Today is the feast day* of Saint John Fisher (1459 – 1535) and Saint Thomas More (1478 – 1535) – two men who showed great courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, witnessing bravely to essential truths of the Catholic faith, and who saw clearer than most at the time just how significant the changes being forced through would prove to be. They were both beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII, and finally canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935, on the fourth centenary of their martyrdom. Both men were highly esteemed throughout Europe for their piety and learning, and their deaths by order of Henry VIII caused a huge outcry, as well as a great degree of sadness.
Both men questioned the validity of Henry’s new marriage to Anne Boleyn, having considered the reasons put forward for annulling his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be inadequate, and (more importantly) that the decision of Pope Clement VII against the annulment was final, with Henry’s decision to go against Rome being an infringement of the Pope’s spiritual authority. Saint John Fisher was particularly active in his opposition to this, defending Catherine in public and providing her with private counsel during what was for her a very difficult period.
They were finally executed though for their refusal to recognise Henry as head of the English church – a position that he had assumed in the wake of the Boleyn scandal. More was reluctant to speak on the matter publicly or privately, but as a trusted aide to the King, and someone highly esteemed throughout Christendom, his silence grew deafening, increasing suspicion of Henry’s already very shaky claims to spiritual authority. Fisher also tried to find safety in silence on this matter, but declared his true feelings to Richard Rich (the same man whose perjury would lead to More’s condemnation) in confidence, and had that confidence betrayed.
Ironically (given what the break with Rome would allow to happen to the Church in England), both men had worked with and for Henry in writing against Lutheranism, and Fisher preached against it in the open air outside Saint Paul’s cathedral. In fact, many at the time did not see that Henry’s going against Rome in the case of the marriage, and claiming for himself spiritual authority in England would change things that much at all, and both Fisher and More were involved with currents of scholarship and reform within the Church that many have since associated solely with the schismatic actions of the Protestant Reformers.
It was the particular virtue of Saint Thomas More that, despite himself having weighed up the pros and cons of papal supremacy, and even doubting it himself at times, he was able to see through his own innate tendency towards scepticism and recognise, with the eyes of faith, what many see now but did not then – that acknowledgement of the papal supremacy in matters of faith and morals is a kind of litmus test for true Catholicism, and that without assent to this one principle, the unity of the Church would not hold. As Hilaire Belloc wrote in his profile of More:
‘He did not die for the Real Presence, as did many another after him. He did not die, as many another might have done, out of loyalty to Queen Catherine. He did not die as a protest against a doctrine generally held heretical. Still less did he die rather than give up some old fixed habit of mind, attached to the ancient civilisation of his country. He was not a man merely angry against change. On the contrary, he had been all for change. He did not die, even, at the end of a long public protest against the way in which things were drifting. He did not die for the Mass or for the sanctity of the clerical order. He died only for that one point of the Papal Supremacy, then universally doubted and one on which it was common sense to compromise.’
from Characters of the Reformation (1961), p.66, Doubleday Image.
More was heavily involved in defeating the Protestant movement, and saw it as a threat to Church unity, as well as to the unity of society. However, it was by no means obvious to many at the time (and to More himself at some points in his life) that papal supremacy was central to the cohesion of the Church. It was only when he was called upon to write polemics against Luther that the truth of this became apparent to More, and he was able to see clearly just how much was at stake in the affirmation or denial of this doctrine.
People at the time, both clergy and lay, though deeply hostile to the Boleyn marriage, had little problem in accepting the supremacy of national law over the Pope’s ruling. The difference between this, and Henry’s actual assumption of leadership over the English church, was a subtle one, and thus the significance of the Act of Supremacy was not fully noticed by all. As the historian Christopher Haigh describes, writing about the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine:
‘Since there seemed no prospect that the issue would be solved except within the framework of papal law and theology, it had no broader implications. Although John Fisher regarded defence of the marriage as necessary to the defence of papal authority, other Catholics did not see it that way…
…In England, Henry’s team of divorce scholars included future Protestants (Cranmer and Foxe), clear Catholics (Lee and Stokesly), and Stephen Gardiner, who gave up the pope without much sign of regret, but wished to preserve Catholic belief and practice.’
English Reformations (1993), pp.100-101, Oxford University Press.
Henry’s invocation of national sovereign rights convinced the public for the most part, especially given that there was precedent (during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries) for limiting papal jurisdiction in England. These prior cases, though not regarding issues of faith and morals, were also issues of royal encroachment into ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and so gave the impression that the King’s ‘great matter’ would blow over, with no long-term damage done. It was only given to a few – Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More the supreme examples of such – to see the future implications; the destruction of traditional Catholic religion in England that followed soon after was a surprise to most.
It is therefore not just for their great witness and bravery in holding to the truth in the face of death that marks out these two men. It is also their prophetic vision – that, in the face a constant range of voices telling them that their position was divisive and unnecessary, they could see just how central an issue the papal supremacy was and is; they saw that, without it, the unity of the Church would not hold, and the voices of those who were willing to tear her apart in the name of novelty would prevail – which they eventually did. Again, to emphasise just how difficult it would have been for many to see More’s position (and much the same could be said for Fisher):
‘To his own family as a whole probably, to his wife certainly, to nearly all his friends and to the mass of Englishmen of his time, his position was not heroic but absurd. The King was already head of everything in England, and had been for generations past. He nominated to the Bishoprics and great Abbeys; his was the supreme court of appeal in nearly everything that mattered, and even though there was in this last declaration of full supremacy something novel, yet a quarrel between King and Pope was something with which Englishmen had been familiar over and over again for centuries.’
Characters of the Reformation, p.68.
Their example also goes to show just how important obedience to Christ’s Church is. It may occur that a certain doctrine will be questioned in our time, and one that seems reasonable to question and not something that will have a great effect on the life of the Church if changed. Both Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More held to an unpopular and by no means obvious truth via the supernatural gift of faith. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose for the stance they took, and are an extreme example to us of why a ‘cafeteria’ approach to Catholicism will not do. One small chink in the armour, one tiny inch given, and collapse can occur, both to individual faith and to the life of the Church in a nation. Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher, pray for us, that in times of strife such as we live in now, our faith, when tested, may also endure.
*Though in many dioceses Corpus Christi may well have been moved on to this Sunday, and so the feast day of these two saints may not be observed.