On June 21st of 2012, Archbishop William Lori delivered a historic homily to commence the Forthnight for Freedom in the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. Upon the conclusion of the homily, he deservedly received a standing ovation from the congregation in attendance. Indeed, it was passionately and flawlessly delivered. He addressed religious freedom in light of the martyrdom of St. John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, England, and St. Thomas More, lawyer and chancellor. In short, the execution of these two heroic men in 1535 resulted from their refusal to take an oath acknowledging King Henry VIII's divorce with Queen Catherine, and his act of making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.
In addition to the heroism that Archbishop Lori asked us to remember and venerate, I would like to address another consideration that is every bit as important for the preservation of our religious liberty, and this consideration has to do with the historical circumstances which made it easier for King Henry VIII of England to violate not only the religious liberty of the Church in his own country, but the human rights of those Catholics who died under him.
These historical circumstances have something to do with what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said during the same week that the Fortnight for Freedom was kicked off:
“Politics and the courts are important. But our religious freedom ultimately depends on the vividness of our own Christian faith – in other words, how deeply we believe it, and how honestly we live it. Religious liberty is an empty shell if the spiritual core of a people is weak. Or to put it more bluntly, if people don’t believe in God, religious liberty isn’t a value. That’s the heart of the matter…The worst enemies of religious freedom aren’t ‘out there’ among the legion of critics who hate Christ or the Gospel or the church, or all three. The worst enemies are in here, with us – all of us, clergy, religious, and lay – when we live our faith with tepidness, routine, and hypocrisy.”
Alongside the developments in England, there were other unfortunate developments unfolding in the Catholic Church. During the lifetime of St. John and St. Thomas – from the late 1400’s to at least the mid 1500’s – the papacy had stooped to its lowest point in terms of internal discipline, morals and the ill repute that naturally followed. At the same time, scores of Catholics left the Church and Protestantism was borne. By breaking with the Roman Catholic Church (from 1517-1534), Martin Luther and King Henry VIII certainly did wrong. However, the general lowering of morality among the Catholic clergy, even within the Papal Court itself, gave many an excuse to either sever ties with the Church or introduce their own flawed agenda.
For instance, the papacy of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) was rocked with scandal. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) was preoccupied with wars. As for Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Joseph Brusher, a papal historian, had this to say about him: “Leo faced the crushing responsibility of spiritual leadership with a light heart. He loved shows and games, and many a play and ballet was performed for the Pope's amusement. A keen sportsman, Leo spent much time hunting. He was careless of the morals of the humanists he patronized as long as their Latin was Ciceronian.” Upon giving a toast, he was quoted saying, “Let’s enjoy the papacy!” And Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) “was a handsome man of good morals, and quite free from the frivolity of Leo X, but he was not very able and was tortured with a dangerous inability to make up his mind. In short, he was scarcely the pope for troubled times.” Indeed, he dragged his feet, hoping the crisis with King Henry VIII and his appeal for a divorce would just go away. The thing to be noted here is that the problems which beset the papacy was but an index of what was transpiring in many dioceses throughout Europe.
However, to put things in perspective, out of a total of 266 popes, about a hundred of them were superb to very good, about hundred were good, if not, capable and there were a handful that were real disappointments. But even given the imperfections of these few popes, Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) reminds us that "the dignity of Peter suffers no diminution even in an unworthy successor."
Nevertheless, relaxed morals and discipline within the Church has led, in many cases, to a boomerang effect that ended up costing her dearly. We Catholics rightly deplore the Reformation and how it led to the splintering of Christianity, but what preceded the Reformation – what made it ripe for its success – was a general lowering of morality and discipline among the clergy. It can be argued, therefore, that decades of sinful behavior and mismanagement on the part of the leaders and members of the Church occasioned the Reformation. In fact, during the twenty years leading up to the Luther’s protest, the talk of the town – in nearly every town – was “reform! reform! reform!” And unfortunately, from Pope Alexander VI (1492) to Pope Clement VII (1534) and beyond, the image of the papacy was stained and the pope’s credibility as being the Universal Shepherd of the Church was damaged. Therefore, when the State bullied the Church, the public was slow to take notice.
For "The Tower & the Fortnight for Freedom II," see Monday's column.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.