THE MURDER of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero while he was saying mass at a church in San Salvador is, as Pope John Paul II says, an "execrable crime." A towering figure in El Salvador, known for his efforts to identify the Catholic Church with the aspirations of the oppressed poor, the archbishop had long been a potential victim of the violence that has turned his Central American homeland into a charnel house. He went about, nonetheless, as though the love of his flock would protect him. It defines the politics of his country that he could have been murdered either by the extreme left, hoping to precipitate the total disintegration in which it might pick up power in the streets, or by the extreme right, hoping to provoke the popular uprising that would unleash a new coup.

Archbishop Romero's career is a telling comment on life in a society in agony. Born to a humble family, he was chosen for his post by a conservative hierarchy obedient to El Salvador's rulers. He then was "converted" to the more liberal "liberation theology" that evolved from the Latin bishops' conference at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. That was based on a fundamental shift of church emphasis from spiritual to social concerns. El Salvador, ruled by arguably the narrowest and most corrupt elite in Latin America, was a natural place for such a philosophy to take root. For Archbishop Romero, it meant an increasingly strained attempt to balance the two ideas: the idea of peaceable change, which seemed to play into the oligarchy's hands, and the idea of social justice, which seemed to require at least a certain tolerance for Marxist revolution. The archbishop was in uncertain suspension between these points when he died.

Undeniably, his death supplies powerful posthumous impetus to his recent political advice, especially to his appeal to Jimmy Carter to retract his pending offer of military aid to the civilian-military junta currently attempting the formidable task of establishing a workable center in El Salvador. The archbishop was reflecting a widespread Salvadoran fear that American military aid might merely strengthen the forces of repression. His murder, however, would seem to underline how intolerable it would be for the United States to abandon the center now and leave the field to the two extremes. Whether the junta can in fact consolidate power and use it for the benefit of the many is a fair question. But there can be no question that if the junta does not, the people whom Archbishop Romero served so bravely will be the ones who pay most.