Oscar Romero of El Salvador: informal adult education in a context of violence

picture: archbishop oscar romero (from a public domain source)Oscar Romero of El Salvador: informal adult education in a context of violence. John Dickson explores Oscar Romero’s place and impact as a socially involved educator. He examines key aspects of the social and historical background; the means and extent of Oscar Romero’s teaching ministry; and Romero’s confrontation with the dilemma facing all authentically revolutionary adult educators: violence.

contents: introduction · el salvador · oscar romero · cebs – base communities · oscar romero – educator and mobiliser · death squads · oscar romero challenges the us president and the salvadoran military · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article

“Cese la represion!” Oscar Romero March 24th 1980

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador (1917-1980) provided moral direction to a grassroots movement for social change, over which he had no or only limited control. With all the tools at his disposal Archbishop Romero sought to pierce the silence of repression and inform the population at large of ‘the facts’. Oscar Romero’s stance ultimately cost him his life.

Why should educators be interested in a relatively obscure Catholic Archbishop who was shot to death in a tiny Central American republic over 25 years ago? Perhaps the words of a rather more famous Latin American may serve to elaborate the significance: Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet famously uttered words to the effect that “We have nothing against ideas. We’re against people spreading them.”

Oscar Arnulfo Romero, or Archbishop Romero of El Salvador as he is better known, was both a man of ideas and a man intent on spreading them. Given the social context of El Salvador in 1980 his ideas were seen as revolutionary – a threat to the status quo. It is unclear to what extent the works of fellow Latin American Paulo Freire were known to Oscar Romero. However by his actions he demonstrated an increasing alignment with Freire’s assertion (1976) that, “whereas the task of the educational system in the old society was to maintain the status quo, it must now become an essential element in the process of liberation…the basic problems in education are not strictly pedagogical, but political and ideological.”

So, what were the dangerous ideas Archbishop Oscar Romero espoused? Concern for civil and human rights, and the advocacy of justice for the poor and truth in the public domain were bound to bring him into conflict with powerful interests. Romero could variously be described as a ‘prophet of the people’, a mobilizer and a voice speaking against and into a violent void.

El Salvador

During the mid to late 20th century the destruction of the El Salvadoran peasant economy, and the creation of a “proletariat… wholly or partially dependent on wage labour for survival” (Pearce 1986: 11) altered the mediaeval nature of the social milieu in important ways. However, in contrast with more ‘modern’ societies, religious belief remained, and still remains a “[central] part of the world view” of most Salvadorans (Martín-Bar? 1990: 96). In this context the voice of an Archbishop with credibility amongst the populace has a resonance and authority extending into all spheres of life.

Historically, some sectors of the Christian church have been active in solidarity for action towards a more just society. As Diamond (1989: 262) asserts, religious experience is not necessarily reflected as “a passive acceptance of oppression” (Martín-Bar? 1990: 97), other pertinent factors need to be considered:

… any experience designed to intensely change one’s self-concept and beliefs about one’s relationship to others has an intensely political utility. The direction a spiritual movement takes depends entirely on the political persuasion of its participants, especially its leaders (Diamond 1989: 262)

Liberation theologian Gustavao Gutiérrez utilises Gramsci’s analysis in describing the radical theologian as: the “organic intellectual” who exercises the prophetic function of denouncing social injustice (1973: 174). By word and action Oscar Romero exercised his function as teacher, pastor and informal mobiliser to unmask and denounce the ‘culture of silence’ imposed upon the oppressed majority by an oligarchic minority-unaccustomed to opposition from such quarters. In doing so he was forced to confront a genocidal military-armed, trained and financed to a great extent by the United States of America [1]. El Salvador’s close proximity to Nicaragua was of course the central factor in that equation.

