“The fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this ‘fortnight for freedom’—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action will emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.”
On June 21st of 2012, Archbishop William Lori delivered an historic homily to commence Forthnight for Freedom in the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. Upon the conclusion of the homily, he deservedly received a standing ovation from the congregation in attendance. Indeed, it was passionately and flawlessly delivered (the contents of the homily is provided in the post below).
In particular, the new archbishop of Baltimore criticized the unprecedented overreach of the HHS mandate. In no uncertain terms he said, “Until now, it has been entirely possible under federal law for conscientious owners to conduct private businesses in accord with one’s conscience and the teachings of one’s faith.” But with the mandate imposed on the Catholic Church, fundamental religious and civic rights- not just of Catholics but of all Americans -will be at stake like never before. Without exaggerating, it can be said we are at a critical juncture in American history. He then reminded the Catholic faithful that time is not on our side. “On Aug. 1st,” he said, “less than six weeks from now, the Health and Human Services mandate will go into effect.” With this time frame in mind the U.S. Catholic bishops are asking us to pray, fast, unite, speak up and act.
HHS Mandate and Henry VIII:
Noteworthy is that Archbishop William Lori gave his homily on the topic of religious freedom within the broader context of two Catholic martyrs from 1500’s. In addition to the heroism that the archbishop asked us to remember and venerate, I would like to address another consideration that is every bit as important for the preservation of our religious liberty. And this consideration has to do with the historical circumstances which made it easier for King of England to violate, not only the religious liberty of the Church in his own country, but the human rights of those Catholics who died under him (more on this later). Again, the emphasis of this homily was placed squarely on two Saints who laid down their lives for religious freedom. These two great Saints are none other than St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. Their willingness to die for Christ and his Church is a testament to the ultimate truth that God is supreme and he is to be obeyed above any earthly authority.
To make a long story short, King Henry VIII of England wanted a divorce from Queen Catherine because she could not produce an heir from him. However, he failed to get an annulment from the Holy See. Feeling a little chagrined, to say the least, he broke ties with the Catholic Church and hence declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. It should also be noted that he married four more times (after marrying his second wife, Queen Ann).
As with any ruler guilty of power grabbing, it wasn’t enough that he took the initiative to anoint himself Head of the Church. No. Others had to approve of his power grab through an oath. Of course, what this meant was that any opposition to his new title would be a crime of high treason. But St. John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, could not, in good conscience, take the oath of support. Archbishop Lori quoted him as saying, “I cannot in anywise possibly take [the oath], except I should make shipwreck of my conscience, and then were I fit to serve neither God nor man.” As for St. Thomas More, a chancellor of King Henry VIII, he refused to swear the oath for the same reasons. As such, these two men were imprisoned in the Tower of London for several months and then executed within days apart in 1535. Lori then goes on to make a not so subtle connection between 16th century England and 21st century America:
“In the wake of St. John Fisher’s martyrdom, churches, monasteries and centers of learning were seized by royal power and were either destroyed or made to break their ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The government interfered in the internal life of the Church with a cruel thoroughness John Fisher could not have imagined even a few years earlier. He symbolizes for us our struggle to maintain religious freedom for Church institutions and ministries such as our schools and charities. We surely are not facing the dire brutality that confronted St. John Fisher, but our Church and her institutions do find themselves today in perilous waters.”
Then he concluded his homily with these words: “Friends, we must never allow the government — any government, at any time, or any party — to impose such a constrictive definition on our beloved Church or any church!”
Public Sympathy for Despotism:
As a preliminary note to this section, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) once wrote the following in a letter to a cardinal: "The historian of the Church has the duty to dissimulate [i.e. mask] none of the trials that the Church has had to suffer from the faults of her children, and even at times from those of her own ministers." As such, it is not in our best interest to exaggerate nor mask the sins of those within the Church during the late 1400’s to mid 1500’s or even in our own era. To do so is to run the risk of overlooking the cure to the erosion religious liberty. Church history can provide us insights into current events if we but take the time to consider them. Indeed, there is a reason why foes of religious liberty nearly 500 years ago and foes of religious in recent years were able to violate the most fundamental rights of the Church with public support and with few political consequences.
