Friday, June 21, 2013
Fortnight for Freedom: Saints John Fisher and Thomas More
I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show this morning at 6:45 Central, 7:45 Eastern to discuss the connections among the 2013 Fortnight for (Religious) Freedom, Saints John Fisher and Thomas More (on the vigil of their feast as martyrs), and the true definition of conscience. As you know, you can listen live on-line.
As Ryan Topping notes in his Rebuilding Catholic Culture, for as much good as Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons has done to make St. Thomas More well known, the play has also done harm because of its modern view of conscience, which Blessed John Henry Newman identified in the nineteenth century as “a creation of man”. This view of conscience Newman calls “the right of self will.” It thinks of conscience as the individual’s “right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all” so that everyone is “to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one's leave”. Newman also calls this view of conscience, in contrast to true conscience, as being "consistent with oneself"--and that's the form of conscience in Thomas More that Robert Bolt prizes. It's his individual claim, his independent freedom, that Robert Bolt wanted to depict--Thomas More as "hero of selfhood" (from the Preface; cited by Topping on page 129). (Newman quotes from his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.)
Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More did not argue for their freedom of conscience from that position. Their consciences were reflecting natural law and God's revelation, and both spoke on the worldwide tradition and current Catholic teaching to back up their decision not to swear either the Oath of Succession or the Oath of Supremacy (both of which denied the authority of the Pope on the matter of judging the sacramental validity of marriage). Transcripts of their trials indicate that both of them cited the authority of tradition and Christendom against Henry VIII:
St. Thomas More: "I see no reason why that thing should make any Change in my Conscience: for I doubt not, but of the learned and virtuous Men now alive, I do not speak only of this Realm, but of all Christendom, there are ten to one of my mind in this matter; but if I should take notice of those learned Doctors and virtuous Fathers that are already dead, many of whom are Saints in Heaven, I am sure there are far more, who all the while they lived thought in this case as I do now. And therefore, my Lord, I do not think my self bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom."
St. John Fisher: "My lords, I am here condemned before you of high treason for denial of the King's supremacy over the Church of England, but by what order of justice I leave to God, Who is the searcher both of the king his Majesty's conscience and yours; nevertheless, being found guilty, as it is termed, I am and must be contented with all that God shall send, to whose will I wholly refer and submit myself. And now to tell you plainly my mind, touching this matter of the king's supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that His Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him; neither hath (it) been seen or heard of that any temporal prince before his days hath presumed to that dignity; wherefore, if the king will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge, wherefore, I pray God his Grace may remember himself in good time, and harken to good counsel for the preservation of himself and his realm and the quietness of all Christendom."
Last year, at the opening Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom in Baltimore, Maryland, Archbishop William Lori gave the homily. I'm sure that in some way tonight at the opening Mass at the Baltimore Basilica, he will recall these two great saints in some way. (I have to admit that when I watched that homily last year, one of my first thoughts was--"Not Tyburn Hill! They were beheaded on Tower Hill!")