In his homily opening the Fortnight for Freedom 14 days ago, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore talked about the enduring witness of Saint John Fisher, particularly at a time when we face unprecedented threats to religious liberty here in the United States.
“St. John Fisher found himself at odds with King Henry VIII and with laws passed by the British Parliament which required him to take an oath repudiating papal authority and acknowledging the King as Head of the Church,” Archbishop Lori said. “This pastor of souls and lover of the Church refused, saying: “’I cannot in anywise possibly take [the oath], except I should make shipwreck of my conscience, and then were I fit to serve neither God nor man,’” Archbishop Lori continued.
He went on:
In the wake of St. John Fisher’s martyrdom, churches, monasteries, and centers of learning were seized by royal power and were either destroyed or made to break their ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The government interfered in the internal life of the Church with a cruel thoroughness John Fisher could not have imagined even a few years earlier. He symbolizes for us our struggle to maintain religious freedom for church institutions and ministries such as our schools and charities.
We surely are not facing the dire brutality that confronted St. John Fisher, but our Church and her institutions do find themselves today in perilous waters. For embedded in the HHS mandate is a very narrow governmental definition of what constitutes a church; and if it is not removed, it is likely to spread throughout federal law.
Mary Ellen Bork, a writer and lecturer on Catholic matters, is doing research on the English Reformation. On Monday night, in Washington, D.C., she will speak about St. John Fisher at the Catholic Information Center on Monday night. She gives us a preview here in an interview on Fisher.
KJL: What’s so important about St. John Fisher?
Mary Ellen Bork: John Fisher was the only bishop to stand up to King Henry VIII on the question of the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He saw the implications of Henry’s plans when no one else except Thomas More seemed to notice. He was also a preaching bishop, unusual at the time, and wanted the reform of the Church when many other religious leaders were satisfied with the status quo.
KJL: Does he get neglected relative to St. Thomas More?
Bork: Thomas More is better known because of the political position he held and also because his family was careful to preserve much of his work, some of which was in English. Bishop Fisher did a lot of writing in Latin and when he died much of his work was destroyed by the regime. But Fisher was well known during his day, especially on the continent.
KJL: At the opening Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Lori said we need both More and Fisher. Is that a bishops’ thing or do you agree as a laywoman?
Bork: As I see it, both of these men were gifted strong leaders sustained by a deep spiritual life which enabled them to navigate very difficult situations with heroic virtue. We certainly need to aim for heroic virtue today if we are going to be faithful Catholics.
KJL: What sparked your interest in English Reformation?
Bork: About thirty years ago I studied the theory of justification of the Council of Trent under Father Carl Peter at Catholic University and found it fascinating. But we did not look deeply at the historical context of that decree. About three years ago I became interested in Bishop Fisher and why the other bishops did not follow his example. In researching his story I began to understand the depth of the changes that both Henry VIII and Luther started. The sixteenth century church lived through a severe institutional crisis in England and in Europe and I learned that the Council of Trent was far more important than I had originally understood. We are now approaching five hundredth anniversaries for the next several years of many of these events that happened in the sixteenth century and it is good to reflect on the struggles and resolutions that were worked out at great cost on all sides.
KJL: What do we have to learn about that period of time — that is particularly relevant today?
Bork: Understanding the history of any period tends to give us an insight into human nature and human decision-making, an ongoing phenomenon that requires our attention and response.
KJL: What do you wish everyone knew about Fisher?
Bork: He combined the qualities of a good pastor, an educated man (he founded St. John’s College at Cambridge University) a heroic defender of the faith with gentleness and holiness.
KJL: If he was willing to die on account of the indissolubility of marriage, what does that say to us as a policy and personal matter today?
Bork: His defense of marriage was clear-sighted. He was not willing to sacrifice it to political aims. He was defending one particular marriage. Today we are in a position of defending the institution of marriage as created by God in an extremely equalitarian culture focused on human rights, an even more difficult task. We must be sustained by moral strength and virtue for the long haul.
KJL: Why is he so important for the Fortnight, freedom, authentic Christianity?
Bork: Bishop John Fisher and More were both called to witness to truth in a highly politicized situation, unlike some other saints. We find ourselves in a battle with an elite culture that ridicules our position. The more we know about their strength of character the more we will be inspired to aim high.