The Catholic Church in the United States has engaged in a rigorous debate this past year over religious freedom and just law. But this is not an unique struggle in the world. This past month marks the 477th anniversary of the execution of Cardinal St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More by King Henry VIII who demanded the clergy cut ties with Rome and declare the King the Supreme Head of the Church. Look to these two saints in these tough times and be inspired by their courage.
Flowered then Devoured Saint Thomas More saw the danger in allowing laws to change for the sake of reflecting culture’s demands. He used a parable about 1st century Roman Emperor Tiberius to highlight what can happen when men try to compromise their conscience with culture. The emperor announced a law condemning any citizen to death for a certain offense unless the offender was a virgin. When the emperor came across a virgin, he was unsure what to do. So he had her violated in order that she may be put to death. “First let her be deflowered, and then after she may be deflowered” (full text found here). He went on to assure them that he would not be deflowered, implying that those who do submit to the King’s will are subject to be devoured. Sir Thomas More was executed after being found guilty of treason; nevertheless, many of the King’s servants and advisers who had supported his supremacy over the Church later fell out of the king’s graces and were executed.
The following clip from The Tudors is of Saint Thomas More’s execution. Their interpretation of this particular moment in history is likely accurate.
Cardinal Saint John Fisher, in a similar way that St Thomas More did, questioned the authority of Parliament to declare Divine matters. As a bishop, he vigorously opposed corruption in the Catholic Church but declared that Martin Luther’s abandonment of the sacraments and break from the See of St. Peter was wrong. He was also Katherine of Aragon’s sole counselor when the Ecclesiastical Court investigated whether or not her marriage to King Henry VIII should be dissolved or not. Like his patron, Saint John the Baptist, he was beheaded for challenging his ruler’s marriage to a taken woman. This similarity created a lot of attention in favor of Fisher. He is both a reformer of the Church and a martyr.
The brave and courageous actions of More and Fisher were certainly not in vain. Centuries later, there is a new Ordinariate (Similar to a Diocese) of the Catholic Church, allowing for Anglicans to return in full communion with the Catholic Church without forcing them to abandon many of their traditions. Over time, many faithful in England and elsewhere who adhere to the Anglican traditions have come to recognize that the break from the Rock in which Jesus built His Church is political and not Divine.