The Roman Catholic Church

El Salvador Table of Contents

The Salvadoran Roman Catholic Church has been affected by the country's political and social turmoil. During the tenure of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez as archbishop of San Salvador (1977-80), the positions of the church, as expressed by Romero, drifted in favor of those activist Roman Catholics who advocated liberation theology. By the time of his assassination in March 1980, Romero had become the leading critic of official and unofficial repression in El Salvador. Judging by the content of his weekly homilies, some observers felt that his moral outrage over abuses committed by armed forces personnel and death squad forces was drawing him closer to a public recognition of the legitimacy of armed struggle against the government.

Romero, however, never spoke for a majority of the Salvadoran bishops. The only other member of the hierarchy at the time who was known to harbor some sympathy for Romero's proliberationist views was Arturo Rivera y Damas. Rivera, who had been a leading candidate for the archbishop's position in 1977 but was passed over in favor of the reputedly more conservative Romero, was a critic of government and military human rights abuses, especially when they involved the persecution or murder of Roman Catholic clergy or lay workers. Under Romero, he occupied a swing position between the activist stance of the archbishop and the more conservative attitudes of the country's three remaining bishops. Although they readily endorsed condemnations of military repression, the three bishops differed sharply with the thrust of liberation theology, which they saw as excessively politicized. Their concerns for the role of the church under a leftist government were strengthened by the example of postrevolutionary Nicaragua, where the traditional church was viewed by the ruling party as a rival and was harassed by the state security and propaganda apparatus.

Rivera succeeded Romero as archbishop in April 1980. He began to take the sort of moderate political stance that most observers had expected of Romero. Rivera spoke out against abuses by all parties and refused to take sides in the civil conflict. He initially advocated the cessation of foreign military aid to both sides. By the late 1980s, however, the church's position on this point had softened somewhat, owing to the ideological intransigence of the FMLN and the seemingly indiscriminate deployment of antipersonnel mines by its forces. In line with the position of the Vatican, Rivera sought to eschew political advocacy in favor of moral suasion so as to render the church a viable mediator in the conflict.

Rivera and other representatives of the church, particularly San Salvador auxiliary bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, have served as mediators in situations ranging from labor disputes to negotiations between the government and the FMLN-FDR. At President Duarte's request and with the acquiescence of the rebel leadership, Archbishop Rivera served as an intermediary throughout the fitful process of dialogue that began with the October 1984 meeting in La Palma. When that process broke down, the archbishop maintained contacts with both sides in an effort to keep tenuous lines of communication open.

By the late 1980s, the attitude of the Salvadoran hierarchy toward the guerrillas had hardened considerably. Public statements by Rivera and others condemned the insurgents' tactics in the field, their ideology, their political intransigence, and their efforts to disrupt the electoral process. The FMLN, in turn, denounced the bishops as tools of the "Duarte dictatorship" and questioned their fitness as objective mediators. Although they hinted that they might reject the church's participation in future negotiations, the leadership of the FMLN suggested in May 1988 that contacts between it and the Legislative Assembly be channeled through Rivera.

The church publicly supported the electoral process begun in 1982 and urged citizens to participate in it. At the same time, church spokesmen were quick to criticize the mudslinging nature of Salvadoran campaigning and urged politicians to stress substantive issues over personal attacks. Although they did not interject themselves as advocates or lobbyists, the bishops generally supported the reform programs initiated and maintained by the PDC government and opposed on moral grounds any effort by the elite to restrict or eliminate those reforms. In the tradition established by Romero, Rivera continued to condemn in his weekly homilies reported excesses by the military or security forces.

More about the Government and Politics of El Salvador.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress