Like Thomas More, Catholics today must stand strong for religious freedom
As Lord Chancellor of England in the 16th century, Thomas More had a particularly close relationship with Henry VIII, who admired and counted on him. More’s faith, values, intellect, education and conscience had shaped him into a man of integrity, who reflected positively — and thus usefully — on the king. But More was no puppet, and when demanded by the king to do something he considered unethical, he responded, in so many words, “I cannot.”
More spent the last 15 months of his life imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to sanction Henry’s divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon and for refusing to take the Oath of Succession. Alone in the drafty Bell Tower, he was permitted infrequent and painfully brief visits from his family and was increasingly deprived even of the books he loved to read. The loneliness of those 15 months must have been torture for this active family man, this man of deep faith, this man of conviction.
Faith and conscience
More turned his place of confinement into a cell of prayer, and alone in the tower he wrote prayers and meditations on the faith. He found himself strung on the cross because of his faith and conscience and asked God to help him remain faithful. Amid the bewildering political battles and convoluted legal semantics of 16th-century England, More came to the realization that the only solution was not compromise but the cross. He would cling to the cross, for in so doing he was clinging to Jesus.
More shares his feast day, June 22, with St. John Fisher. Both were beheaded in 1535, Fisher on June 22 and More on July 6. Fisher, bishop of Rochester, had also resisted the king’s pressure to approve the divorce and refused to sign Henry’s Act of Supremacy. Twice imprisoned for his resistance, his execution came after 10 difficult months in the Tower of London.
From prison, More wrote to his daughter Margaret:
I will not mistrust him [God], Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.
And if he permits me to play St. Peter further and to fall to the ground and swear and forswear [in denial of Christ], may God our Lord in his tender mercy keep me from this, and let me lose if it so happen, and never win thereby! Still, if this should happen, afterward I trust that in his goodness he will look on me with pity as he did upon St. Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh and endure here the shame and harm of my own fault.
More and Fisher refused to act against their faith and conscience, and they paid the ultimate price. They are among those we remember during “Religious Freedom Week,” June 22–29, an observance sponsored by the bishops of the U.S. Sadly, we live at a time when our treasured religious freedom — our “First Freedom” — is in serious danger. I fear that often many Catholics in the United States ignore this threat to our practice of the faith.
Chief among the freedoms for which our American forbears fought was religious freedom. Recent events here and abroad have convinced us of the need to highlight “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” and call upon Catholics to reflect on it and do all in our power to preserve it.
Basic human right
The First Amendment both ensures that there will never be an established religion in this country and protects the God-given right of every citizen to live his or her religion freely, fully and with respect. This basic human right has many implications, and this year the theme of our observance is “Serving Others in God’s Love.” Religious freedom is crucial if we as Catholics are to continue to serve according to our faith in areas such as education, adoption and foster care, health care, and migration and refugee services.
The threat to religious freedom exists in many parts of the world, however, and with Pope Francis we bishops also wish to draw attention to all who experience unspeakable suffering as their right to religious freedom is denied or savagely attacked. The world often looks to America to uphold and preserve the high value of religious freedom, a right spelled out magnificently in a groundbreaking document of Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae. An American Jesuit priest, John Courtney Murray, was highly influential in the development of that document.
Religious Freedom Week gives us the opportunity to reflect on a precious part of our American heritage, threats to religious freedom at home and abroad, and the heroism and holiness of those who would not act against their faith in God and all it implied.
We Catholics have every right to be proud of our American heritage, every right to be patriotic. St. Thomas More loved his country and loved the king. But quoting More’s celebrated last words, we say in our own day that we, too, are “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - June 2018