As for St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More and their standoff with King Henry VIII, the following is a time frame and a broader context as to how the conditions ripened for the challenges that were to threaten religious liberty:
In a nutshell: St. John Fisher was ordained a priest in 1491. And as for St. Thomas More, in 1504 he was elected to Parliament and in 1505 was married to Jane Colt. Their martyrdom, only days apart, took place in the summer of 1535.
Alongside the developments in England there were other unfortunate developments unfolding in the Catholic Church. During the lifetime of St. John and St. Thomas- from the late 1400’s to at least the mid 1500’s -the papacy had stooped to its lowest point in terms of internal discipline, morals and the ill repute that natural followed. At the same time, scores of Catholics left the Church and Protestantism was borne. By breaking with the Roman Catholic Church (from 1517-1534), Martin Luther and King Henry VIII certainly did wrong. However, the general lowering of morality among the Catholic clergy, even within the papal court itself, gave many an excuse to either sever ties with the Church or introduce their own flawed agenda.
For instance, the papacy of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) was rocked with scandal. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) was preoccupied with wars. As for Pope Leo X (1513-1521), an historian of the papacy, Joseph Brusher, had this to say about him: “Leo faced the crushing responsibility of spiritual leadership with a light heart. He loved shows and games, and many a play and ballet was performed for the Pope's amusement. A keen sportsman, Leo spent much time hunting. He was careless of the morals of the humanists he patronized as long as their Latin was Ciceronian.” Upon giving a toast, he was quoted saying, “Let’s enjoy the papacy!” And Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) “was a handsome man of good morals, and quite free from the frivolity of Leo X, but he was not very able and was tortured with a dangerous inability to make up his mind. In short, he was scarcely the pope for troubled times.” Indeed, he dragged his feet, hoping the crisis with King Henry VIII and his appeal for a divorce would just go away. The thing to be noted here is that the problems which beset the papacy was but an index of what was transpiring in many dioceses throughout Europe.
However, to put things in perspective, out of a total of 266 popes, about a hundred of them were superb to very good, about hundred were good, if not, capable and there were a handful that were real disappointments. But even given the imperfections of these few popes, Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) reminds us that "the dignity of Peter suffers no diminution even in an unworthy successor."
Nevertheless, relaxed morals and discipline within the Church has led, in many cases, to a boomerang effect that ended up costing her dearly. We Catholics rightly deplore the Reformation and how it led to the splintering of Christianity. But what preceded the Reformation- what made it ripe for its success -as stated previously, was a general lowering of morality and discipline among the clergy. It can be argued, therefore, that decades of sinful behavior and mismanagement on the part of the leaders and members of the Church occasioned the Reformation. In fact, during the twenty years leading up to the Luther’s protest, the talk of the town- in nearly every town –was “reform! reform! reform!” And unfortunately, from Pope Alexander VI (1492) to Pope Clement VII (1534) and beyond, the image of the papacy was stained and the pope’s credibility as being the Universal Shepherd of the Church was undermined. Therefore, when the State bullied the Church, the public was slow to take notice.
For instance, it is a true marvel that nearly everyone in 16th century England- including bishops, priests and laity -sided with King Henry VIII despite his transgressions. Even More’s family encouraged the Saint to take the oath, swearing allegiance to the King’s supremacy. Now, the marvel consist in the fact that the Catholic Church built up England from a tribal, savage and superstitious region to a civilized and educated nation. Oxford University, in fact, was one of the first universities in Europe; an institution that was the fruit of Catholic monks creating a Christian environment in which sanctity and learning could flourish. For a nation to just abandon, in short order, the very Church that gave it being, is a lesson for all of us. Indeed, because the papacy and the episcopate became an object of ridicule and scorn, King Henry VIII could get away with incarcerating and then executing St. John Fisher, a bishop in good standing and St. More, a highly respected chancellor, for so-called high treason without the slightest rebellion or insurrection by public.