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated of the five Central American republics, with its 5.5 million inhabitants unequally sharing a land area of 21,400 sq km. About 60% of the population lived in rural areas. In 1978 the International Commission of Jurists estimated that 60% of the land was owned by a 2% oligarchy (all figures cited in Arnson 1982: 5). Reflecting these disparities, El Salvador in 1979 had the lowest per capita income of any nation in the western hemisphere bar Haiti. According to International Labour Organization (ILO) research conducted in 1984, El Salvador, “had one of the highest rates of labour under-utilisation (open unemployment as well as under-employment) in the Americas” (cited in Pearce 1986: 30). The authors of the ILO report, drew attention to the political implications of their analysis:

Far from the East-West conflict it is sometimes represented to be, the present [civil] war seems more accurately portrayed as the open explosion of the class antagonism between agricultural workers and the landowners… (ibid.: 43)

Given that the US Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan administration told the Washington Post in January 1982 that the decisive battle for Central America is under way in El Salvador” (cited in Arnson 1982: 83). The ILO’s assessment seems patently naive. Without doubt American interests, reflected in their training and arming of military and paramilitary forces loyal to the landed oligarchy, were inextricably linked to the Salvadoran conflict.[2] Nevertheless, this so called “class antagonism” led directly to 30,000 politically motivated killings between October 15th 1979 and December 1981 (Amnesty International; March 1982).

It was into this context of state-led terror that Oscar Arnulfo Romero was installed as Archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador, on February 22, 1977. Centred upon the national capital of San Salvador, Oscar Romero’s diocese was the most populous and important, particularly in terms of access to the power brokers of the political and military leadership. The majority of the owners of the large land holdings also lived in the capital, many of these regularly attending the city’s cathedral.

Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero was born on August 15, 1917 in a small town in the mountains of eastern El Salvador. He apparently entered the seminary for training as a priest at age thirteen. Considered quiet, bookish and non-controversial, Romero’s elevation to Archbishop was welcomed by those business, government and military figures consulted by the apostolic nuncio (Vatican Ambassador) in the lead up to his selection. As Brockman recounts: based upon his earlier theological stance  [3] Oscar Romero ‘was supposed to be the firm conservative who would rein in the priests of the archdiocese whom, in the eyes of the government and the upper classes [the previous archbishop] had not been able to control’ (Brockman 1989: 8). With access to educational provision severely limited in El Salvador, and the ruling class holding ownership of the major newspapers, most radio stations and all television services, the economic and cultural domination of the landed elite had been assured. In this form of social structure the perceived options for change could be easily be regulated to serve the interests of capital. As Jackson and Ashcroft argue:

In addition to control over the means of production and its accompanying coercive apparatus, the dominant class exercises crucial control over the apparatus of cultural dissemination (institutions of learning, the arts, the mass media) in short over all those means through which social consciousness could be effectively created. Without resorting to the contentious notion of false consciousness, ruling class cultural hegemony can be seen as giving the working class no effective choice between alternatives. (in Thompson 1980: 101)

Increasingly – and particularly since Oscar Romero’s term as Archbishop – the El Salvadoran Catholic Church assumed an important counter-hegemonic role to the controlling tendencies of the dominant class. It had become a key source for the dissemination of information – particularly amongst the poorer classes. Although historically associated with the maintenance of the oppressive oligarchic social arrangement, the development of a more critical indigenous theology (viz. liberation theology), along with participatory pastoral / educational models, led to direct conflict between progressives within the church and the reactionary forces of the state. (cf Martín-Bar? 1990; Pearce 1986; Montgomery 1987; Beirne 1985).

CEBs – Base Communities

Following the reforms of Vatican II and the declaration of the Council of Latin American Bishops at the Medellín conference of 1968 (both of which emphasised a more socially involved church with a less hierarchical structure) the church in El Salvador initiated the formation of numerous communidades de base (CEBs). These grassroots Christian communities were seen as the principal means of implementing the reforms by involving the lay people in planning and implementing church programs and ensuring outreach amongst the pastorally neglected rural populace.

