The Dark Side of John Paul II

On July 4, Pope Francis announced his approval for Pope John Paul II to be elevated to sainthood.

For many Catholics, his imminent canonization concludes the story of a man who was a visible and vocal leader of the Church who ended Communism, bridged the divide between other religions and Christianity, and facilitated the modernization of the Papacy. Some, however, might wish there were still an ordeal of fire to canonize John Paul, particularly Catholics in large swaths of Latin America. To them, he was little more than a powerful figure who abandoned the faithful in their time of need.


In the 1970s and 80s, El Salvador and Nicaragua erupted in a struggle for power between the wealthy elite who controlled the government and economy, and the disenfranchised poor. At this time, liberation theology had become a popular movement within the Latin American clergy and faithful. The Church, during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, had reaffirmed a commitment to the struggles of the poor and an opposition to structures of oppression and injustice.

Latin American bishops and priests began to form Christian Base Communities (CBCs), which served not only to promote the faith, but grew to establish grass-roots political organizations designed to bring about governmental change. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) formed after Nicaraguan youth and priests organized hunger strikes and protests. A number of priests joined the FSLN, including Ernesto Cardenal Martinez, who became Minister of Culture.

Throughout the Nicaraguan Revolution, Catholic priests implored the Vatican to condemn the government and their brutal death squads. Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in 1983, where he proceeded to criticize the “popular Church,” the CBCs, and the priests who supported the FSLN.

Ernesto Cardenal Martinez approached the pope during his visit and fell to his knees to receive John Paul’s blessing. Pope John Paul II pulled his hand away from Martinez and wagged his finger in his face and berated him, saying, “You must straighten out your position with the church.” Instead of support, Pope John Paul II offered a scolding. The FSLN came into power through elections in 1984, though the administration was threatened by CIA backed Contra rebels (a la the Iran-Contra affair). Through the revolution, around 10,000 Nicaraguans lost their lives, a small number compared to those lost in El Salvador.


Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977. The conservative priest was elevated to his new position, in part because the ruling families believed he wouldn’t support liberation theology that was sweeping through the country, and initially, they were right. Though the government of General Carlos Romero was brutal and repressive, with over 2,000 civilians killed by the military between 1978 and 1979 alone, Archbishop Romero was a conservative priest who didn’t agree with the politicized nature the more radical members of the Catholic Church.

This all changed after his friend and Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was assassinated by machine-gun fire. Soon after, a campaign was launched in El Salvador denouncing the clergy, with signs that urged: “Be a Patriot! Kill a Priest!” Archbishop Romero realized it was time to act.

While in Europe in February of 1980 to accept an honorary degree, Romero petitioned Pope John Paul II to condemn the Salvadorian government for supporting assassinations of priests. In less than three years, fifty priests in El Salvador had been attacked, while six had been martyred. Pope John Paul II refused to give support to the mission of Romero and his fellow priests. The morning of March 24, 1980, John Paul signed a letter to remove Archbishop Romero from his position. Ironically, later that day, Romero was celebrating mass when a gunman entered the chapel and shot him dead.

Though Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI praised Romero as martyr for the faith, they actively blocked him from sainthood. This effort to prevent Romero from being venerated by the masses presumably comes from the belief his assassination was politically motivated, rather than because of his religious preaching. In other words, the politics of canonization point to politics preventing canonization.

A few months prior to the revelation of Pope John Paul II’s forthcoming sainthood, the Vatican, to little fanfare, announced Pope Francis had “unblocked” the candidacy Oscar Romero, leaving it to only a matter of time before he becomes Saint Oscar Romero.

However, for many Latin Americans, it is too little, too late. The finger waving, unsupportive John Paul, no matter his other good deeds, is seen as a reminder of the negative influence of Church bureaucracy. From lay people, to nuns, to priests, Pope John Paul II was too timid and resulted in the prolongation of brutal regimes. Though up to 92 percent of Latin American nations are composed of Catholics, many have adopted their own customs and traditions to supplement those from a church that wagged its finger and left its faithful to fight a battle alone.

top photo credit: Hajime Nakano, Creative Commons/flickr

  • BigBlueWave

    The idea that Oscar Romero wanted a politicized Church is non-sense. I’m reading his diary right now. He was very adamant that the Church should not be partisan. He denounced injustices, but he was ready to denounce either side when it was necessary. The political situation in El Salvador was extremely polarized– it was difficult to adopt a middle course, which is what he wanted to do. And considering that Pope John Paul II bestowed the title of “Servant of God” on Oscar Romero, a first step in the beatification process, the claim he blocked it is a strange one indeed.