Saints John Fisher and Thomas More: truth & marriage
|Sir Thomas More and his Family. Rowland Lockey, after Hans Holbein, the Younger. 1593.|
From Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Catholic Outlook, May 2012
At 5am on 22 June 1535, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London woke a frail old man for his 9am execution. His response: I’ll go back to sleep for a while as I want to save my strength for the occasion!
When the Lieutenant returned at 9am, Bishop John Fisher was dressed in his best clothes for what he called his ‘wedding day’. From the New Testament he read Christ’s words: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son that he may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to those you have given him. And this is eternal life: to know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I have glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do: now, Father, glorify me.” (Jn 17:1-5)
From the scaffold the old bishop asked for prayers for king and country, and for himself, and then he was beheaded. His naked body lay there all day until soldiers buried him without rites. His head was impaled on London Bridge, then thrown into the Thames.
If such a thing could happen to the greatest churchman in England, no one was safe: within three weeks his friend, the former Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, met the same fate. He would famously declare: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” In due course they would share the same feast day, Fisher’s ‘wedding day’, 22 June.
St Thomas More and St John Fisher: both were men of prayer and penance; both scholars and administrators; both intellectually sophisticated yet practical men. Though the powers of this world were against them, they remained hopeful to the end, with More telling his judges he hoped they might “hereafter in heaven all meet merrily together, to our everlasting salvation.”
Neither would allow that the Church should replace the state or the state the Church. Each had its proper place. As the pope could not determine the laws of England so the king could not define the laws of God.
Both men refused to check their faith in the cloakroom before entering the university, parliament or public square, as some claimed they should. For people of integrity such compartmentalising is impossible.
Why refuse to take the king’s oath, when such refusal would mean disgrace, dispossession, decapitation? Couldn’t they say whatever was required but with their fingers crossed, so to speak? After all, God would know where their real loyalties lay. So many advised them …
But More and Fisher would not lie, even to save their lives. Never to lie was, they thought, an absolute duty of any officer of the Church or the law, as of every Christian and indeed any person. Both knew the king’s first marriage was valid; to swear otherwise would be to assert a deliberate falsehood, intending to deceive.
That one might face disadvantage, ridicule, even death, for standing up for the truth is not alien to Catholic history. It is the stuff of martyrs and daily Christian heroism. In this golden jubilee year of the Second Vatican Council there will no doubt be much talk about the Council and conscience.
Well one thing the Council was unequivocal about was the duty to speak and live by the truth: conscience shows us how; it is never a route to convenience, evasion, false witness.
What else was at issue for Saints John and Thomas? Many things no doubt. One was the meaning of marriage. Could the state, by a simple act of parliament, change the definition of marriage for one man (King Henry) or for all? Could it make what is by nature, faith and reason a lifelong commitment, something more provisional – at least for the powerful?
The question echoes down the centuries, as new leaders would aim to change the definition of marriage again, this time to allow same-sex marriage. Once again, those who dare oppose the mood of the age will be branded bigots or worse.
Mercifully, none of us today needs fear beheading for standing up for the truth about marriage. But we would be naïve to think freedom of belief is always respected in this country and always will be. We must be vigilant. We must be clear and forthright about what is true, if compassionate and humble also when expressing ourselves.
Whether or not we are called by God to marry someone, all of us will one day have our ‘wedding day’ when we must say ‘I do’ to truth or falsity, when we must choose between true and comfortable, when we must vow ourselves to Christ or something less.Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, pray for us, that we too might be the king’s good servants but God’s first.