ROME — A panel of Vatican theologians has ruled that Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the great hero of Latin America’s progressive liberation theology movement who was shot to death while saying Mass in 1980, is a martyr.

The finding removes a major hurdle to declaring Romero a saint, something Pope Francis has signaled he wants to do. Among other things, being declared a martyr means that no miracle is required for beatification, the final step before sainthood.

For decades, some conservative critics of the liberation theology movement, both in Latin American and Rome, have argued that Romero was killed more over politics than religion, and thus he doesn’t qualify as a martyr in the technical sense of someone who died for the faith.

During a flight to Brazil in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said that Romero was a “great witness of the faith,” but that his cause was a complicated one because “a political party wrongly wished to use him as their badge.”

(Benedict added that “[of the] merits for beatification, I do not doubt,” a comment not included in the Vatican’s official transcript.)

According to Avvenire, the newspaper of Italy’s Bishops Conference, theologians who advise the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of the Saints have now declared Romero to have been killed in odium fidei (“in hatred of the faith”) by a unanimous vote, meaning that he is, indeed, a martyr.

According to the process outlined in Church law, for Romero to be officially declared “blessed,” the final stage before sainthood, the cause has to be judged by a commission of bishops and cardinals within the Congregation for Saints, and finally approved by Pope Francis.

The pope’s okay seems mostly a formality, since the Argentinian pontiff has spoken about the Salvadorian archbishop on several occasions, the last one coming in his most recent weekly general audience on Wednesday.

Francis said Romero spoke of a “martyrdom of mothers,” whose sensitivity to all that threatens human life and welfare is a source of enrichment for society and the Church.

Speaking to journalists during a plane ride back from South Korea in August, Francis said that “for me, Romero is a man of God,” adding that he hoped his beatification, entitling Romero to be referred to be “Blessed,” would happen quickly.

Already considered a saint by most of his countrymen, Romero’s cause for formal canonization was nevertheless blocked under both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI until Francis gave the green light to move ahead.

Liberation theology can mean many things, but in general it’s an interpretation of Christian faith through the perspective of the poor. At times, it presented a reading of scripture opposing all hierarchical structures and institutions, including those of the Church.

Experts say that Romero’s defense of liberation theology came in response to a right-wing Salvadorian government that was brutally killing and torturing rural poor in the late 1970s.

Romero is the most prominent victim of the 75,000 people believed to have been killed in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which went on from 1980 to 1992.

By 1980, Romero had written to US President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to cease sending military aid, saying the $1.5 million the United States sent every day for more than 12 years was “being used to repress my people.”

Romero was murdered on March 24, a day after telling an army made up largely of peasants that they were killing their own people.

“No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God,” he said.

He was shot through the heart in the middle of his homily, after saying, “one must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those who fend off danger will lose their lives.”

The murder of Romero, as thousands of others, remains unsolved. No one was ever convicted for the killing.

Days before his murder, the churchman told Mexican journalist José Calderón Salazar that he wasn’t afraid to die.

“You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, I forgive and bless those who do it,” he said.

“Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”