St. Thomas More: A man for our season

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The patron saint of the Arlington Diocese is St. Thomas More - a 16th-century writer, philosopher, lawyer, chancellor of England and martyr. This saint of the public square serves as an apt model for our diocese, so close to the nation's capital, and apt as well for the Church's current conflict with the administration. The crisis of his times, and his handling of it, are instructive for us in this present crisis.

St. Thomas More served as chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. He served the king well and enjoyed the royal favor until Henry decided to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. The king's decision about the marriage precipitated a larger conflict between the king and the Church, a conflict that would ultimately lead to England's separation from the Church.

The Church opposed the divorce. So, to enforce his will, Henry simply redefined the Church in England. He effectively displaced the pope and made himself and his successors the "head of the Church in England."

Because he could not condone the king's action, More resigned and retired from public life. He did not voice his opposition but remained silent. He simply sought to live as a private citizen, not disturbing the king and not wanting to be disturbed.

But King Henry's rebellion against the Church inevitably trampled on the conscience of individuals as well. Thomas More would not be left in peace. He eventually was commanded to take an oath in support of the king's decisions. For refusing that oath - for refusing, in short, to have his conscience forced - he was imprisoned and, convicted on the spurious charge of treason, was beheaded. In the years following, to be Catholic in England carried with it certain penalties. If you refused to go to Church of England services because you were of a different faith - most conspicuously, Roman Catholic - you would be fined or imprisoned.

We do well to recall this history in light of the unjust Health and Human Services mandate handed down this Jan. 20. The similarities are striking and instructive.

Just as in St. Thomas's day it was a moral issue that precipitated the larger crisis, so also in our day. The Church's teaching on contraception is at the core of this crisis. We can - and should - say many things about this teaching. It is one of the most important, challenging and beautiful of the Church's doctrines. But the teaching itself - as important as it is - really just occasions another, broader issue. The crisis now before us between the bishops and the administration turns on the rights of the Church and the rights of man: the Church's right of self-governance and the rights of individual conscience.

Henry VIII redefined the Church in England. It is not too much to say that by the HHS mandate, the administration seeks to do likewise in the United States. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, asks the question: Can a government bureau define for us or any faith community what is ministry and how it can be exercised? Of course not. The Church has the right to define herself and not be told by outside authorities what does or does not define her work.

And not only that, by certain statements, the administration and some members of Congress have, in effect, lectured the bishops about what the Church should do or think. By so doing, they have inserted themselves into the internal workings of the Church. For example, they have observed that many if not most Catholic women use contraception at some point, and therefore we should not make an issue of the mandate.

Unfortunately, their observation has some legitimacy: This has been one of the most neglected teachings of the Church in the past 40 or so years. Sadly, there has been a great deal of confusion, division and sometimes disobedience regarding it. But these are issues for the Church herself to address. Such internal matters of the Church are certainly not the business of public authorities to lecture us on or, worse, to exploit for political purposes. All we ask is that the Church be allowed to be the Church - without any outside coercion regarding our identity, doctrine and ministry. We do not need government officials to tell us who we are, what we believe or what our ministry is. We know these things well.

There is a second similarity between St. Thomas More's crisis and our own. Henry VIII's actions did not end with the Church as an institution. They extended to individuals, beginning with Thomas More in his retirement. So also this present crisis concerns not only the rights of the Church as an institution but also the right of every individual not to have his conscience forced. Since the mandate is imposed not only on Catholic institutions, but on all providers of employee health insurance, the individual Catholic as private citizen will suffer the injustice of this law. Just as Thomas More was not left unoppressed, neither will the individual Catholic be today. He too can be made to violate his conscience by conformity to this ruling.

Finally, there is a third parallel between our crisis and More's. Just as Catholics were penalized in England, so also - as Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, has speculated - the Church and individual Catholic employers may have to pay a fine for not obeying the mandate. In effect, a fee to be Catholic.

Now, history tends to repeat itself. But it does not inevitably do so. If history is repeating itself in this persecution of the Church, then we must deliberately choose to imitate - to repeat - the witness of St. Thomas More.

First, imitate his integrity and holiness of life. More chose not to speak out against the king but to retire as a private citizen. He remained silent. But his silence was deafening because he was - and was known to be - a good man, a man of integrity. His refusal to give vocal support for the king's decision was, in effect, a condemnation. Now, we who do not have the luxury of remaining silent must nevertheless imitate his integrity and goodness. If our words do not have the witness of our lives, then they will never gain a hearing.

Second, imitate his joy. He was known for his humor and wit, even in the face of martyrdom. As he mounted the scaffold to be beheaded he asked the executioner for help up. "I won't be needing help down," he quipped. Perhaps that joy will not always be visible, as we do need to be firm and strong - at times even severe. But interiorly at least we should maintain the joy that comes from knowing that no suffering or persecution in this world can separate us from the love of Christ.

Finally, we should imitate what we might call his patriotism. He famously said before his death, "I die the king's good servant, but God's first." So also we show ourselves to be good Americans, good stewards of the First Amendment, by living what that amendment defends - by being devout Catholics first. May our prayers and actions give effective witness to our faith and preserve the rights our nation's founders desired to defend.

Fr. Scalia is pastor of St. John the Beloved Parish in McLean.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012