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Salvadoran Martyrs: A Love That Does Justice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Thomas L. Schubeck
John Carroll University


Who are today's martyrs? Many Salvadorans call Archbishop Romero and the Jesuits and the two women killed at Central American University martyrs. Should they be numbered among the martyrs of the church? The author contends that it would be fitting for the Catholic Church to do so, based on the contemporary church teaching on martyrdom. Tracing the origin and development of the notion of Christian martyrdom from the New Testament to the present day, the author shows how Thomas Aquinas, the Second Vatican Council, Karl Rahner, and Pope John Paul II have contributed to the enlargement of the concept of the Christian martyr that fittingly describes the Salvadoran witnesses. Moved by love of God and neighbor, the martyr courageously endures death for bearing witness to the Christian faith that includes speaking the truth and doing justice.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2001

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1 The four churchwomen assassinated were Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. Even though this essay does not directly address their Christian testimony, this author has profound esteem for their witness of faith and would have included them, but could not because of the limitation of space.

2 The six Jesuits and two women assassinated on November 16, 1989 were Fathers Amando López, theology professor at the University; Segundo Montes, head of the sociology department and the Human Rights Institute, Ignacio Ellacuría, the rectorpresident and the primary target of the military assassins; Ignacio Martín-Baró, academic vice president and head of the psychology department; Juan Ramón Moreno, librarian and theology professor, Joaquin López y López, teacher in an education project called Fe y Alegría; Ms. Celina Ramos, a high school student; and finally Celina's mother, Mrs. Julia Elba Ramos, who cooked for the Jesuit theology students at UCA.

3 Code of Canon Law Annotated, Latin-English edition of the Code of Canon Law and English-language translation of the fifth Spanish-language edition of the commentary, prepared under the responsibility of the Instituto Martín de Azpilcueta, and edited by Caparros, E., Thériault, M., and Thorn, J. (Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur, 1993), Canon 1403 and pp. 1151–55.Google Scholar Beatification cases are also regulated by special pontifical law.

4 Woodward, Kenneth, “Slow up on saint-making,” The Tablet, 13 November 1999, pp. 1539–40.Google Scholar I agree with Woodward's observation on beatification that it should not be looked upon “as the final step towards something higher. Let it stand, rather for what it is: exceptional holiness recognized.” Hence, the essay focuses simply on beatifying these Salvadorans as martyrs.

5 See Bowersock, G. W., Martyrdom and Rome (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar What the author says about Antipas, John's “faithful witness” who was executed (Rev 2:13), applies to Stephen as well: “He was not a mártus because he was slain, but a witness who was slain.”

6 Croix, G. E. M. de Ste., “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” in Studies in Early Christianity: A Collection of Scholarly Essays, ed. Ferguson, Everett with Scholer, David M. and Finney, Paul Corby (New York: Garland, 1993), 1648 at 24.Google Scholar

7 Butler's Lives of the Saints, New, full edition revised by Doyle, Peter (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996)Google Scholar, Vol. October:116; Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome, 15–16.

8 Musurillo, Herbert, ed., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), xiii.Google Scholar

9 Ibid., 3–21.

10 Delehaye, Hippolytus, “Martyr et Confesseur,” Analecta Bollandiana, 39 (1921): 2049 at 38–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Fisichella, Rino, “Martyrdom” in The Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, ed. Fisichella, Rino and Latourelle, René (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 626.Google Scholar

12 Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, II–II, 124, 2, ad 2 (Matriti, España: Biblioteca, 1963).Google Scholar

13 Ibid., 123, 6.

14 Ibid., 124, 3.

15 Ibid., 124, 5.

17 Ibid., 122, 6. Adultery violates justice by breaking the trust between husband and wife.

18 Aquinas, Thomas, In Quattuor Libros Sententiarum, IVGoogle Scholar, dist. 49, 5, 3 quaest. 2 ad 11, at 11, in S. Thomae Aquinatis Opera Omnia, ed, Busa, Roberto (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann Holzboog, 1980).Google Scholar

19 Aquinas, S.T., II–II, 124, 1.

20 Justice for Aquinas basically means rendering to each person what is due. It has many dimensions, including God's justice and justification of human beings as well as various types of human justice.

