Archbishop Romero’s pastoral letters have much to say on Marxism, why the Church rejects Marxism, why the Church’s social doctrine must not be confused as being Marxist, and yet also why elements of Marxist thought can be cautiously used to help inform Christians who, following their duty to the world, are trying to make it a better place to live.
First, Romero is very clear – the Church must reject Marxism, but he also makes it clear people need to understand what Marxism is and what it is not. “Marxism is a complex phenomenon. It has to be studied from various points of view: economic, scientific, political, philosophical and religious. One has, moreover, to study Marxism in terms of its own history. What the church asserts, and what, in its joint message of May 1, the episcopal conference has recalled, is that insofar as Marxism is an atheistic ideology it is incompatible with the Christian faith. That conviction has never changed in the church’s history. In that sense, the church cannot be Marxist,” Second Pastoral Letter, in Archbishop Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements. Trans. Michael J. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000),77. Looking at Marxism in this fashion, Romero reiterated this message in his Fourth Pastoral Letter: “Naturally if one understands by Marxism a materialistic, atheistic ideology that is taken to explain the whole human existence and gives a false interpretation of religion, then it is completely untenable by a Christian.” (145-6).
So why has the Church’s social doctrine often been confused as Marxist by its critics? There are two reasons. One, because the Church rejects all forms of economic materialism, including capitalism, as being too reductionistic. “The real problem, however, arises from the fact that alongside the traditional condemnation of Marxism the church now lays down a condemnation of the capitalist system as well. It is denounced as one version of practical materialism” (77). Thus, for those who think there are only two possible positions to follow, capitalism or Marxism, when they see the Church condemning capitalism, they assume that means it must be Marxist. Secondly, much of the Church’s social doctrine often echoes the concerns of Marxists, and so there is a false equation of the Church’s teaching with Marxism; indeed, many who do this seem to be the ones wanting to find a reason to reject the Church’s social teaching. “As several Latin American hierarchies have said time and again in recent years, worldly interests try to make the church’s position seem Marxist when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak” (78).
This realization can explain why one can have a practical engagement with ideologies like Marxism or capitalism. Romero points out, however, that one should not ignore the inherent dangers of doing so. “Such political praxis can lead to the absolutization of popular political organizations. It can dry up from the Christian inspiration of their members, and even cut them off from the church, as if the church had no right to exercise, from the perspective of its own transcendent ideology, a critical function in relation to political activities” (146). Thus the problem is turning any ideology into an absolute, which is what most often happens in the modern political situation and its desire to engage in political reductionism. “The church is not dedicated to any particular ideology as such. It must be prepared to speak out against turning any ideology into an absolute” (78).
Romero believed, as with the Church, that Marxism was a great threat for South America. He wanted people to understand it in all of its senses. This will help one understand why the Church’s teaching is not Marxist, even if, at times, there might seem to be some similarity between what a Marxist would want and what the Church’s prophetic teaching requires (the same, of course, is true with capitalism: the church affirms private property in a very limited sense, but many use the limited support and absolutize it in a way the Church does not). But, Romero points out, the only way the Church can defeat Marxism is to fully follow its social doctrine: “The best way to defeat Marxism is to take seriously the preferential option for the poor” (146). That, he believes, is the only way the temptation of the poor to become Marxist can be overcome.