Saints John Fisher and Thomas More: Witnesses in Defense of Marriage and the Church
A famous telling of the story of Saint Thomas More is entitled “A Man for All Seasons.” Certainly this patron of statesmen, together with his contemporary Saint John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, is a man for our time as we confront challenges quite similar to those presented to these two inspirational martyrs, whose joint feast day we celebrate today.
In a dispute with Henry VIII, each of them gave the ultimate witness of their Catholic faith. Bishop Fisher, who was created a cardinal only weeks before, was beheaded first on June 22, 1535. Two weeks later – a fortnight – Sir Thomas, once Chancellor of England, followed him to execution.
As faithful Catholics and as loyal Americans today, we can learn from their witness and so the bishops of our nation have chosen this particular time to observe the Fortnight for Freedom. The theme this year, “The Freedom to Bear Witness,” is particularly timely as Catholics and all Christians face many great challenges to our ability freely to live our faith and to pursue our Gospel mission, including being the voice of conscience and truth in society.
At the root of the king’s displeasure with Thomas More and John Fisher was the question of marriage – an issue which has taken center stage in our nation today. A related matter was the freedom and authority of the Church in communion with the Pope. When Pope Clement VII refused Henry’s demand for dissolution of his long-time marriage to Queen Catherine, the king prevailed upon Parliament to declare him supreme head of the Church in England and recognize his subsequent marriage to Lady Anne Boleyn as legitimate.
During this time, Bishop Fisher spoke out publicly in defense of the Church and the indissolubility of marriage, but Thomas More avoided any public opposition of Henry’s actions. However, soon a law was passed requiring that they and others take an oath publicly affirming the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his assertion to be head of the Church of England. Each refused and, as a consequence, each was later condemned for treason and executed.
The play A Man for All Seasons dramatizes Thomas More’s response when he is asked to explain why he will not sign the oath: “Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat. It is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? No, I will not sign.”
In our country today, and in nations around the world, many courts and legislatures are proclaiming the right to redefine and rename anything at will. It is as if they are commanding that the round world be flat or that in the future oranges be called apples to avoid a sense of discrimination.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Westminster Hall, the site of the trials of Thomas More and John Fisher. He said, “There are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”
The Church has the responsibility to bear witness to the truth with love. Catholic teaching has long made clear that all people have equal dignity, regardless of sexual orientation. But marriage by its very nature is reserved for husband and wife because of its essential connection with the creation of children. That is what the word “marriage” has always meant. No one should be compelled to say otherwise.