This week, as we begin the Fortnight for Freedom, we look to the example of the great defenders of religious freedom who have gone before us: Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher. #Fortnight4Freedom
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Today we celebrate the feast of our diocesan patron, Saint Thomas More. He was beheaded in 1535 for his refusal to recognize Henry VIII’s claim of supremacy over the Church in England. Henry needed that supremacy, of course, to have his illicit marriage recognized. In the climactic trial scene of Robert Bolt’s classic A Man for All Seasons, More is found guilty of treason. Knowing that his life is forfeit, More stands and declares, “Now I will discharge my mind.” Then the man who was until that moment silent on the matter gives an eloquent defense and explanation of papal authority and the Church’s freedom from state intrusion. He pauses, as if at last coming to the main point, and then bellows out, “Nevertheless, it was not for the supremacy that you sought my blood – but because I would not bend to the marriage!”
Religious freedom does not exist in the abstract. Nobody has died for that principle in theory. There is always some religious practice we seek to exercise or doctrine we seek to proclaim that brings about first marginalization, then harassment, then persecution and finally martyrdom. And more often than not, the doctrine and practice has to do with marriage and family. Tyrants typically allow us to believe in the Trinity, or transubstantiation, or the Immaculate Conception in the quiet of our homes and churches. But our belief about marriage and family are a different matter. They tend to get in the way of a tyrant’s ambitions. He cannot have complete power when every home is a little kingdom.
So it was for Saint Thomas More. So it was for his fellow prisoner in the Tower of London, Saint John Fisher. They did not suffer and die for religious freedom in the abstract, but because they would not “bend to the marriage” – to the false teaching on marriage of Henry’s new church. They were defending marriage and, within that context, the rights of the Church. They died, as Fisher announced at the scaffold on this day in 1535, “For the Faith of Christ’s Catholic Church.”
So it was for Saint John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrate on Friday. He died at the hands of Herod because he would not compromise the truth – again – of marriage. So also for us – our defense of religious freedom is occasioned by and at the service of the truth of marriage. The central issues precipitating this struggle are the redefinition of marriage and the HHS contraception mandate. Which is to say, the truth about marriage and marital intimacy.
It is no coincidence that marriage is at the center of debate on religious freedom. In truth, marriage itself is the greatest defense of freedom. It is ironic that the institution we typically speak of in terms of servitude (“tying the knot”…”the old ball and chain”) is really the greatest check on an oppressive state. Marriage comes to us from the hand of God – not from any king, emperor, president or judge. Every earthly ruler must yield before the institution that preceded him and will outlast him. In that sense, to marry is a great declaration of independence. It is to form a bond of a nobler origin and higher dignity than the greatest empires. The tyrannical intuit that marriage is their enemy, which is why such rulers (Herod, Henry VIII, the First French Republic, the Soviet Union) have always sought to control, change, or destroy it.
Now that it is our turn in history to defend marriage and freedom, how do we respond? Those two men who shared imprisonment in the Tower and now share today’s feast (except in our Diocese, under More’s patronage) teach us certain kinds of response.
Saint Thomas More remained silent. He never spoke out publicly against Henry VIII. He retired to private life and, as a private citizen, desired to leave well enough alone and to be left well enough alone. His final trial is significant in that it was the first and only time he voiced his opposition to the king and his reasons for it. But his was not a mute silence. He never spoke out against the king because, in a sense, he did not need to. More was – and, importantly, was known to be – one of the most learned and holy men of Europe. His silence spoke volumes. It declared that Henry did not enjoy his disapproval. His example reveals the power of holiness of life. All of us can and must live in such a way that our integrity, goodness, and indeed holiness draw others to share in what we have received.
Saint John Fisher spoke out – clearly, charitably…tenaciously. More was a private citizen. But Fisher had the burden of Episcopal office. He could not remain silent as his flock was threatened by error. This is a lesson to priests and bishops first of all: those entrusted with the care of Christ’s flock cannot remain silent. But not only to them. Others who have the ability and opportunity can and need to raise a voice in defense of marriage.
Finally, both Fisher and More displayed a holy obstinacy. We miss the point of their witness if we fail to realize that they looked ridiculous to most people. Everyone else had gone along with the king. All the nobles and the entire English hierarchy had signed on with him. Fisher and More looked absurdly stubborn in their defense of marriage and, by extension, of the Church. We likewise are increasingly made to look absurd because we will not bend to the new definitions of marriage and family. May we be blessed, then, with a holy and serene obstinacy to stand fast in defense of marriage – and of the Church who proclaims the truth of it.