WASHINGTON -- Just five weeks before his assassination, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero sent an impassioned letter to President Jimmy Carter urging an end to U.S. military aid to his nation's civilian-military government.
Romero's plea, and subsequent murder, are perhaps the most important elements that have galvanized the U.S. Catholic Church -- and much of the Protestant religious community -- in opposition to U.S. government policy toward El Salvador at almost every step of the policy's evolution.
That opposition, which exists at the highest levels of the hierarchy as well as at the parish and grass roots level, was intensified by the December 1980 murder of four U.S. women missionaries.
In many respects, the church's opposition to the U.S. government's El Salvador policy is unique. In other respects, however, it is a logicalextension of the manner in which U.S. religious bodies play out their political roles.
Clearly, the most important factor for the U.S. church has been the role of the Salvadoran church and, most notably, the roles played by Romero and Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, apostolic administrator of Romero's archdiocese of San Salvador.
Both publicly and privately, U.S. church officials make clear that their opposition to U.S. arms for the current Salvadoran government stems from the Salvadoran church's opposition.
Again and again, Romero's February 1980 letter to Carter is cited:
'I ask you,' Romero wrote Carter, 'if you truly want to defend human rights, to prohibit the giving of this military aid to the Salvadoran government. ... It would be unjust and deplorable if the intrusion of foreign powers were to frustrate the Salvadoranpeople, were to ... block their autonomous decisions about the economic and political path our country ought to follow.'
Bishop Thomas Kelly, former general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, wrote Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie just three months after Romero's death, saying events in El Salvador since the assassination 'have only strengthened the conviction of many that present United States policy toward El Salvador is badly flawed.'
The church argued, and continues to argue, that the problem in El Salvador is essentially an internal one, and turning it into a big power confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union will only increase the tragedy.
Catholic Church officials believe that the major problem in El Salvador -- at least three years ago when attention was first focused there -- was internal repression and the inability of the civilian centrists in the government to control right wing elements in the military.
'No foreign power can or should fully control events in El Salvador,' Kelly wrote Muskie, 'but the United States -- by casting its support behind an increasingly unpopular and repressive governmental apparatus -- is widely perceived as contributing to the killing.'
The U.S. bishops also worked with their counterparts in England and Wales to persuade the church there to express concern to the British government.
At the same time, Kelly was writing Muskie, the (Catholic) Episcopal Conference of England and Wales was writing the British foreign secretary, arguing the 'repression during the first three months of 1980 has by all accounts been the harshest in El Salvador's recent and turbulent history.'
'We would respectfully urge her majesty's government to use its good offices with our allies to seek an embargo on arms shipments to El Salvador until such time as the situation is substantially improved,' the British bishops said.
In a letter, British Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted he had personally intervened with President Carter in an effort to end U.S. military aid.
'In addition, our staff in Washington has worked very intensely with both key congressional committees and the administration seeking to promote a different course for U.S. policy on this issue,' Quinn noted.
And he added:
'While we believe our efforts have made some impact, we have not been able to produce an embargo on all military assistance as yet.'
Whatever impact the church was having at the White House, however, dramatically ended when Carter was defeated and Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Although U.S. policy has escalated involvement in El Salvador since Reagan's election, the church has not stopped protesting to Congress.
'Before U.S. policy moves toward aid and advisers,' the Rev. Bryan Hehir, associate general secretary for international justice and peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference, told Congress in February 1981, 'this truly tragic possibility (of escalation) ought to be clearly faced.'
'Soviet or Cuban involvement in the conflict is inadmissable on political, legal and moral grounds,' he said. 'The problem with present U.S. policy is not the opposition to Soviet involvement, but the priority given this issue, to the detriment of more fundamental questions, and the issue of which means are appropriate to resist Soviet or Cuban activity.'
Among the most outspoken critics of the escalation of U.S. military aid to El Salvador has been Archbishop James A. Hickey, head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
When he was bishop of Cleveland, Ohio, Hickey was responsible for sending a number of U.S missionary teams to El Salvador, including some of the four U.S. women murdered in December 1980.
Such connections underscore the close alliance of the U.S. church with the church in El Salvador and have been a major reason for the hierarchy's outspoken leadership in the opposition to U.S. policies.
The El Salvador situation, for example, contrasts sharply with the church's splintered position on the Vietnam War, a conflict that also involved a large Roman Catholic institution.
While grass roots Catholics in the United States were among the leaders of the anti-war and anti-draft movements, especially such figures as the Revs. Philip and Daniel Berrigan, the hierarchy was sharply divided throughout the war.
The conflict in Poland -- another largely Catholic country -- has also drawn the attention of the U.S. church, although its pronouncements have not touched too specifically on U.S. policy. Instead, the response has been largely aimed at raising funds for relief efforts.
In early February, however, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, considered one of the nation's most influential prelates, joined 13 other major Protestant, Episcopal, Orthodox and Jewish leaders in condemning martial law in Poland and pledging continued relief assistance to the people.
Both the Polish and Salvadoran situations indicate one of the unique features of U.S. religious life: a strong degree of interfaith and ecumenical cooperation around international issues.
Although the U.S. Catholic bishops, for example, have played the leading role in opposing U.S. policy in El Salvador, they have been joined forcefully by most of the nation's Protestant leadership, especially at the National Council of Churches, the major interfaith agency of 32 of the nation's Protestant and Orthodox religious bodies.
These leaders have not only testified before Congress and written the president, but also organized one of the earliest street demonstrations -- on Good Friday 1981 -- against U.S. policy.
Meanwhile, U.S. Catholic leaders keep up their steady opposition to U.S. policy in El Salvador. Most recently, on Feb. 9, Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced Reagan's certification of El Salvador as having met Congressionally-imposed conditions for receiving military aid.
On Feb. 26, Hehir returned to Capitol Hill to tesitfy against the administration's request for increased military aid.
'Military assistance strengthens that element of the Salvadoran junta which is most suspect in the minds of the citizenry, associates the United States not with an effort for a political solution but precisely with those elements of the government widely suspect of being opposed to establishment of democracy and sends the wrong signal to those in Salvador intent on blocking or reversing political reform,' Hehir said.
Hehir also addressed the issue of the apparently growing Soviet and Cuban-Nicaraguan involvement.
'The USCC does not deny the international aspects of the conflict,' he said. 'We agree that Soviet or Cuban-sponsored internvention is illegitimate.'
'But we do not believe the driving force of the war is Moscow, Havana or Managua,' he said. 'We fear the U.S. threats to go 'to the source' may mistake the source of assistance for the roots of the war.'
Last November, during the annual meeting of the entire body of some 250 U.S. bishops,the U.S. Catholic Conference, action arm of the prelates, adopted a nine-page policy expanding their concern for the struggle in El Salvador to the issue of U.S. policy throughout Central America.
Nicaragua, the U.S. bishops said, is 'experiencing great difficulty in pursuing political and economic reconstruction' following the devastation of its civil war. They urged both bilateral and multilateral assistance for Nicaragua, but urged that such assistance be monitored in connection with human rights criteria.
On Guatemala, the U.S. bishops said, 'U.S. diplomacy should be directed toward enhancing the protection of human rights and assisting the meeting of basic human needs.'
'Such a policy will require a creative political vision; such vision is not manifested by the provision of military hardware in a situation already ridden with violence,' the bishops said. 'We believe military assistance should not be provided from any source or in any form.'