In 1535, Cardinal John Fisher and Sir Thomas More were beheaded for refusing to sign an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII the Head of the Church in England. Henry wanted to divorce his legitimate wife, Catherine, and marry his mistress Ann Boleyn, to secure a male heir, among other reasons. She would be the second of his six wives. Henry asked Clement VII to annul the marriage. Clement VII refused his request; the King usurped the authority of the Pope.
Martyred for the sake of their consciences, Fisher and More died for Christendom in England even as all others in the realm, including churchmen, took the mandatory Oath. A new and separate church, the Church of England, was thereby established, founded on “the King’s great matter.”
That “Horrible Moral Squint”
In Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons,” Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s Chancellor, summons Thomas More to ask why the statesman will not take the Oath. More will not say why he will not take the Oath, but the Cardinal surmises. It is “that horrible moral squint” that irks him to the core. He appeals to More’s private conscience but receives a rebuttal that has echoed down the annals of history: “Well,” snaps More, “I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . ., they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
Wolsey dies a wretched death, and in 1529, More is appointed Lord Chancellor, resigning in 1532.
After a three-year imprisonment in the squalid Tower of London, More stands before Parliament, condemned to death. He rises to discharge his mind concerning Parliament’s indictment and the King’s title: “The indictment is grounded in an Act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the Law of God. The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! And more to this, the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and the King’s own Coronation Oath! . . . Nevertheless, it is not for the Supremacy that you have sought my blood–but because I would not bend to the marriage!” (A Man for All Seasons, 158-9) Both Fisher and More lingered in the Tower of London, there to await execution.
Freedom of the English Church had been guaranteed in 1215 by Magna Carta. Henry himself blessed this guarantee but not after More’s unyielding “horrible moral squint.” If freedom of conscience could be denied John Fisher and Thomas More, the two most prominent men in sixteenth-century England, could it happen again?
The Inalienable Right to Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience
In the seventeenth century, the colonists fled Europe to escape religious persecution in favor of religious liberty. They sought to practice their faith according to their consciences. In 1649, the Toleration Act, led by Lord Baltimore, was codified in Maryland’s law, the first in our nation to protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience. This law included the Catholic Church.
Within decades, that freedom was revoked. The Church of England became the established religion in Maryland, and discriminatory laws were set in motion against those who refused to conform. Catholic chapels were closed. Catholics were restricted to practicing their faith in their homes, a coercion that continued until the American Revolution. It was James Madison, our fourth President, who led the way to establish the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1789, religious freedom was accorded the distinction of being the First Amendment. Religious liberty includes the right of free conscience, a right written in the heart of men and women. “This means that all men and women may not be coerced by individuals or social groups and of any human power, in matters religious, to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs” (Paraphrase, USCCB, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”). This inalienable right comes not from a public figure but from God. As such, and according to its dictionary meaning, the word inalienable means that no one may take away this right. If the denial of freedom of conscience happened in seventeenth-century Maryland, can it happen again?
Redefining the First Amendment
During this historic week of celebrating American independence, let us pause to imagine the unthinkable – the First Amendment phrase redefined from “the free exercise of religion” to “freedom of worship.” It is currently being suggested. Such a redefinition would limit the broad definition of freedom to the narrow understanding of freedom to worship in church and in the home, the law that stood for years in the former atheistic USSR.
The Catholic Church and other like-minded faith traditions are thorns in the side of local, state, and federal government, regardless of political party.
Why so? The Church, in particular, is the largest agency that conducts ministries in education and social welfare without regard for religion, status, or gender. All are welcome. Because of the Church’s wide-ranging influence, the government in power seeks to control these activities with its own agenda. It has already taken the initiative and pushed its way into the Church’s mission, defining what religious activities conform or do not conform to secular designs. Penalties apply for failure to comply. The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence passionately argues against such unjust seizure. In the words of Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Thomas More’s words to his daughter Meg raises a red flag of urgency in 2013 to resist intrusion on the Church’s inalienable right to be left alone:
“God made the angels to show him splendor
As he made animals for innocence
And plants for their simplicity.
But to man, he gave an intellect
to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.” (Robert Bolt: A Man for All Seasons)
After Henry’s death, the Elizabethan reign of terror against Catholics intensified. How Shakespeare survived it during his life (1564-1616) is a tribute to “the tangle of his mind.” He goes to the heart of the matter in his own day and to “our great matter” four hundred years later:
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
and it must follow as the night the day
Thou canst not be false to any man.” (Hamlet, words of Polonius to his son Laertes)