Did Thomas More and John Fisher die for nothing?

Following the words of Christ himself, the Church has always taught that divorce and remarriage is simply adultery by another name

Archbishop Aquila
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The idea that Catholics should be allowed to remarry and receive communion did not begin with the letter signed by Cardinal Kasper and other members of the German episcopate in 1993. Another country’s episcopate – England’s – pioneered this experiment in Christian doctrine nearly 500 years ago. At stake then was not just whether any Catholic could remarry, but whether the king could, since his wife had not borne him a son.

As with those who advocate for communion for the civilly remarried, the English bishops were uncomfortable with embracing divorce and remarriage outright. Instead, they chose to bend the law to the individual circumstances of the case with which they were confronted, and King Henry VIII was granted an “annulment” — on a fraudulent basis and without the sanction of Rome.

Read this column in Spanish: Tomás Moro y Juan Fisher ¿murieron en vano?

Read this column in Italian: Cari cardinali tedeschi, Tommaso Moro e John Fisher sono morti invano?

If “heroism is not for the average Christian,” as the German Cardinal Walter Kasper has put it, it certainly wasn’t for the King of England. Instead, issues of personal happiness and the well-being of a country made a strong utilitarian argument for Henry’s divorce. And the King could hardly be bothered to skip communion as the result of an irregular marriage.

England’s Cardinal Wolsey and all the country’s bishops, with the exception of Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, supported the king’s attempt to undo his first – and legitimate – marriage. Like Fisher, Thomas More a layman and the king’s chancellor, also withheld his support. Both were martyred – and later canonized.

In publicly advocating that the king’s marriage was indissoluble, Fisher argued that “this marriage of the king and queen can be dissolved by no power, human or Divine.” For this principle, he said, he was willing to give his life. He continued by noting that John the Baptist saw no way to “die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage,” despite the fact that marriage then “was not so holy at that time as it has now become by the shedding of Christ’s Blood.”

Like Thomas More and John the Baptist, Fisher was beheaded, and like them, he is called “saint.”

At the Synod on the Family taking place right now in Rome, some of the German bishops and their supporters are pushing for the Church to allow those who are both divorced and remarried to receive communion, while other bishops from around the world are insisting that the Church cannot change Christ’s teaching. And this begs a question: Do the German bishops believe that Sts. Thomas More and John Fischer sacrificed their lives in vain?

Jesus showed us throughout his ministry that heroic sacrifice is required to follow him. When one reads the Gospel with an open heart, a heart that does not place the world and history above the Gospel and Tradition, one sees the cost of discipleship to which every disciple is called. The German bishops would do well to read, “The Cost of Discipleship” by the Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For what they promote is “cheap grace” rather than “costly grace,” and they even seem to ignore the words of Jesus that, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” (Mk. 8: 34, Lk. 14: 25-27, Jn. 12: 24-26).

Think, for example, of the adulterous woman whom the Pharisees presented to Jesus to trap him. The first thing he did was to protect her from her accusers, and the second thing he did was to call her to leave her sin. “Go,” he commanded her, “and sin no more.”

Following the words of Christ himself, the Catholic Church has always taught that divorce and remarriage is simply adultery by another name. And since communion is reserved to Catholics in the state of grace, those living in an irregular situation are not able participate in that aspect of the life of the Church, though they should always be welcomed within the parish and at the Mass itself.

Last May, Cardinal Kasper claimed in an interview with Commonweal that we “can’t say whether it is ongoing adultery” when a repentant, divorced Christian nonetheless engages in “sexual relations” in a new union. Rather, he thinks “absolution is possible.”

And yet, Christ clearly called remarriage adultery and said adultery was sinful (Mt. 5:32, Mk. 10:12, Lk. 16:18). In the case of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), Jesus also confirmed that remarriage cannot be valid, even when informed by sincere feeling and fidelity.

When one adds to the equation the high failure rate of remarriages subsequent to a divorce, where Cardinal Kasper’s reasoning would lead, no one can say. For example, should sacramental communion be allowed only for the once-remarried? What about people remarried twice, or three times? And it is obvious that the arguments made for easing Christ’s prohibition on remarriage could also be made for contraceptive use, or any number of other aspects of Catholic theology understood by the modern, self-referential world as “difficult.”

Predicting what this would lead to isn’t a matter of knowing the future, but of simply observing the past. We need only to look at the Anglican Church, which opened the door to – and later embraced – contraception in the 20th century and for more than a decade has allowed for divorce and remarriage in certain cases.

The German bishops’ “Plan B” to do things “their way” in Germany, even if it goes against the grain of Church teaching, has the same flaws. And, it has an eerie ring to it – in an Anglican sort of way. Consider the words of the head of the German Bishops Conference, Cardinal Marx, who was cited in the National Catholic Register as saying that while the German Church may remain in communion with Rome on doctrine, that in terms of pastoral care for individual cases, “the synod cannot prescribe in detail what we have to do in Germany.” Henry VIII would most certainly have agreed.

“We are not just a subsidiary of Rome,” Cardinal Marx argued. “Each episcopal conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their culture and has to proclaim the Gospel in its own unique way. We cannot wait until a synod states something, as we have to carry out marriage and family ministry here.”

The Anglicans also sought such autonomy – though with increasingly internally divisive results and the emptying of their communities.

It is undeniable that the Church must reach out to those on the margins of the faith with mercy, but mercy always speaks the truth, never condones sin, and recognizes that the Cross is at the heart of the Gospel. One might recall that Pope St. John Paul II – cited by Pope Francis at his canonization as “the pope of the family” – also wrote extensively about mercy, dedicating an entire encyclical to the topic, and establishing the feast of Divine Mercy. For St. John Paul, mercy was a central theme, but one that had to be read in the context of truth and scripture, rather than against it.

