act against their conscience if they are willing to suffer the consequences of refusing.
Urging defection is tactical as well as principled, providing a nonviolent means of fighting against violent repression by appealing to the humanity of those perpetrating it, and thus siphoning it away, person by person, at the very source of the violent acts. The effectiveness of this tactic, at least as a tangible possibility, is demonstrated by the fact that Romero’s appeals to obey conscience rather than unjust orders were seen as enough of a threat to cost him his life.
A sense of humanity as something broadly universal and deeply personal was the basis of much of Romero’s thought and action, and remains an essential part of his ongoing example. His appeals to conscience over violence made him a threat. His willingness to sacrifice his life for his convictions made him a martyr, and for Christians, a model of the faith in action. And his consistency in seeing the humanity of all – from the earliest stages of human life to its natural end, and still encompassing even those who have brought human lives to violent and unnatural ends – make him a model for living and proclaiming a consistent ethic of life.
 Homily, March 23, 1980. Quoted in The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations, ed. Carolyn Kurtz (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2018), p. 13-14.
 Homily, December 18, 1977. Quoted in ibid, p. 44.
For more of our blog posts on notable people in history, see:
Courageous Woman: Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) / Julianne Wiley
Valentine Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass / Carol Crossed