Last Sunday (June 22nd) is usually commemorated by the Church as the Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. As the 22nd fell on a Sunday this year (and not only that, the Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ) the observance of the Saints day was suppressed. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want another year to go by without saying something about these two saints who have so much to say to us, especially St. John Fisher.
St. John Fisher
|Saint John Fisher|
St. Thomas More is the more familiar of the two today, partly because his magnetic personality still resonates almost five centuries later, but also in large part because of Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man For All Seasons. St. John Fisher’s story is no less compelling, however, and is in fact given greater prominence by the Church (both Saints are commemorated on the anniversary of his death, although they were not martyred on the same day).
Who was St. John Fisher? At the time of his death he was bishop of the English see of Rochester, and he died defending the authority of the Church (and its vicar the Pope) and the sanctity of marriage against a monarch whose recklessness has done incalculable harm over the centuries to both: King Henry VIII. In my previous post on Blessed Margaret Pole (here) I wrote of Henry VIII that he
could serve as a sort of patron “anti-saint” for our times. He was a man possessed of great gifts; he was given a strong, handsome, athletic body, [and] a quick mind that he applied to writing and musical composition as well as governing, and the rule of a rich and powerful kingdom. Henry never mastered himself, however, and so his prodigious talents were put at the service, not of his people, but of his equally prodigious cravings for women, wealth, and power. In the end he tried to swallow even the Church. In his later years his grossly obese body became a living image of his insatiable appetites.
Before his episcopal ordination, Fisher had been the confessor of Margaret Beauford, Henry’s grandmother, and reportedly tutored the future Monarch himself. The bishop’s long familiarity with the king and his family did him no more good than layman Thomas More’s personal friendship with Henry did him. Fisher had championed the marriage of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, and had resisted the king’s encroachments on the Church. At last, when he refused to take an oath recognizing the offspring of Henry’s new wife Ann Boleyn as the legitimate successors to the throne, he was put to death. He alone of the English bishops resisted to the bitter end King Henry’s usurpation of the authority of the Church and mockery of the sanctity of marriage.
The Fortnight For Freedom
Henry XVIII’s bloated specter casts a longer shadow over the world today than at any time since his death almost five hundred years ago, now when a voracious state is devouring more and more of our freedoms, and casting an especially greedy eye on the free exercise of religion. It is in this context that the third annual Fortnight for Freedom is underway. The bishops of the United States organized the first such fortnight two years ago in response to the mandate of President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services that almost all employers, including most Catholic employers (the religious exemption was so narrow that one bishop remarked that even Jesus and his Apostles wouldn’t have qualified) provide free contraceptive coverage in all employee health plans. Alarmed at this attempt to force Catholics to pay for and promote something that the Church has always taught is intrinsically evil, the bishops designated the two weeks (a fortnight) before the 4th of July as a special observance first of all to remind the government that our founding documents affirm that we “ have been endowed” by our “Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (from the Declaration of Independence), and promise us that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion (from Amendment 1, United States Constitution). The fortnight is also an opportunity to rally Catholics in defense of their religious freedom.
One of the highlights of the Fortnight for Freedom in the Diocese of Portland was a talk by Catholic Answers apologist Tim Staples. He hit upon a number of themes that have been explored in this space, among them the inextricable connection between morality, faith, and the health of a culture. And given the role contraception has played in both the decline of morality and the undermining of faith in the Church, it is fitting that it was the attempt to force contraception on the Church that precipitated the unprecedented and virtually unanimous response by the U.S. bishops.
Contraception and the Clergy
At the same time, there is an irony here. From its earliest years the Church has condemned contraception as a grave evil. Today, however, a majority of professed Catholics don’t accept the teaching; many may not even know it’s a sin, and most have probably never heard a good explanation of Catholic doctrine on this point. I can attest to the shock and confusion on the faces of both the engaged couples and the organizers of the event when my lovely bride and I attempted to explain the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage at a Pre-Cana conference to which we had been invited to do just that (for a fuller discussion see here). Despite the clear and uncompromising nature of the doctrine, however, the seriousness of the sin, and the manifestation (with a vengeance) of all the evils that forty-six years ago in Humanae Vitae (full text here) Pope Paul VI had predicted would follow the widespread acceptance of contraception, the clergy below the papal level have been a little shy about discussing it. There have been some notable exceptions, for instance
then-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s magnificent
pastoral letter on the 30th anniversary of Pope Paul’s encyclical (here), but on the whole the
matter has not received due justice. Bishops
and priests are starting to talk about the sin of contraception more often, but
usually very briefly in reference to the HHS Mandate; there is still very
little teaching taking place (although the exceptions are becoming more
frequent: the latest example is Lincoln, Nebraska, bishop James Conley’s
beautiful pastoral letter on marriage and contraception this past March, full
|Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska|
The reasons for this reticence are clear enough. First, much of the ordained clergy was no doubt intimidated by the ferocious (and premeditated) backlash against Humane Vitae; also, in an age which exalts personal experience over universal principles many have been reluctant to speak out on a matter which affects laypersons, but not themselves; they social atmosphere at the time was neatly encapsulated forty years ago in Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz’s notorious remark in reference to Paul VI, “He no play-a the game, he no make-a the rules”.
Times change, however. In the last twenty or so years with the explosion of lay apologetics there are now many prominent lay Catholics speaking eloquently and forcefully about the Catholic teaching on contraception. Also, the HHS mandate has forced the American clergy into a corner where they must either surrender their rightful authority to a bullying secular state, as almost all the English bishops eventually did in the time of Henry VIII, or, like St. John Fisher, take a bold stand for the truth. In the question and answer session after his talk in Portland, Tim Staples said that faith in Christ without his Church is faith in a head without a body, because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ on Earth. In a similar vein, the laity without the leadership of the hierarchy is like a body without a head, or, to use another image, an army without officers. Capable and motivated sergeants have emerged over last couple decades to instruct and rally the faithful, but God has commissioned his ordained priests and bishops to lead us into battle against the “principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). As St. Thomas More is a Patron Saint for us laymen in the present crisis, so is St. John Fisher for our ordained leaders.
St. John Fisher, pray for all Catholic bishops and priests, and be an inspiration to them, that they may follow your lead in bravely defending Christ’s Church and his Holy Sacrament of Marriage. Amen.