Homily at the 1st Fortnight for Freedom Holy Hour, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 21, 2012.
As we all know (otherwise we wouldn’t be here this evening), the Bishops of the United States are encouraging us, especially in these two weeks between now and July 4, to devote some special attention what it means to be faithful to the Gospel in today’s world, what are the challenges the world continually presents us, and how important the freedom of the Church is in our being faithful in the face of all such challenges.
Appropriately, we are gathered here on this eve of the day in the Church’s calendar, which commemorates two of the English-speaking world’s most famous martyrs, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. St. John Fisher lived from 1469 to 1535. A Cambridge University scholar, Fisher became Bishop of Rochester, at that time the poorest diocese in England. He remained in that post for 31 years and apparently made every effort to become a model bishop. St. Thomas More lived from 1478 to 1535. The more famous of the two, More was a married layman, a scholar, famous throughout Europe as the author of Utopia, and a practicing lawyer who served for a time as Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. Because of their prominence, both Fisher and More were required to swear an oath in support of the English Parliament’s Act of Supremacy, which rejected the Pope’s universal jurisdiction over the Church and recognized the King instead as Head of the Church in England. For their fidelity to the true faith, both met with a martyr’s death – Fisher on June 22; More on July 6, 1535.
It is hard to tell the sad story of Henry VIII and the English Reformation without highlighting St. Thomas More. When we hear about St. Thomas More today, many – maybe most – of us imagine him as portrayed, for example, in the 1969 film Anne of a Thousand Days or the much more recent Showtime TV series The Tudors, or most famously of all perhaps in Robert Bolt’s 1960s play and movie A Man for All Seasons.
One of that play’s particular merits, I believe, is how it highlights More’s evident lack of any desire to be a martyr. There was nothing fanatical or obsessive or self-promotional about More’s opposition to the King’s policy. He did not desire to be the King’s opponent and did everything he could to avoid it. A sharp lawyer, he was willing to use whatever legal means were available to him to stay out of trouble.
Some of us may remember More’s lecture to William Roper about the value of the law in A Man for All Seasons: And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?... Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Even in the early Church, when the danger of martyrdom was a common concern, the Church never encouraged any kind of self-promoting, fanatical desire for martyrdom. Jesus warned his disciples to expect and be ready for challenge and even martyrdom. But that does not mean going out of one’s way to seek or create conflict, to be looking for a fight. On the contrary, we are taught to value our human, earthly, civil community, and to contribute to its welfare as far as possible. One of the great merits of our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion has been how it has benefited both Church and State, both religion and civil society.
16th-century England lacked the guarantees that would later be written into our Constitution by the Bill of Rights. Even so, the Freedom of the Church was in principle recognized in the English legal system to which St. Thomas More was so devoted. Three centuries earlier, in the famous Magna Carta, King John had been forced to acknowledge the Freedom of the Church: We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. In the end, of course, such legal guarantees proved insufficient, when faced with a determined government.
In the end, therefore, for all his loyalty to the King and his love for the law, Thomas More absolutely refused to compromise on the issue of the Church’s freedom. And that – the Church’s freedom – was the fundamental issue.
On other matters, More the statesman, More the politician who is now the patron saint of statesmen, was willing to compromise. More was willing, for example, to recognize Parliament’s right to alter the succession to the throne in favor of the new heirs that it was widely hoped would issue from the King’s “marriage” to Anne Boleyn. Thomas More most certainly did not approve of the King annulling his marriage to Queen Catherine so that he could marry someone younger and (hopefully) more fertile. But, while the King may not have had any real right to annul his marriage, More also knew how to make distinctions – as we all must. More recognized that the law of succession was part of what belonged to Caesar, and he recognized and respected Caesar’s jurisdiction. The freedom of the Church, however, was another matter - not what belongs to Caesar but what belongs to God.
King Henry VIII was neither the first - nor would he be the last - civil power to try to redefine the role of the Church in society. The many martyrs of the 20th century certainly attest to that. (There were more martyrs in the 20th century than in any previous one).
The challenges the Church faces today are not identical to those it confronted in 16th-century England, of course; and it would dishonor the fortitude of the martyrs, both ancient and modern, to pretend otherwise. But, whatever form they may take in different times and situations, challenges to the freedom of the Church will always arise. And such challenges must always be answered - as faithfully as St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More and so many others answered the challenges they faced in their time.