Last year Óscar Romero, martyred Salvadoran archbishop and renowned figure of the Catholic left, was canonised by Pope Francis in a ceremony in the Vatican. ‘The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred,’ Romero once wrote, ‘it is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.’ Three years later he himself was violently killed while giving Mass, on the instructions of death squad leader and far-right politician Roberto D’Aubuisson.
Romero eschewed politics in his youth, attempting instead to forge a ministry that found a middle ground between the activism of many Latin American priests and the traditional leanings of Rome. At the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia, bishops agreed to fight the ‘institutionalised violence’ of poverty and form bases in poor communities, taking ideas from the suppressed French worker-priest movement. It was also at this conference that they affirmed a ‘preferential option for the poor’, teaching that poverty and hunger were not inevitable — a commitment which would form the basis of liberation theology. Romero remained moderate and was known as a ‘stickler’ amongst his peers, his focus tending to lie with administrative tasks and paperwork.
In March 1977, that all changed: his close friend, the radical Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was murdered in Aguilares, his body filled with bullets by security forces. Romero cancelled scheduled masses to pray over Grande’s body and refused to participate in any official government ceremonies before the murder was investigated. A service Romero held for the priest, assassinated for his vocal criticisms of the authorities, attracted 100,000 worshippers. The Christmas that followed led to a particularly poignant sermon from Romero: a call to spend less during the festivities and to focus time, care, and attention on those nearby who had little. ‘Next to your house there is someone who does not receive a Christmas card,’ he said, ‘take them a plate of tamales.’ Romero’s new zeal to fight for the dignity of the poor led him to use the archdiocese’s radio station as an alternative to state media, reading out lists of assassinated individuals and calling for justice.
Poverty is a limit to life: the psychological strain of attempting to fill your children’s stomachs, pay your landlord on time, and keep bailiffs away from the doorstep expands like a fog to pervade all available mental space. The stigma of poverty compounds that strain, with the shamed silence that often proceeds from hunger and destitution leading to loneliness and isolation. Romero, who came from a background of poverty, instinctively understood this, and came to criticise the social structures that reproduced it. ‘A genuine Christian today’, he said, ‘has to unmask the social mechanisms that marginalise workers and farmers. Why is there only income for the campesinos, poor as they are, during the coffee harvest, the cotton, the sugar-cane harvest? Why does this society require farmers who have no work, badly-paid workers, people without a just wage?’
Two Great Evils
But it wasn’t only in poverty that Romero saw social ill. Wealth, and the accumulation of capital mistaken for personal worth and goodness was also subject to criticism in his sermons. ‘I see the two great evils of today,’ he said, ‘those who live so comfortably, so settled, so rich, that they are practical materialists. They don’t have time. They don’t care about analysing the dramatic situation in the country, and in their own conscience they are comfortable in their golden cages. And on the other hand, excessive poverty does not allow time to begin to reflect. What time is a poor man going to have who is thinking today whether tomorrow he will find work? And tomorrow early in the morning with his knapsack he goes out to look for work and instead of finding work perhaps he finds prison or disappears.’
These ‘two extremes’ he condemned equally: the extreme of poverty that consumes a person’s spirit and mental energy, and the extreme of wealth that inculcates greed and engenders a fear of losing accumulated worth. For Romero, ignoring your neighbours and arguing that people will be rewarded in the next life was an abdication of worldly and religious obligations. As the Marxist philosopher Karl Kautsky had put it, ‘the liberation from poverty which Christianity declared was at first thought of quite realistically. It was to take place in the world and not in Heaven.’
Kautsky, perhaps ironically known as the ‘Pope of Marxism’, had written a Marxist analysis called Foundations of Christianity in 1908. This followed Friedrich Engels’s own 1894 work On the History of Early Christianity. In it he would say that early Christians had ‘notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement’. ‘Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery.’ Christians working and campaigning to abolish poverty long predates Óscar Romero and liberation theology. The fight to prevent inequality tearing apart the fabric of society has always been a key component of the work of many Christians.
The conflict between more radical and conservative elements of the Catholic Church was described by Alasdair MacIntyre in his essay ‘Marxists and Christians’: ‘Where one does find social protest, it is always neatly balanced by the presence in the church of defenders of the status quo. The vast mass of church members are unradical middle-class people. Thus the church milieu in which the Christian lives and the motives which lead people to the church will be socially conservative. This will intensify the strain upon those Christians whose values do lead them into conflict with the existing order, especially young Christians. What sort of question will confront them?’ Many decades after Romero’s death, the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and more left-wing Jesuit priests remains sidelined, while right-wing traditional Catholics berate Pope Francis for his alleged ‘communism’. In reality, his statements have rarely been radical, and those that are tend to be denounced swiftly by the Vatican press office as misspoken.
But this hasn’t prevented Francis from being a sign of encouragement for many of the young people finding a renewed interest in Christianity in recent years. Similarly, interest in other faiths, and astrology, tarot, and other forms of spirituality are also on the rise. In one sense the reasons for this are obvious: many millennials feel a sense of emptiness in their lives, having found many of the traditional social milestones out of reach. Few can afford to buy a home, or pay for a wedding, or even spare the time to find a partner. People long for meaning outside of everyday mundane tasks, and desperately want to connect with other people.
‘Our social structure’, MacIntyre wrote, ‘will generate in individuals’ deep anxiety about status.’ He prophesised that young people would continue to be drawn to religion ‘to celebrate the great movements of birth and death and marriage’, where there were no rituals in the secular world to match. ‘Only religion’, he would say, ‘seems to give meaning to those occasions which are felt to be important.’ Many others turn to religion out of fury at the levels of poverty in supposedly affluent societies, finding in radical theology the courage to make common cause with the poor and powerless.
The militant atheism of people like Richard Dawkins has little to say to people who feel this way. It is no surprise such a vulgar rationalism fits so well with the neoliberal worldview, or that it provided succour to neoconservative warmongering in the figure of Christopher Hitchens. The poor of the world remain overwhelmingly believers, even as more elite layers become increasingly secular. As French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre wrote, atheism has a tendency to become ‘aristocratic’, whereas ‘the idea of a great Being that watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is altogether popular.’ A left that is incapable of communicating with Christians and other people of faith will always be exclusive. As we seek to build broad alliances in favour of a new social order in the coming years, we will find many believers in our ranks. They will be people who work against poverty, for unionisation, and the rights of workers, and are as worthy as any atheists as organisers of the Left.