Thomas More was an ordinary Christian man who shows us ordinary Christian men - and women - the way to living a unity of life in the midst of the creeping darkness and growing persecution of our own age. He knew that there is a hierarchy of values which bring with them a hierarchy of duties and loyalties. His witness in life and in death challenges us to examine whether we do. Many Catholics simply do not believe that a threat to our first freedom even exists.
Thomas More in the Tower of London
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - The Catholic Bishops of the United States called us to another fourteen day period of prayer, study, teaching and public action to defend the first freedom of religious freedom in the United States of America.Find out the dates and activities at this live link and participate in the Fortnight for Freedom. It began on the Vigil of the English martyrs,June 21, 2013, the layman Thomas More and the Bishop John Fisher.
I led a Holy Hour in my parish Friday evening, joining in solidarity with Catholics all over the country who gathered for Holy Mass, Holy Hours and Prayer Services. The numbers in my parish were very small. It reflected what I have experienced; many Catholics simply do not believe that a threat to our first freedom even exists.
Many Christians have no idea of the implications of the enforcement of the Affordable Care Act through the HHS Mandate. The crippling effect it will have on the Church and her mission in the culture has been made clear, but to no avail. People are asleep in the stupor of complacency and apathy.
The relativists of this age have managed to persuade many, including some Christians, that there are no objective truths; there are only 'my' truths and 'your' truths. They have relegated the Christian insistence upon the existence of objective truths and rights to simply being 'religious' positions. This is intentional. It is being done to marginalize or dismiss our claims.
The Christian claim is that there are objective truths which can be known by all and must inform a truly free, human and humane society. Catholic, and other classical Christians, claim the existence of a Natural Moral Law, "present in the heart of each man and established by reason." This law "is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties." (CCC# 1956)
It is here we find the solid ground for our life together if we hope to be a truly free society.There is a moral foundation to a free society. It is here we also find the foundational human rights which must be recognized by the civil or positive law as rightfully belonging to all men and women, including the Catholic Church.
In this age of moral relativism we make truth claims which increasingly anger some who are committed to a cultural revolution. The first is our insistence that all human persons - from the first moment of conception through the developmental spectrum of human life - up to and including the moment of a natural death - are all made in the Image of God and possess human dignity.
We insist that all human persons have a Human Right to Life which cannot be taken away by one more powerful. This Right is the foundation of all other human rights because rights are goods of the human person. It is revealed by the Natural Law and confirmed by medical science. Ye,t it is denied by those in control of the power of the State, and the blood of the innocent flows.
Another truth claim is that homosexual sexual practices are objectively disordered. Yes, all human persons, including those with same sex attraction, have human dignity. Homosexual persons also possess fundamental human rights. However, homosexual persons are simply incapable of achieving the ends of marriage and there is therefore no right to marriage between homosexual paramours.
Marriage has been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of creation. Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman, ordered toward the union of the spouses, open to children and formative of family. Family is the first vital cell of society; the first church, first school, first hospital, first economy, first government and first mediating institution of our social order. The future of a free and healthy society passes through marriage and the family.
Marriage as existing solely between one man and one woman was not an idea manufactured by the Christian Church. It precedes Christianity. Though affirmed, fulfilled, and elevated by Christian teaching, the truth that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman is not based on religion or revelation alone, but on the Natural Moral Law, written on the human heart and discernible through the exercise of reason.
Yes, these claims about life and marriage are confirmed by Revelation, as is evident in the Sacred Scripture and the unbroken Christian Tradition. However, both of these truths are rooted in the Natural Law which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason.
There is a Cultural Revolution underway in the West with two conflicting visions of the human person, human freedom, human flourishing and marriage and the family founded upon it as the first cell of society. Two different claims of what constitutes a healthy, happy and truly free society are in contention for the future of the West.
As we have for over two thousand years, Christians proclaim our positions not simply within the confines of our homes and church buildings, but in the public square. Though the Christian faith is quite personal, it is by its very nature profoundly public. We have a missionary mandate. The message of the Gospel is for all.
In a growing wave of State censorship and discriminatory denial of our fundamental human rights as citizens, we are being censored from the public debate. We are being marginalized and made the subject of overt exclusion. We will not back down.
Wake Up! The early Christians were not persecuted for their 'religion'. They were persecuted as enemies of the State, for what was called 'hatred of the human race'. I remember Evangelical theologian, Harold O.J. Brown of the Howard Center for the Family, Religion and Society writing in 1999 of a "similarity between the way the Roman authorities charged Christians of that era with "odium humani generis" [hatred of the human race] and the way the political and media establishment charge contemporary Christians with creating a "climate of hate."
He was prophetic in his assessment. That charge against the Christians came from those within an ancient Rome which had lost its respect for the dignity of all human life while claiming to be enlightened and 'progressive'. They practiced primitive forms of abortion as well as exposure, the killing of unwanted newborns.
Emperor Nero in the first-century A.D. was overt in his enjoyment of homosexual acts. He sought to give an equal status between homosexual relationships and marriage in the civil order. Remember, first and second century Rome was one of the first mission fields of the early Christian Church.
That Rome proclaimed itself the shining example to the world of its age while it embraced debauchery of every sort. A spreading infatuation with hedonism was threatened by the Christian insistence on monogamous marriage between one man and one woman, open to children and formative of the first cell of society, the family.
The history of that Rome reveals that the hostility toward the Christians grew as the citizens of that once great empire continued a spiraling moral decline. They did not want to hear from these Christians and their opposition to abortion and the practice of exposure (the killing of newborns).
One of the ancient Christian manuscripts from that age, written to a pagan inquirer, spoke of the distinctly different practices of the Christians: "They reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens. They take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home, and every home a foreign land. They marry like all others and beget children but they do not expose (kill or abandon) their offspring. Their board they spread for all, but not their bed."
