Monday, June 22, 2015

St. John Fisher and Religious Freedom

The Church commemorates June 22nd as the Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, both martyred for the Faith and the Catholic Church by the English King Henry VIII.  Below is an updated version of a post I originally last year about these still very relevant saints.

St. John Fisher

Saint John Fisher
     St. Thomas More is more familiar than his contemporary St. John Fisher, 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 (hereon Blessed Margaret Pole, who gave her life in the same cause, 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.

Henry VIII
     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 VIII’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 fourth annual Fortnight for Freedom is underway.  The bishops of the United States organized the first such fortnight three 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 American Catholics in defense of their religious freedom.
     One of the highlights of last year's 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-seven 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 
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska
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 last March, full text here).
     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 Humanae 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 U.S. 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 (with the difference that they are unlikely to lose their heads for it). 
     Speaking of which, 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.