The educational focus within the CEBs included the training of leaders (some 15,000 between 1970 & 1976) in basic theology, “agriculture, co-operativism, leadership and health” and community organisation (Pearce 1986: 113). Given the propensity for many of the socially involved religious [4] to apply liberation theology, with its emphasis upon social analysis – particularly Marxist social analysis – the CEBs emerged as a focal point for political action. This account of a peasant unionist from the impoverished northern region of Chalatenango reveals something of the methodology and expression of liberation theology within the CEBs:

What made me realise the path of our farm worker’s union was when I compared the conditions we were living in with those that I saw in the scriptures; the situation of the Israelites for example… when Moses had to struggle to take them out of Egypt to the Promised Land… then I compared it to the situation of slavery in which we were living. For example, when we asked for changes in the work rates on the plantations, instead of reducing them for us, the following day they increased them, just like the Pharaoh did with the Hebrew people making bricks, right? Our struggle is the same; Moses and his people had to cross the desert, as we are crossing one now; and for me I find that we are crossing a desert full of a thousand hardships, of hunger, misery and exploitation. (Pearce 1986: 118)

As Pearce relates in her first hand study of the Chalatenango peasant movement, rebellion against the repressive social order did not occur as a spontaneous collective expression of outrage, but rather with a slow process of conscientizaão (consciousness raising) and mobilization. A process occurring primarily within the CEBs.

Brookfield (1987: 63) somewhat blithely notes that “in [some] societies… [educational activities] drawing people’s attention to visible inequalities, and making them critically aware of their oppressed condition, may produce violent results. Certainly, this was the experience in El Salvador. On the 24th of February 1977, shortly after Oscar Romero’s investiture, troops fired on a large crowd (some estimated a figure of 60,000) of civilians protesting the recent fraudulent election result – killing 23 persons. Greatly encouraging progressive elements within the Church, Oscar Romero’s first significant act as Archbishop – after consulting widely with his clergy – was to suspend all diocesan masses for the following Sunday. He alone would celebrate mass, in the Cathedral adjoining the Plaza Libertad – the site of the recent massacre. Rejecting the appeals from conservatives such as the papal nuncio, Romero went ahead with the protest:

A hundred thousand strong, it was the largest demonstration of Salvadoran church unity within memory… for many it marked a return to the church after a long estrangement. (Brockman 1989: 17)

The machine-gun killing of Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest active in the CEBs of Chalatenango, on March 12th 1977 marked the beginning of a vicious campaign against the clergy. A concerted media campaign was launched against the “third world priests” as they were derisively called and their preaching of “hatred, subversion and class struggle” (a local media release cited in Brockman 1989: 3). Later in the year the now infamous flyers, bearing the legend “Be a Patriot! Kill a Priest!” were circulated (Arnon 1982: 36).

The murder of Grande, carried out by a paramilitary “Death Squad”, proved a most significant factor in Romero’s political and theological reorientation. Grande’s death and ‘similar instances of persecution of the church had a remarkable effect on Archbishop Romero. Within a relatively short time, he changed from an ally of the oligarchy into an eloquent spokesman for the poor’ (Beirne 1985: 16). In a bulletin published on March 14th, Oscar Romero praised Grande’s “efforts to raise the consciousness of the people throughout his parish” (cited in Leiken and Rubin 1987: 353). In protest at the Government’s lack of action in apprehending Grande’s murderers, Romero boycotted the President’s inauguration on July 1st 1977. This act had enormous significance: for the first time a Salvadoran Head of State was denied the official sanction and blessing of the Catholic Church. In effect Oscar Romero was publicly declaring the election result invalid.

The activities of the progressive religious amongst the CEBs became the crux of the conflict between the church and the elite, and also within the church itself. The work of conscientizaçãoundertaken by clergy such as Rutilio Grande had paved the way for a national linkage of peasant’s organizations (Berryman 1987: 130f). According to Salvadoran law, peasant’s unions independent of governmental control have no legal status. Furthermore, the Salvadoran constitution proscribed a severely limited role for the church in political life:

Clerics and laity shall be forbidden to engage in political advertising in any form by invoking religious motives or making use of the people’s religious beliefs. In the churches, on the occasion of acts of worship or religious instruction, criticism shall not be made of the laws of the state, of its government, or of individual public officials. (Article 157, cited in Brockman 1989: 3)

Oscar Romero – educator and mobilizer

Despite these constraints, during Oscar Romero’s three years and three months as Archbishop the political role of the church extended with each compounding crisis. Romero utilised two key vehicles for his program of pastoral teaching: first, his monthly pastoral letter which was circulated throughout the country and was read aloud at mass in the parishes. Second, the archdiocese radio station – YSAX, over which Romero’s weekly Sunday sermon, before the well attended San Salvador cathedral, was broadcast. The Archbishop also read an information bulletin outlining the weeks previous events and detailing instances of political violence (Montgomery 1982: 35Off; Brockman 1989: 28).