21 Vatican II, Lumen gentium in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Flannery, Austin, 1988 Rev. ed. (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1987), par. 42.Google Scholar

22 Ibid., Aquinas, S.T., II–II, 24, 2–3; see also Fisichella, “Martyrdom,” 627.

23 Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, par. 21.

24 Hanley, Boniface, No Greater Love (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 1982), 13, 15.Google Scholar

25 Fisichella, , “Martyrdom,” 628.Google Scholar

26 Rahner, Karl, “Dimensions of Martyrdom: A Plea for the Broadening of a Classical Concept” in Martyrdom Today, ed. Metz, Johannes-Baptist and Schillebeeckx, Edward, Concilium 163:3 (New York: Seabury, 1983), 911 at 10.Google Scholar

27 Ibid., 10.

29 Ibid., 9.

30 Ibid., Norris, Kathleen, “The Virgin Martyrs: Between ‘Point Vierge’ and the ‘Usual Spring’” in A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints, ed. Elie, Paul (New York: Riverhead, 1994), 251–52.Google Scholar

31 In proposing this comprehensive concept of martyrdom, I recognize the need to test and perhaps refine the criteria for determining the martyr. This might be done by posing test cases to see whether the criteria are adequate or whether they need to be qualified. Should a Christian, for example, be considered a martyr who speaks out against the Mafia's criminal activities in Sicily or against a drug cartel in Los Angeles and then is assassinated? Does a single loving act on behalf of justice that leads to assassination suffice for being judged a martyr? Or must the action be consistent with the person's life commitment? These kinds of questions point to another element that is implied but not discussed in this essay: the role of the church, which examines the entire life of the person and makes the final judgment in light of the person's holiness.

32 The following materials present many statements about the witnesses' convictions, commitments, theology, writings, sermons, and positions. Brockman, James R., Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989)Google Scholar; Mons. Oscar Arnulfo Romero: su muerte y reacciones (San Salvador: Publicaciones pastorales del Arzobispado, 1982); Romero, Archbishop, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Introductory essays by Martín-Baró, Ignacio and Sobrino, Jon, trans. Walsh, Michael J. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985)Google Scholar; Ellacuría, Ignacio, Conversion de la Iglesia al Reino de Dios: para anunciarlo y realizarlo en la historia (San Salvador: UCA/Editores, 1985)Google Scholar; Sobrino, Jon, Ellacuría, Ignacio et al. , Companions of Jesus: the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990)Google Scholar; Hassett, John and Lacey, Hugh, eds., Towards a Society That Serves Its People: The Intellectual Contribution of El Salvador's Murdered Jesuits, Foreword by O'Donovan, Leo J. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Burke, Kevin F., The Ground Beneath the Cross: The Theology of Ignacio Ellacuría (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2000), ch. 1Google Scholar: “The Martyr as Theologian.”

33 Whitfield, Teresa, Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuría and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 109.Google Scholar

35 Gutiérrez, Gustavo, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), xiv.Google Scholar

36 Peterson, Ana L., Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion: Progressive Catholicism in El Salvador's Civil War (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997), 104.Google Scholar

37 Burke, ; Ground Beneath the Cross, 23.Google Scholar

38 Whitfield, , Paying the Price, 207.Google Scholar

39 Sobrino, , Companions of Jesus, 19.Google Scholar

40 Whitfield, , Paying the Price, 203.Google Scholar

41 Doggett, Martha, A Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1993), 24.Google Scholar

42 Schubeck, Thomas L., “The Reconstruction of Natural Law Reasoning: Liberation Theology as a Case Study,” Journal of Religious Ethics 20 (Spring 1992): 149–78 at 166–76.Google Scholar

43 Brackley, Dean, “Remembering the UCA Martyrs: Ten Years Later,” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, 16 (Fall 1999): 717, at 16–17.Google Scholar

44 Peterson, , Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion, 95.Google Scholar

45 Woodward, Kenneth L., Making Saints: How the Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 44.Google Scholar

46 Ibid., 41.

47 The church of El Salvador endured a persecution by the government that rivaled the persecutions by Trajan, or Diocletian. In the late 1970s, leaflets circulating around San Salvador read, “Haga patria, mate un Cura!” (“Be a patriot, kill a priest!”). Paramilitary death squads in fact killed between 1977–80 eleven priests and an archbishop, four U.S. churchwomen, missionaries of the Lutheran, Episcopal, Mennonite and Baptist Churches, as well as many more Christians who accompanied the poor. In 1977 the army closed down the parish church in Aguilares.

