VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis decreed Tuesday that slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in 1980 out of hatred for his Catholic faith, approving a martyrdom declaration that sets the stage for his beatification.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, approved the decree honoring one of the heroes of Latin American Christians at a meeting with the head of the Vatican's saint-making office.
Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was gunned down by right-wing death squads March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass. A human rights campaigner, Romero had spoken out against repression by the Salvadoran army at the beginning of the country's 1980-1992 civil war between the right-wing government and leftist rebels.
His assassination presaged a conflict that killed nearly 75,000.
Romero's sainthood cause had been held up by the Vatican for years out of concern over his perceived association with liberation theology, the Latin American-inspired Catholic theology that holds that Jesus' teachings require followers to fight for social and economic justice.
Under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched a crackdown on liberation theology, fearing what were seen as its Marxist excesses.
Francis was no fan of liberation theology, but his sympathies — concern for the poor, the marginalized and for social justice issues — are very much those of Romero, who like Francis was a conservative at his core.
Over the summer, Francis told reporters that Romero's case had been "blocked out of prudence" by the congregation, but that it had been "unblocked" because there were no more doctrinal concerns.
No date for the beatification has been set. Francis has all but ruled out celebrating it himself, saying recently that it would be up to the head of the saint-making office, Cardinal Angelo Amato, and the prelate who for decades has spearheaded Romero's cause, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, to decide who would get the honor.
Paglia was to meet with reporters Wednesday to discuss the historic case.
Unlike regular candidates for beatification, martyrs can reach the first step to possible sainthood without a miracle attributed to their intercession. A miracle is needed for canonization, however.
Traditionally, the church has restricted the martyr designation to people who were killed out of hatred for the Catholic faith. Romero's case lagged in part over questions about whether he was killed for his politics, or for his faith.
The decree signed Tuesday by Francis makes clear that Romero was a martyr in the classic sense, killed out of hatred for the faith.
But in discussing Romero's cause this past summer, Francis suggested that the definition of martyr could be expanded. Martyrs are typically killed in acts of anti-Catholic persecution, such as those slain during the Spanish civil war.
Francis told reporters during an airborne press conference that, with reference to Romero, he wanted theologians to study if someone who is killed for "doing the work for the other that Jesus commands" could also be considered a martyr.
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