As an educator the Archbishop has a central role in the Salvadoran Catholic church. Not only does he have an important teaching ministry within the Cathedral context, he is also called upon to relate the theological directives from the Vatican and the Episcopal Council of Latin American Bishops to the local context. In addition, he has direct oversight for the pastoral workers across the entire country: given the impoverished state of local congregations the centralised disbursement of church finances is a mechanism for directing the pattern of ministry nationwide. In a nation where at least 70% of the population have some allegiance to the Catholic Church (Martin-Bar? 1990: 96) it is doubtful that there is a more authoritative and influential figure than that of the Archbishop. Nevertheless, that influence is limited by the entrenched class interests; any impetus for social change requires the sanction of those few wielding ultimate economic and military power. When the interests of the major regional power, in this case the United States of America, invariably concur with those of the local elite the space for social change is limited and potential revolutionary movements are met by the full force of the state. As Oscar Romero and fellow Bishop Arturo Rivera Damas wrote in 1978:

Alongside institutionalised violence [5] there frequently arises repressive violence, that is to say the use of violence by the state’s security forces to the extent that the state tries to contain the aspirations of the majority, violently crushing any signs of protest against the injustices… mentioned. (cited in Pottenger 1991: 151)

Death Squads

In August 1978, four Salvadoran bishops issued a statement condemning the peasant’s popular organizations as “Marxist”. Any individual publicly accused in such a way was likely to become the target of the “Death Squads”. Oscar Romero immediately wrote in defense of the peasants – and the religious working amongst them:

In a pastoral letter [entitled] “The Church and the Popular Organisations”… he defended the peasant’s right to organise and [referring to Vatican II] pointed out how that right was violated in El Salvador… implicitly recognising that these organisations were as legitimate as traditional political parties. (Berryman 1987: 130)

By affirming a justifiable role for the peasant organizations, and inferring that the religious need not disavow these organizations when they become involved in struggle, Oscar Romero was signalling that the church was advocating the popular organizations land reform agenda; the consequences of this position he well understood. Romero was in essence publicly siding with the popular organizations, and – more dangerously – becoming perhaps the most high profile mobiliser to their cause.

As mentioned above the archdiocese radio station YSAX was a key vehicle for Oscar Romero’s instruction. Via the air waves Romero’s messages, in particular his lengthy Sunday sermon (generally no less than one and a half hours), found a huge and receptive audience across the nation – as well as in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. According to confirmed figures for radio audiences in El Salvador – gathered in research conducted for commercial advertising agencies – Archbishop Oscar Romero’s Sunday audience was found to be reaching “73% of the [population in the] countryside and 47% [in] the urban areas” (cited in Pearce 1986: 170). Romero’s homilies invariably related scriptural readings to the wider realities of El Salvadoran life.

Aware of the implications of restricted press ownership, Archbishop Oscar Romero also utilized the broadcast as an oral newspaper: every documented case of killing, assault, disappearance, or torture – whether by the left or the right was broadcast. Additionally, the archdiocese office became the publishing house for information bulletins documenting human rights violations, and a source of information counter to the propaganda of the regular media. Romero advised his listeners: ‘Don’t keep isolated from this communication of the word. For while the forces that persecute and defame the church have all the newspapers, all the radio stations, all the television on their side, the struggle is unequal’ (cited in Brockman 1989: 28).

Such was the power of the YSAX broadcasts that its transmitter or antenna was bombed ten times between 1977 and 1980. The nations foremost business organization, the ANEP, publicly accused the church of provoking unrest and ran a media campaign against the station. Even the Minister of the Interior threatened the directors of the station over its criticisms of the government (Montgomery 1982: 350f; Brockman 1989: 6-28).

