It is a true marvel that nearly everyone in 16th century England – including bishops, priests and laity – sided with King Henry VIII despite his transgressions. Even his own family encouraged St. Thomas More to take the oath, swearing allegiance to the King’s supremacy. Now, this is surprising considering that the Catholic Church built up England from a tribal, savage and superstitious region to a civilized and educated nation. Oxford University, in fact, was one of the first universities in Europe; an institution that was the fruit of Catholic monks creating a Christian environment in which sanctity and learning could flourish. For a nation to just abandon its religious heritage in such short order is a lesson for all of us. Indeed, because the papacy and the episcopate became an object of ridicule and scorn, King Henry VIII could get away with incarcerating and then executing St. John Fisher, a bishop in good standing and St. More, a highly respected chancellor, for so-called high treason without the slightest rebellion or insurrection in public.
For their imprisonment, these two Saints spent a long and lonely fourteen months in the Tower of London. But there were no public protests to have them released. Instead, their characters were maligned from many pulpits. If we can write a sad note in Great Britain’s history it would read as follows: The Tower was not the gathering place for protestors. Rather, it was met with silence while two Saints wasted away inside.
Enter the HHS mandate: It is interesting to note that during an election year President Barack Obama decided to gamble on compelling the Catholic Church to provide contraception through its health insurance. Many in the Catholic media had marveled that he would take this risk, considering the importance of the Catholic voting bloc, but from all appearances, the HHS mandate did not cause a sizable political backlash. Certainly the polls show that most people support the Catholic Church’s position in asserting her right to refuse the distribution of birth control, but support doesn’t necessarily translate into a vigorous defense. With that said, what can prove to be damaging to the Obama presidency is not the HHS mandate, but the Fast and Furious scandal. In fact, if the White House can survive the scrutiny and negative publicity of Fast and Furious, and if the economy can make a comeback in the months to come, it is conceivable that President Obama can be reelected in 2012.
Yet, this begs the question: How can a U.S. president possibly be re-elected if he, in broad daylight, set out to deny the Church’s right to religious liberty? Answer: It has something to do with why a tyrannical king could deny the Catholic Church’s religious liberty in 16th century England. In recent decades, the Church in America was hit with the 2002 priestly scandals, low pastoral standards and a general lowering of morality (i.e. studies show Catholics do not fare much different in terms of divorce and contraception.) Furthermore, the moral evils of contraception are rarely talked about in Catholic venues, the worst offenders of human rights (i.e. progressive politicians and other public figures) are allowed to sit comfortably in our pews and those who show no interest in observing God's laws have easy access to the Sacraments. Suffice it to say that by making repentance an option as a matter of pastoral policy had led, in no small measure, to the 2002 priestly scandals in which the Catholic Church lost quite a bit of credibility in the eyes of the American public. The residue of that public distrust still remains. As such, the public outrage over the HHS mandate is predictably subdued. Like the Tower of London in the 16th century, the public square in the United States is quiet in this regard.
This is where the Tower has some relevance for the Fortnight for Freedom. It teaches us that in addition to mounting a robust defense of religious liberty, exposing the injustice of the HHS mandate, a real repentance from relaxed standards is needed. An examination of conscience would likely tell us that as with the Reformation in the 16th century, Catholics had something to do with the chipping away of religious liberty in 2012. Therefore, can we ask: Is it possible that we made it easier for the Obama administration to threaten the Church with his mandate?
Catholics can learn from the historic homily Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore delivered on June 21, 2012 in that the injustices of the H.H.S. mandate must be clearly articulated. Indeed, every effort must be made to expose this unprecedented power-grab by the federal government, but the Church in America can also greatly benefit from the comments made by Archbishop Charles Chaput when he said, “The worst enemies are in here, with us – all of us, clergy, religious, and lay…”
All this confirms that the Church is the hope and despair of mankind. When her leaders and members are worldly, and pastoral standards are relaxed, society disintegrates and the State assumes inordinate power. On other hand, when Catholics are world-renouncing and zealous for the things of God, society is well ordered. The Church, for her part, is then able to be that effective “sign of contradiction” to the menace of political tyranny.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.