On remarriage, and many other issues, no one would say that the Church’s teaching, which is Christ’s, is easy. But Christ himself did not compromise on core teachings to keep his disciples from leaving him – whether it was on the Eucharist or marriage (Jn 6: 60-71; Mt 19: 3-12). Nor did John Fisher compromise to keep the king Catholic.

We need look no further for a model on this matter than words of Christ and St. Peter in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel – a passage that reminds us that the teaching on the Eucharist is often difficult to accept even for believers.

“’It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe. … For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.’ As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”

As disciples we are always called to listen to the voice of Jesus before the voice of the world, culture or history. The voice of Jesus sheds light on the darkness of the world and cultures. Let us pray that all concerned will listen to those words of eternal life, no matter how difficult!

COMING UP: What is a deacon?

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This column is by Deacon Joe Donohoe.

On June 18, 2017, the Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” (Sacred Order of the Diaconate) by Pope Paul
VI. This ecclesial document is significant to the life of the Church as it restores the offi ce of the diaconate to a permanent position within the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Church uses the word “permanent” to mean that the
deacon does not progress through the hierarchy of the Church but remains a deacon through eternity.

So, what have we discovered about this vocation since 1967? First of all, we have learned that a deacon is not
a priest nor is he a parishioner. He is clergy and an ordained minister with the indelible mark of Holy Orders.
His vocation comes from his ordination in which he promises obedience to the bishop and becomes radically
available to Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.

We also know that some deacons are single; yet, many are married and have families. Most deacons have secular jobs and a few are employed within the Church. Deacons are also in the seminary. Men discerning the priesthood are first ordained deacons and retain this charism into their priestly ordination. Regardless, all deacons are called by God to evangelize and bring the message of the Gospel to those in the workplaces, parishes, homes and the public square.

We’ve learned that deacons are called to be an example of holiness; especially important to those who lack a positive role model in their homes and work places. A deacon is called to make frequent prayer an important part of his daily routine.

As an icon of Jesus Christ, the servant who came to serve, not to be served, prayer proves to be essential for his
ministry and his life.

Every deacon prays in the morning when they wake and in the evening before they retire to bed. They often will spend 15 minutes a day reading Scripture and allowing God to respond to them. Each day is met with opportunities to encounter God in prayer and in deeds.

In service, the archbishop sends the deacon out to accomplish the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

The deacon visits prisoners, cares for the sick, dying and abused, feeds the hungry, provides shelter to the homeless,
wipes the tears from the sorrowful, and is a voice of the forgotten and helpless, including the unborn.

In one example, a deacon ministering to single mothers in the archdiocese tells me of the first time a mother handed over her infant son for him to hold. As he blessed the child, the deacon was struck with gratitude as he realized the incredible trust the mother had just turned over to him. It was the first time she had ever allowed her baby to be held by someone else since she had arrived at the home.

In his ministry of the word, the deacon teaches and preaches in his parish assignment and witnesses to
those in secular society. He proclaims the Gospel and occasionally preaches the homily. The deacon often teaches both those entering into the Church and away from the Church; and often instructs those in religious education and Sacramental preparation classes.

Many deacons have extensive expertise in life issues. Some are medical professionals who stand before congressional committees to defend life and meet with any person or group to talk about what happens medically with the diff erent procedures that terminate life. These
deacons also visit with patients and families to help them understand the church’s position on life issues.

No doubt, they have turned a lot of people away from the culture of death through their ministries.

The vast majority of deacons are certified as advocates for annulments which can be a very spiritual experience. One petitioner tells the story of how a deacon assisted her with the annulment process, helped her reconcile her relationship with the church and is a spiritual advisor to her, even today. She would even seek his advice on any potential future spouse and felt he was more of a father figure than a friend. She lives a comfortable life with a beautiful young son and a wonderful husband.

There are a couple of deacons who visit the homeless at Samaritan House. One deacon meets clients in the lunch rooms, eats with them, shares stories and then gathers them together for Bible study. Many of the men are anxious to come back when he is around to get their spiritual nutrition. He himself is a cancer survivor
and is dealing with debilitating disease; yet, his joy is with his friends at the homeless shelter.

In the ministry of the liturgy, the deacon assists at the altar, coordinating the activities of the liturgy and promoting reverence. He also conducts baptisms, marriages and funerals.

At the Mass, the deacon’s right to the altar is because of his participation with the faithful. He is ordained for the care of souls. One deacon prepares for Mass by greeting the Lord in the Adoration chapel and praying for the people at Mass. When he receives the gifts at the off ertory, like all deacons, he recognizes the prayers of those in the congregation and presents them to the celebrant as an offering to God. Yet, the faithful gathered together on Sunday are unaware of the prayers that are being lifted up
to God.

Deacons preach by example. They harmonize their vocational sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders
and model themselves after Jesus.

Many Deacons bond with the couples they have blessed in marriage and further their relationship by being available to them. There is a Deacon who sends a nice anniversary card to all the couples he has blessed and to couples of parents whose children he has baptized. The card often goes beyond a greeting and suggests that they meet and find out what is happening in the lives of the newlyweds
and newly baptized.

Even though we have learned much about deacons in the past 50 years, there is still much to discover and learn about the vocation. With the help of God and the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, the diaconal adventure will be filled with blessings and the grace of the Holy Spirit.