As the spiral of violence intensified, culminating in the October 15th 1979 military coup, the death threats against Archbishop Oscar Romero came daily (Kraus 1991: 74). Despite this his denunciations of the “idolatry (of money, of military and political power), of US imperialism [and] of corruption and falsehood” (Berryman 197: 52) continued. He also remained a firm and vocal supporter of the peasant’s organizations.

Archbishop Oscar Romero challenges the US President and the Salvadoran military

At about this time Oscar Romero wrote directly to US President Jimmy Carter arguing that given the level of human rights abuse by the military, aid to the junta should be suspended. Carter’s “evasive response” (Dunkerley 1988: 395) left Romero little alternative than to issue a final ultimatum aimed directly at those serving in the armed forces. In a sermon on March 24 1980 he outlined what was in effect a moral justification for mutiny. After providing a theological framework for the statements that were to follow, Oscar Romero related some of the hundreds of cases of genocidal military action occurring during the previous week, citing an Amnesty International press release to confirm his accounts. Finally he addressed the military directly:

I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill”. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered you consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression. (Cited in Leiken & Rubin 1987: 377-380)

Later that evening whilst saying mass at a church run cancer hospital a lone gunman shot Romero dead [6]. In Washington the following day the Carter administration authorized $55 million in economic aid to El Salvador, which was followed a few weeks later by $5.7 million in further “military assistance” (Dunkerley 1988:396).


Oscar Romero, perhaps understandably, has become a somewhat mythical figure in the Catholic Church, particularly but not exclusively in Latin America. Aside from the ‘martyrs death’ aspect, his memory has become the focal point in the struggle to make liberation theology more palatable to conservative elements within the church. Latin American liberation theologians have in more recent times rejected as naive given the military resources of US backed local regimes – the notion of armed struggle as a realisable course towards social justice in Latin America. Although by no means a pacifist, Romero did perceive violent struggle as a problematic, last possible alternative. Speaking in an interview with Presna Latina on March 7th – shortly before his assassination he outlined his position:

Profound religion leads to political commitment and in a country such as ours where injustice reigns, conflict is inevitable… Christians have no fear of combat; they know how to fight but they prefer to speak the language of peace. Nevertheless, when a dictatorship violates human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it becomes unbearable and closes all channels of dialogue, of understanding, of rationality, when this happens the Church speaks of the legitimate right of insurrectional violence. (cited in Pearce 1986:184)

Perhaps there was a certain naïveté in his belief that an appeal to conscience could halt the violence. On the other hand, perhaps he was following the development of his own thinking to its logical conclusion, deciding that an ultimatum – quite probably followed by his own death – would shock all players into a cessation of violence or provoke a split within the military. At the very least a reduction in US military support for the junta was a possible outcome.

As an educator Oscar Romero undoubtedly perceived his role as providing moral direction to a movement for change, over which he had no or only limited control. This he provided not only by words but also by example. Brookfield writes of the “ethical duty” (1987: 63f) borne by adult educators seeking to encourage critical thinking, to point out to those involved the potentiality for violence resulting from their political actions. Romero went further than merely pointing out the dangers. With all the tools at his disposal Archbishop Oscar Romero sought to pierce the silence of repression and inform the population at large of the facts. The peasant movement whose activities he so encouraged faced death daily: with great integrity, he too was prepared to face that same fate in the course of the struggle for social justice in El Salvador.


[1] U S economic & military aid to El Salvador in 1980 exceeded $78m. (Dept of State; cited Arnson p.106) By 1988 this figure had reportedly risen to $547m. (Santiago p.41).

[2] In [early] 1982 the Reagan administration began training 1,600 Salvardoran soliders on U S soil, and provided another $55 million in emergency military aid – including … counter insurgency jets and forward air control planes…” (Arnson 1982: 83) According to Time magazine, Nov 22 1993, recently released intelligence reports reveal “that Reagan and Bush administration officials had… detailed knowledge… about the role of civilian and military leaders in death squad killings in El Salvador”. In September 1996 The Washington Post reported that Defense department manuals were used to train Latin American military in torture techniques. This included Salvadoran officers.

