The following post is a revised and abridged edition that will be published by Catholic News Agency this Friday, June 29th and July 2nd.
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. He addressed religious freedom in light of the martyrdom of St. John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, England, and St. Thomas More, lawyer and chancellor. In short, the execution of these two heroic men in 1535 resulted from their refusal to take an oath acknowledging King Henry VIII divorce with Queen Catherine and his act of making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.
In addition to the heroism that Archbishop Lori 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 Henry VIII 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.
These historical circumstances have something to do with what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said during the same week Fortnight for Freedom was kicked off:
“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.”
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), a 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 -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 damaged. Therefore, when the State bullied the Church, the public was slow to take notice.
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 his own family encouraged St. Thomas More to take the oath, swearing allegiance to the King’s supremacy. Now, this is surprising considering 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 its religious heritage in such short order 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 protestors. Rather, it was met with silence while two Saints wasted away inside.
Enter the HHS mandate: 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 was hit with the 2002 priestly scandals, low pastoral standards and a general lowering of morality (i.e. studies show Catholics do not fare much different in terms of divorce and contraception). Furthermore, the moral evils of contraception are rarely talked about in Catholic venues, 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 predictably subdued. Like the Tower of London in the 16th century, the public square in the United States is quiet in this regard.
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. Therefore, can we ask: Is it possible that we made it easier for the Obama administration to threaten the Church with his mandate?
Catholics can learn from the historic homily Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore delivered on June 21, 2012 in that the injustices of the H.H.S. mandate must be clearly articulated. Indeed, every effort must be made to expose this unprecedented power-grab by the federal government. But the Church in America can also greatly benefit from the comments made by Archbishop Charles Chaput when he said, “The worst enemies are in here, with us–all of us, clergy, religious, and lay…”
All this confirms that the Church is the hope and despair of mankind. When her leaders and members are worldly and pastoral standards are relaxed, society disintegrates and the State assumes inordinate power. On other hand, when Catholics are world-renouncing and zealous for the things of God, society is well ordered. The Church, for her part, is then able to be that effective “sign of contradiction” to the menace of political tyranny.