11/27/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

From Oscar Romero to Pope Francis: Will Catholics in Congress Heed the Call?

Pope Francis recently made headlines again for his critique of capitalism and the predatory greed of the world's most wealthy. Issuing an 84-page document outlining his views on the papacy, Francis decried trickle-down economics, referring to unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny," and arguing that Catholics' primary concern should be the plight of the poor. Listening to Francis's focus on poverty and economic inequality, one cannot help but hear the echo of another man of the cloth who implored Catholics to fight for the poor and ultimately sacrificed his life for the cause.

The same week Pope Francis delivered his comments on capitalism and the role of the Church, a 450-pound bronze statue was resurrected in MacArthur Park to honor the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund spearheaded the effort in Los Angeles, where many Salvadorans settled after the U.S. assisted right-wing victory in their twelve-year civil war.

When Romero became archbishop in San Salvador in 1977, fourteen Salvadoran families controlled over 60 percent of the usable land. By 1980, an estimated 65 percent of peasants were landless, and by 1983 only 6 percent of the population earned more than $240 a month. This inequality was not new. For decades the coffee oligarchs in El Salvador owned much of the land and capital, thus creating a massive unequal distribution of wealth. As a result, the poor began speaking out, more forcefully in the late 1970s. Romero, a liberation theologist, joined them. (Popularized in Latin America in the 1950s and 60s, liberation theology is the belief that the most fundamental duty of any Christian is to help the poor and fight social injustice.) In response, the Salvadoran military and paramilitary groups (death-squads) targeted anyone who stood up for land reform, including Romero. Graffiti in the capital read: "Be a patriot, kill a priest."

As the situation in El Salvador deteriorated the U.S. did what it always did in Central America: installed its own right-wing civilian leader and provided aid to the military. In the first two years of the new president's reign, thirty thousand people were killed. With nowhere else to turn, peasants took up arms and began battling the military. As a civil war ensued, the military and death-squads killed thousands with no differentiating between guerrilla fighters and civilians. Romero implored the government to "Stop the repression." This proved deadly for the archbishop. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980. The horror continued. Nine months later, three American Maryknoll nuns and a Catholic layperson were raped and murdered by death-squad members. A month later Ronald Reagan was poised to take office. But rather than condemn the massacre, his administration defended it, with his future Secretary of State, Alexander Haig referring to the "pistol packing nuns" as the instigators.

As Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone describe in graphic detail in The Untold History of the United States, the situation in El Salvador only worsened when Reagan took office. According to former U.S. Ambassador Robert White, "Reagan renewed tolerance and acceptance of the extreme right which led to the emergence of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), and the rise of ex-Mayor Roberto D'Aubuisson." White described ARENA as a "violent Fascist party modeled after the Nazis and certain revolutionary communist groups." Reagan gave the green light to aid and arm the Salvadoran government while training their military at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. The result was the massacre at El Mozote in which 767 people were slaughtered, including 358 children under the age of thirteen. By the time the civil war ended, over 70,00 people had been killed and thousands of women and girls raped. Of course, this is the part of Reagan's legacy conservatives collectively ignore.

Twelve years ago, I traveled to the former strongholds of the guerilla fighters in El Salvador to research the effects of Reagan's policies. I interviewed young and old, liberals and conservatives, former members of the FMLN and ARENA. For most, regardless of political ideology, I received the same answers in regards to the civil war: "We will never go through that bloodshed again." Interviewing college students, I asked if they had any thoughts about the U.S. and Reagan's role in supporting right-wing death squads. No matter who I asked, I always received the same response: "When do you just have enough?" Now it appears the new Pope is asking the same question.

As Pope Francis attempts to set a new path for the Church, one can see the influence of Romero. Indeed, earlier this year, Francis boldly cleared the way for Romero to be considered for sainthood. However, examining the Pope's embrace of liberation theology, the memories of Oscar Romero, and Reagan's policies in El Salvador raises an important question: Will Catholics in Congress like Marco Rubio, David Vitter, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan listen to the leader of their Church and help those most in need? Will they follow in the footsteps of a future St. Romero? Or will they pray and worship at the alter of St. Reagan and continue to decimate the hungry, the homeless, and the poor?