[3] As editor of the conservative Catholic weekly newspaper Orienta’cion during the 1970’s, Romero had railed “against schools that taught demogoguery and Marxism… [the Jesuit teachers] should not even call themselves Christian” (cited in Beirne 1985:10). His reactionary views, at that time, were legend.

[4] Here meaning ordained clergy.

[5] This reference to “institutionalised violence” derives from the Medellin Declaration (p4, above) which described the structural and economic constraints placed upon Latin America by the West and its agents )the I.M.F etc) as a form of institutionalised violence against the poor.

[6] A 1992 United Nations commission into political killings in El Salvador found that Roberto d’Aubuisson, later a leading figure in the ruling ARENA party, arranged Oscar Romero’s murder. (The Economist May 29th 1993)

Further reading and bibliography

Aguilar, E. et al ‘Protestantism in El Salvador: Conventional Wisdom versus Survey Results’ source unknown.

Amnesty International (1982) “Amnesty International Newsletter Supplement” London, March.

Arnson, C. (1982) El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts The United States, Institute for Policy Studies, Transnational Inst: Washington.

Beirne, C. (1985) ‘Jesuit Education for Justice: The Colegio in El Salvador, 1968-1984’ in Harvard Educational Review v55 n.1 pg 1-19 Feb.

Berryman, P. (1987) Liberation Theology: The Essential Facts about the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond I.B Tauris: London.

Brookfield, S. (1987) Developing Critical Thinkers, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Brockman, J (1989) Romero: A Life Maryknoll Orbis Books: New York.

Chomsky, N. (1992) Deterring Democracy, Vintage: London.

Diamond, S. (1989) Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, Pluto Press: London.

Dunkerley, J. (1988) Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America, Verso: London.

Freire, P. (1976) ‘Are Adult Literacy Programs Neutral?’ in Batille, L. (ed.) A Turning Point For Literacy, Pergamon: New York.

Gutiérrez, G. (1973) A Theology of Liberation, Orbis: Maryknoll.

Krauss, C. (1991) Inside Central America: Its People, Politics and History, Summit Books: New York.

Leiken, R. & Rubin, B. (eds.) (1987) The Central American Crisis Reader, Summit Books: New York.

Martin-Bar?, I. (1990) ‘Religion as an Instrument of Psychological Warfare’, Journal of Social Issues Vol 46 No3 pg 93-107.

Montgomery, T. (1982) ‘Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution’ in Leiken, R. & Rubin, B. (eds.) (1987) The Central American Crisis Reader, Summit Books: New York.

Pearce, J. (1986) Promised Land: Peasant Rebellion in Chalatenango, El Salvador Latin American Bureau: London

Pottenger, J. (1991) The Political Theory of Liberation Theology, State University of New York Press: Albany.

Romero, A. O. (1980) ‘Archbishop Oscar Romero: The Last Sermon’ in Leiken, R. & Rubin, B. (eds.) (1987) The Central American Crisis Reader, Summit Books: New York.

Santiago, D. (1990) ‘The Death Merchants’ in Human Rights vol 17 Fall/Winter pg 40-44.

The Economist May 29th 1993 pg 45

Thompson, J. (ed.) (1980) Adult Education for a Change, Hutchinson: London.


Salt of the Earth’s remembrance of Oscar Romero.

Resources for Catholic Educators: Oscar Romero – Listing of on-line resources

The author acknowledges helpful feedback from Michael Newman and Grif Foley of the University of Technology Sydney on this article.

John Dickson has been involved with Adult Education for about 20 years, in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Mozambique. He can be contacted at moz_dickson@hotmail.com.

How to cite this article: Dickson, J. (2005) ‘Oscar Romero of El Salvador: informal adult education in a context of violence’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/oscar-romero-of-el-salvador-informal-adult-education-in-a-context-of-violence/. Retrieved: insert date].

© John Dickson 2005

Last Updated on February 3, 2013 by infed.org