The commitment of the Christians to the dignity of every human person and faithful monogamous marriage eventually transformed that Rome. But it was not without hostility. So it will once again. We need men and women in our own day to imitate their heroic virtue and display their courage in the face of the current persecution.
We are undertaking a second Fortnight of Freedom. Why did the Catholic Bishops ask us to begin on the day we commemorate the martyrdom of John Fischer and Thomas more? It should be clear. They are giving us an example, close to our own time, of a similar challenge in order to wake us up! I will focus on Thomas More, the Bishop John Fisher deserves another article.
On Oct 31, 2000, John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the Patron of Statesmen and Politicians. The letter was addressed to "the Bishops of the Catholic Church and, in a particular way, to Catholic politicians and all lay members of the faithful called to participate in the political life of democratic societies."
He wrote "Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity. And even outside the Church, particularly among those with responsibility for the destinies of peoples, he is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal the service of the human person.
"Whenever men or women heed the call of truth, their conscience then guides their actions reliably towards good. Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity. And even outside the Church, particularly among those with responsibility for the destinies of peoples, he is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal, the service of the human person."
The England of the sixteenth century was in the midst of a serious crisis of politics, culture and faith, much like the times in which we now live. In 1534 all citizens who were of age were required to take an oath called "The Act of Succession". It acknowledged that King Henry VIII was married to Anne Boleyn, even though he was not. His desire to divorce Catherine was not sufficient to make that marriage null and his attempt to use his political power to change the objective truth was unsuccessful.
So, the King used the power of his secular office to promulgate an unjust positive Law by which he proclaimed that he and Anne were lawfully married. He also declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England, abrogating to himself the authority to determine that his lawful marital bond was dissolved.
The Pope refused Henry's demand that he grant him an annulment from his lawful marriage. He would not affirm Henry's decision to place his disordered desire over the objective truth about marriage. Thomas More knew the order of truth and applied a hierarchy of values in both his personal life and his public life. He lived as a faithful Christian, demonstrating a unity of life and moral coherence.
In 1532, knowing that he could not enforce the declaration of his temporal King to usurp the authority of the Church which had been granted to it by the King of Kings, he resigned his political position. He tried to do so with the kind of integrity that had characterized his entire life.
He withdrew from public life and bore the ridicule and taunts of those who once praised him. He offered the suffering to the Lord by joining it to the Cross of the Savior. He then tried to continue to care for his beloved family, the domestic church of the home, by teaching them how to live lives of virtue and simplicity.
He lost his prestige and his considerable financial resources, but he gained the peace which always comes through fidelity to the Lord. His hopes for a life with his family, lived in simplicity and fidelity to the Church, out of public sight, were short lived.
The King, drunk on his own worldly façade of power, insisted that Thomas take the oath under the Act of Succession, thereby acknowledging the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne and his authority over the whole Church of Jesus Christ. Thomas would not do so because he refused to violate his properly formed conscience.
So, the King had his former counselor imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he underwent intense tortures of both body and soul. These came not only from the henchmen of the State but even from some within his own family and circle of friends who failed to understand his actions because their minds had been dulled by compromise.
At the time, few would have even noticed if Thomas had succumbed to the Royal request. He could have 'justified' the action through the exercise of his well honed rhetorical and logical skills by calling it a merely perfunctory action. He could have thereby restored his political position, some would have argued, in order to try to influence the King for something like 'the good over the long haul'.
He could have had his substantial properties restored if he had just sworn that oath, others would say, in 'order to provide material safety for his beloved family'. Instead, this man who loved life, loved his family, loved his career and properly loved the world and all of its goods - loved the Lord first. He would not compromise the Truth.
He was an ordinary Christian man who shows us ordinary Christian men - and women - the way to living a unity of life in the midst of the creeping darkness and growing persecution of our own age. He was a Catholic who held in harmony his vocation as the father of a family with his profession as a lawyer and his service in the highest of Political offices.
He knew that there is a hierarchy of values which bring with them a hierarchy of duties and loyalties. His witness in life and in death challenges us to examine whether we do. He was in love with the Lord and chose to live in the Heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
He would not betray the truth or compromise it on the altar of public opinion or for political opportunism. He knew that to do so would not only have dishonored God and led his family and others astray, but that it would have given tacit assent to the emerging despotism of his age.
He was brought to trial for his fidelity to Truth. Oh, as is always the case with persecution against Christians, it was framed as a charge against the 'positive law'. There, this outstanding lawyer defended the Truth for which he would later give his life. Thomas used the occasion of the Courtroom, where he had practiced his trade, to defend the Truth and its obligations in the temporal order.
In the eloquent words of Blessed John Paul II, "he made an impassioned defense of his own convictions on the indissolubility of marriage, the respect due to the juridical patrimony of Christian civilization, and the freedom of the Church in her relations with the State."
He was found guilty, even though he was a guardian of truth. That unjust verdict brings shame upon every unjust tribunal and misuse of governmental power. Thomas More was martyred for his moral coherence, his fidelity to the Christian faith.
He was beheaded by the minions of a temporal leader who had abused his office and wielded the awful sword, the power of the State (which has as its very source God Himself) to inflict evil against those who refused to bow down in idolatrous worship of lies.
Thomas faced his executioners with the very same dignity he had shown in life, speaking with humor and affection to them even before they beheaded him. We are called to reflect on how we are living our own Christian faith in the midst of an increasingly hostile age. We face a similar challenge to that which faced Thomas More as our culture continues its decline.
Thomas More calls us to the opposite of apathy and retreat; he calls us to courage.
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