Fr Billy Swan
Each year on 22nd June, the Church celebrates the memory of two men who died a heroic death and whose witness serve to inspire us to be more morally courageous for the times in which we live. As a priest and bishop, John Fisher (1469-1535) was martyred on June 22, 1535, for his opposition to the marriage of King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn and his refusal to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. Two weeks later, on July 6, Thomas More (1478-1535), a husband and father, was martyred in the tower of London for the same reasons.
Both were canonized saints on May 19, 1935, by Pope Pius XI. For all the baptized, both citizens and politicians, the stories of John Fisher and Thomas More are yet another reminder that faith cannot remain a private concern but must also animate our public lives of integrity. Saints John Fisher and Thomas More teach us that this can only come about through Christians with a courageous conscience, being faithful to truth and having a proper understanding of the relationship between church and state.
First, the importance of conscience. In the movie A Man for all Seasons, which recalls the life of St. Thomas More, there are several wonderful lines placed on the lips of Thomas that reveal the integrity of his conscience that remained intact throughout his life, trial, and condemnation. This integrity is in sharp contrast to the ugly superficiality and political expediency of those around him, including bishops and cardinals. In a conversation with Cardinal Wolsey, the cardinal complains to Thomas: “If you could only see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint.” To which Thomas replies: “When Statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” Here Thomas points to the truth that human beings are inescapably moral creatures. It is not a question of who has a moral squint and who doesn’t. The real question is how that moral squint is aligned to what is true and good or alternatively how it is skewed or distorted toward evil.
Another lesson from the witness of John and Thomas is how being faithful to one’s conscience often goes against the majority and is therefore costly. Being faithful to one’s conscience is a matter of eternal significance, for it determines whether we end up in heaven or hell. When moral pressure was applied to Thomas to sign the oath of supremacy recognizing King Henry as head of the Church of England, one of his colleagues urged him to sign the oath as he and others had done for the reason of “fellowship.” To this pressure, Thomas replied: “And when we die and you are sent to heaven for being faithful to your conscience and I am sent to hell for not being faithful to mine, will you join me in hell, for fellowship?”
The moral integrity of a Catholic Christian must be deeper that doing what is expedient or going with majority opinion, which can be a fickle thing. Being faithful to the truth in conscience might lose us friends, but it matures our integrity and moral fiber, setting us on course for eternal and blessed union with God. This is the summum bonum that we can’t risk losing, for if we do, we lose ourselves along the way. Obeying our conscience means claiming its rights that are based on its duties and being faithful to truth that must be recognized rather than created.
Regarding fidelity to truth, John and Thomas are outstanding examples of people whose consciences sought the truth rather than invent it. They clung steadfastly to the legitimacy of Henry’s first marriage of Catherine of Aragon and the spiritual authority the pope. This was the authority that surpassed any state law that deviated from the natural laws decreed by God. This authority safeguarded the truth of revelation and the objective value of truth that cannot be manipulated by people inconvenienced by its demands.
For John Fisher and Thomas More, the marriage of Henry to Catherine was true, as was the supreme authority of the pope in the Church. They held to these truths both in private and in public.
To claim something is true in private but to work against that truth in public can only be done by violating the principle of noncontradiction, whereby something cannot be true and untrue at the same time. For, as Aristotle pointed out centuries ago, if contradictory claims are just as valid as noncontradictory claims, then all words and all arguments are meaningless (Metaphysics, bk. 4, chap. 3). As John and Thomas rightly intuited, when this happens, both truth and civilization are fatally undermined. This is why they stood fast in the face of death. It wasn’t just their lives that were under threat. So too was the foundation of justice and civilization.
The final lesson from the witness of John Fisher and Thomas More is the relationship between church and state. Both men were faithful citizens who loved their country and king. Before his execution, Thomas More famously declared himself to be “the king’s good servant but God’s first.” Neither man tried to impose his beliefs on others, and that’s not why they were killed. Rather, the nefarious intent of the king pursued them and gave them an ultimatum to take the oath and conform to his corruption. Their refusal led to their deaths.
This unwillingness to compromise with state laws that are unjust, particularly if they are rooted in dishonesty, is one of the greatest challenges facing Catholics today who live in areas of the world where religious freedom is suppressed. In the fourth century, St. Augustine insisted that “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all” (On Free Choice of the Will, 1, 5)—something repeated by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, 1-2.96.4) and Martin Luther King who wrote from prison in Birmingham that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Earlier, Thomas Jefferson had written, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obliged to do so.”
Here is the spirit of honor exemplified by John Fisher and Thomas More. It is this spirit of faithful and critical citizenship that we need today to be “our country’s good servants but God’s first.”
John Fisher and Thomas More would become like shining stars for thousands of English Catholics who prayed for the courage to face imprisonment and death rather than betray the faith. Let us not shrink from the same challenge in our day to courageously stand fast for the freedom of conscience, truth, and moral integrity so badly needed for our time.
By God’s grace, may Catholic Christians—both clergy and laity—follow the examples of John Fisher and Thomas More, and be a leaven for the healing and renewal of our societies and politics.
Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, pray for us!