For their imprisonment, these two Saints spent a long and lonely fourteen months in the Tower of London. But there were no public protests to have them released. Instead, their characters were maligned from many pulpits. If we can write a sad note in Great Britain’s history it would read as follows: The Tower was not the gathering place for protesters. Rather, it was met with silence while two Saints wasted away inside.
Connection to Fortnight Freedom:
It is interesting to note that during an election year President Barak Obama decided to gamble on compelling the Catholic Church to provide contraception through its health insurance. Many in the Catholic media had marveled that he would take this risk, considering the importance of the Catholic voting bloc. But from all appearances, the HHS mandate did not cause a sizable political backlash. Certainly, the polls show that most people support the Catholic Church’s position in asserting her right to refuse the distribution of birth control. But support doesn’t necessarily translate into a vigorous defense. With that said, what can prove to be damaging to the Obama presidency is not the HHS mandate but the Fast and Furious scandal. In fact, if the White House can survive the scrutiny and negative publicity of Fast and Furious, and if the economy can make a comeback in the months to come, it is conceivable that President Obama can be reelected in 2012.
Yet, this begs the question: How can a U.S. president possibly be reelected if he, in broad daylight, set out to deny the Church’s right to religious liberty? Answer: It has something to do with why a tyrannical king could deny the Catholic Church’s religious liberty in 16th century England. In recent decades, the Church in America has been marked by low pastoral standards and a general lowering of morality. The moral evils of contraception are rarely talked about, the worst offenders of human rights (i.e. progressive politicians and other public figures) are allowed to sit comfortably in our pews and those who show no interest in observing God's laws have easy access to the Sacraments. Suffice it to say that by making repentance an option as a matter of pastoral policy had led, in no small measure, to the 2002 priestly scandals in which the Catholic Church lost quite a bit of credibility in the eyes of the American public. The residue of that public distrust still remains. As such, the public outrage over the HHS mandate is surprisingly subdued. Like the Tower of London in the 16th century, the public square in the United States is quiet in this regard.
Amid theses challenges, Archbishop William Lori in his Fortnight for Freedom homily points us in the right direction. He brought to our attention what is really at stake for the freedom of the Catholic Church in America. And if that freedom is to be preserved, then a martyr-like conviction and courage, like that of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, are virtues that can take us where we need to be. Still, coming to terms with the fact that our own failings contributed, in part, to this HHS mandate crisis is important. This is where the words of another archbishop can compliment to the homily of Archbishop Lori. During the same week, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia reminded us of a very important component in defending religious liberty:
“Politics and the courts are important. But our religious freedom ultimately depends on the vividness of our own Christian faith–in other words, how deeply we believe it, and how honestly we live it. Religious liberty is an empty shell if the spiritual core of a people is weak. Or to put it more bluntly, if people don’t believe in God, religious liberty isn’t a value. That’s the heart of the matter…The worst enemies of religious freedom aren’t ‘out there’ among the legion of critics who hate Christ or the Gospel or the church, or all three. The worst enemies are in here, with us–all of us, clergy, religious, and lay–when we live our faith with tepidness, routine, and hypocrisy.”
This is where the Tower has some relevance for the Fortnight for Freedom. It teaches us that in addition to mounting a robust defense of religious liberty, exposing the injustice of the HHS mandate, a real repentance from relaxed standards is needed. An examination of conscience would likely tell us that as with the Reformation in the 16th century, Catholics had something to do with the chipping away of religious liberty in 2012. In other words, is it possible that we made it easier for the Obama administration to threaten the Church with his mandate?
To be sure, the most liberating thing about accepting the Gospel is to know that we are sinners and that our sins can be absolved if only we confess them with a humble heart. From there, the cure to the erosion of religious liberty can be had.