48 Brockman, James R., “Archbishop Romero, The United States and El Salvador,” America, March 24, 1980: 387–291 at 290.Google Scholar

49 Ellacuría, Ignacio, A sus órdenes, mi Capital” Editorial, Estudios Centroamericanos, 337 (November 1976): 640.Google Scholar

50 Hassett and Lacey, Towards a Society That Serves Its People. This book contains important articles by Ellacuría, Martín-Baró, and Montes.

51 Woodward, , Making Saints, 48.Google Scholar

52 Mater et Magistra, in Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, ed. O'Brien, David J. and Shannon, Thomas A. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), pars. 19.Google Scholar

53 Synod of Bishops, 1971, “Justice in the World,” in Catholic Social Thought, p. 289.Google Scholar

54 Browning, David, “Agrarian Reform in El Salvador,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 15 (1983): 399426CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Paige, Jeffrey M., “Coffee and Power in El Salvador,” Latin American Research Review 28 (1993): 740.Google Scholar

55 Lindo-Fuentes, Héctor, “Reading the Economic Signs of the Times in El Salvador,” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education 16 (1999): 1819.Google Scholar

56 Comblin, José, The Church and the National Security State (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 3940Google Scholar; Bonino, José Míguez, Toward a Christian Political Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 1721.Google Scholar

57 Romero, Oscar, Voice of the Voiceless, 184.Google Scholar

58 Rahner, , “Dimensions of Martyrdom,” 10.Google Scholar

59 Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM III), Evangelization in Latin America's Present and Future, Part One: “Pastoral Overview of the Reality That Is Latin America,” in Puebla and Beyond, ed. Eagleson, John and Scharper, Philip, trans. Drury, John (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 123–42.Google Scholar

60 Paul, John II, “Ex corde ecclesiae,” Origins 20 (4 October 1990): par. 32.Google Scholar

61 Brackley, Dean, “Remembering the UCA Martyrs,” 1617.Google Scholar

62 Doggett, A Death Foretold, 17.

63 Whitfield, Paying the Price, 217. In an interview on 28 March 1982, Ignacio Ellacuría said the following: “They can accuse me of being a communist, and I'm not one. They can accuse me of being a Marxist—I know Marx, as I know Hegel, Aristotle, or Zubiri. Yet I am not a Marxist. When they accuse me, I reply ‘I am a Christian.’ And a Christian is much more radical than any communist. Christianity understood in its purity is so radical that it is almost impracticable.”

64 Kolvenbach, Peter-Hans, “The Gospel's Reality,” Company 17 (Fall 1999): 8.Google Scholar

65 Romero, Voice of the Voiceless, 77.

66 Glavac, Cynthia, In the Fullness of Life: A Biography of Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. (Denville, NJ: Dimension, 1996), 98.Google Scholar

67 Ellacuría, Ignacio, “Human Rights in a Divided Society” in Human Rights in the Americas: The Struggle for Consensus, ed. Hennelly, Alfred and Langan, John (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1982) 5265, at 57–58.Google Scholar

68 Mayorga, Román, “Remembering the UCA and Its Martyrs,” Unpublished lecture given at Saint Louis University, 6 October 1999.Google Scholar

69 Whitfield, , Paying the Price, 209, 452 n. 22.Google Scholar

70 Ibid., 210.

71 Peterson, , Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion, 123.Google Scholar

72 Vigil, Mária López, Primero Dios: siete años de esperanza, Relatos de “Carta a las Iglesias” (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1988), 95.Google Scholar Quoted and translated by Peterson, Anna in Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion, 123.Google Scholar