Tuesday, October 13, 2015

St. John Fisher versus St. Thomas More?

Dr. Samuel Gregg writes in The Catholic World Report, proposing St. Thomas More as an appropriate patron saint for the current Synod on the Family:

And one saint whose life is particularly relevant for the 2015 Synod on the Family is surely Thomas More. Universally recognized as a scholar, statesman and lawyer, we often forget that More was also a son, father, and husband. Moreover, one of the principles for which More gave his life could not be more pertinent for this Synod’s reflections: the indissolubility of marriage in the face of Henry VIII’s determination to live as man and wife with a lady who, in the Church’s judgment, was not his wife.

I certainly agree with Dr. Gregg's comments about More and marriage and family life:

All of More’s biographers, even the hostile, underline his devotion to his family. The workload assumed by More upon entering the king’s service in 1518 would have broken many people. Yet despite his weighty responsibilities, More organized and helped impart an educational program for his children, including his daughters (a radical step for the time), that would put most of us to shame today. Even when More’s obligations required him to be away from his family for long periods, he engaged in constant correspondence with them, listened to their problems, gave advice and encouragement, and, when necessary, gently reprimanded them.

Above all, More worked to shape his family’s faith and moral character. Living the Christian life and pursuing the virtues was not, to More’s mind, beyond the powers of all but a small heroic group. Though recognizing that self-mastery is difficult, More was firmly convinced that it was, with the aid of grace, a potentially that anyone could actualize.

Nevertheless, I think that More's rather muted opposition to Henry's plans to marry Anne Boleyn with or without the decree of nullity he demanded from the pope, is more complex than Gregg seems to assert. We may rightly assume More's opposition, but he never stated it. He was careful to stay out of the King's Great Matter during his time as Chancellor, with Henry's concurrence, but he resigned when Henry took final steps against the papacy in 1532, not against his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. More resigned as Chancellor after Parliament passed the Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates, threatening the pope with the withholding of certain payments if Clement VII did not declare Henry's marriage null and void and after the Submission of the Clergy to Henry VIII as Supreme Head and Governor of the Church ("as far as the law of God allows"). The issues of the marriage and the authority of the pope were intertwined, but More's defense of  this marriage is not so clear as Gregg indicates.

Gregg states that the Oath of Succession contained language affirming the invalidity of Henry's first marriage. It does not, although the Act of Succession certainly did. The text of the oath:

'Ye shall swear to bear faith, truth, and obedience alonely to the king's majesty, and to his heirs of his body of his most dear and entirely beloved lawful wife Queen Anne, begotten and to be begotten, and further to the heirs of our said sovereign lord according to the limitation in the statute made for surety of his succession in the crown of this realm, mentioned and contained, and not to any other within this realm, for foreign authority or potentate: and in case any oath be made, or has been made, by you, to any person or persons, that then ye [are] to repute the same as vain and annihilate; and that, to your cunning, wit, and uttermost of your power, without guile, fraud, or other undue means, you shall observe, keep, maintain, and defend the said Act of Accession, and all the whole effects and contents thereof, and all other Acts and statutes made in confirmation, or for the execution of the same, or of anything therein contained; and this ye shall do against all manner of persons, of what estate, dignity, degree, or condition soever they be, and in no wise do or attempt, nor to your power suffer to be done or attempted, directly or indirectly, any thing or things privily or apartly to the let, hindrance, damage, or derogation thereof, or of any part of the same, by any manner of means, or for any manner of pretence; so help you God, all saints, and the holy Evangelists.'

Finally, at trial under the Treason Act, More's focus was all on the Royal Supremacy over the Church in England, not the marriage of Henry to Anne or the validity of the marriage of Henry to Katherine. 

I dissent from Gregg's overall thesis only because I think that he should have chosen St. John Fisher as the patron saint for the synod for his defense of the Church's teaching on sacramental marriage. Along with the Observant Franciscans of Greenwich and three of Katherine of Aragon's confessors and chaplains, the Bishop of Rochester was the most open opponent of Henry's marital plans. Alone among the bishops of England, he upheld the validity of Katherine's marriage to Henry from the beginning and counselled her, as this article by Thomas McGovern narrates:

Fisher, after careful study of the Fathers and Sacred Scripture replied that he was thoroughly convinced there was no prohibition against such a marriage. From that time until Henry's attempted marriage to Anne Boleyn (January 1533) Fisher used every opportunity to defend Queen Catherine's cause in his preaching and in writing.

By 1525 Catherine was forty years of age; she had presented Henry with one daughter, the future Queen Mary, but with no male heir. There had been several stillbirths and it now seemed unlikely that Henry could expect a son to succeed him. At some stage Henry became aware of the text of Leviticus: "He that marries his brother's wife does an unlawful thing . . . they shall be without children."and thus felt he had grounds to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine, who had previously been married to Arthur, his elder brother. The king claimed that it was his concern for a legitimate male heir that first caused him to take the text seriously, but subsequent events were strongly to suggest that it was his passion for Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting, which was the determining factor in Henry's newly acquired concern for biblical exegesis.

About September 1527 the king consulted Fisher personally about his "great matter." The bishop of Rochester told him that there wasn't the slightest doubt about the validity of his marriage, and that he was prepared to defend this view against all comers. Seven years later, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, in reply to a question about the number of books he had written concerning the king's marriage and divorce, he replied: "I am not certain how many, but I can recall seven or eight that I have written. The matter was so serious both on account of the importance of the persons it concerned, and the express command of the king, that I gave more labour and diligence to seeking out the truth lest I should fail him and others, than I ever gave to any other matter." He fulfilled his responsibilities to his king, yet he never reneged on his support for Catherine; he consistently spoke out in her defense even though he knew well that such a stance was fraught with dangerous consequences. 

His continuing efforts to defend the validity of marriage at the Papal Legatine Court in 1529, even stating that he was willing like St. John the Baptist to die, make St. John Fisher a more cogent choice for patron saint of the Synod being held in Rome.

Further, I think that his position as bishop makes him the better patron saint of a Synod of Bishops. Although he was not able in his own day able to persuade the Convocation of Bishops to stand firm against Henry and Cromwell, perhaps his intercession today will lead the cardinals and bishops to uphold what the Church has taught throughout the centuries, as Fisher stated before Henry VIII at the Legatine Court: "Whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." He did manage to unite his brother bishops to limit Henry's supremacy under God's law, but he was ill when Convocation was meeting in 1532 and even though the bishops contacted him, they did not follow his advice.

But since these two saints should not be opposed to one another in any way, rather than proposing that St. John Fisher is the better patron for the Synod, I would say that he and St. Thomas More, as they are joined in memory on the Church's calendar of saints, should also be patrons together!

St. John Fisher's prayer for holy bishops from a 1508 sermon preached during the reign of Henry VII:

Lord, according to Your promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost.

So, good Lord, do now in like manner again with Thy Church militant; change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stones; set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labours, watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat; which also shall not fear the threatenings of princes, persecution, neither death but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy Holy Name. By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout all the world.

Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise Thy mercy, show it indeed upon Thy Church. Amen.

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