On Monday of this week a dual feast day came and went with the lack of fanfare that one would expect from what the Church designates an “optional memorial.” On the hierarchy of feast days in the liturgical calendar these optional memorials rank just above weekdays in Advent, i.e., not very high. This is unfortunate because the two men honored on June 22nd are among the most important for the 21st Century Church, and especially today for Catholics in America.
As a nation that sprang from rebellion against the English crown, we should take special notice each year of the Optional Memorial of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. These two men stood alone against Henry VIII and his assault on the authority of the pope and the Church. In doing so they not only opposed the king but also every nobleman and bishop in the realm. For their faithfulness to the cause of the Catholic Church in England they were beheaded as traitors to the crown. The form of their treason was the refusal to recognize the monarch as the rightful head of the Church in England.
These two brave men stood their ground when the king overstepped his bounds, and they paid for their courage with their lives.
Henry’s break with the Church was ostensibly about his desire to divorce the queen so that he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. But of at least equal importance to Henry was the power grab involving the dissolution of the monasteries. The wealth of these communities funded his military campaigns, and the land was distributed to those in Henry’s good graces. The so-called Reformation in England had no theological basis – it was a simple act of theft of Church property.
So, it was against this background that More and Fisher made their stand. For them, as for the Catholic Church since the time of the earliest Christian monarchs, the belief was that the highest ruler was subject to the same moral law as the lowest serf. Henry changed all of that by making himself the head of both the physical and spiritual realm of England. Previous Catholic monarchs could control the material aspect of the lives of their subjects, but the moral aspect was sacrosanct, and no person – not even a queen or king – could get between a Catholic soul and God.
Today, we live in a post-Enlightenment liberal state, one that speaks in terms of the separation of that state from any church or set of religious beliefs, but even we recognize the importance of religious liberty. Yet that liberty always needs advocates, both political and episcopal to guard against a creeping, yet unofficial, state religion that pits the ideals of the philosophes like Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Franklin, against the perennial teachings of the Catholic Church. Without modern-day politicians and bishops in the mold of More and Fisher, the battle for the rights of Catholics to express their beliefs in the public square might easily be lost.
In the movie version of the play A Man for All Seasons, as More is about to be beheaded, he states that he is “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Certainly the sources of More’s statement are the words of Jesus and St. Paul: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches that we are to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar; and in his words to the Christians in Rome St. Paul reminds them to give fitting respect and honor to civil authorities.
More’s final statement should be the mantra of every Catholic, of every ethnic background, in every country in the world. We are all called by our faith to be good citizens and to do whatever we can for the common good. Our efforts on behalf of social progress must never transgress the moral imperatives laid down by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, most especially His call to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute.
Prominent Catholics, both civic and religious, as modern-day Thomas Mores and John Fishers, need to be examples of this approach. Their position in society, brought about through democratic elections and episcopal appointments, enables them to speak truth to power in ways that have a weight and authority beyond the average citizen. Let us pray that they look to great saints like Thomas More and John Fisher as they search for the words and actions that can bring the Catholic message of the Prince of Peace to the hurting people of this lost and broken world.