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: St. Louis students lend a helping hand to Haiti

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In 2010, a devastating earthquake ravaged Haiti. Just a few months ago, Hurricane Matthew ripped through Haiti, further damaging a country that was in the process of rebuilding. Haiti’s need for help is as pressing and dire as ever.

Students from one local Catholic school are taking the lead and working to raise money to help Haiti from afar. For the 8th grade class of St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville, doing what they can for the people of Haiti isn’t just an act of Christian charity; it’s an act of love toward a people whom they consider to be like an extended family.

The story begins with St. Louis parishioner Wynn Walent, who works for the St. Luke Foundation, a Catholic humanitarian organization founded by Father Rick Frechette in 2000 that’s based in Haiti. Walent lived in Haiti for two years, and while down there in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, he came to know two boys, Vlad and Belony. After a time, Walent decided to adopt the boys.

In 2012, St. Louis and then-principal Karen Herlihy opened the school’s doors to the Haitian boys without hesitation when Walent brought them back to the U.S., and thus began a relationship that has since affected the teachers and students of St. Louis in profound ways, not to mention the lives of Vlad and Belony. Vlad is now in 7th grade, and Belony just started his first year of high school.

“Since day one the staff, students and families of St. Louis have welcomed the boys with open arms,” Walent said. “It’s a very generous community.”

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St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville has a link to Haiti through two of its students, Vlad (pictured) and Belony, who were adopted by St. Louis parishioner and philanthropist Wynn Walent. The 8th grade class, with the help of the whole school, hopes to raise $5,000 by the end of the school year to donate to the St. Luke Foundation, a Catholic humanitarian organization based in Haiti. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

The boys have made quite an impression on the students and teachers of St. Louis. No matter who you ask, they’ll all say that Vlad and Belony “are very humble and have big hearts.” Not only that, many of the students are quick to point out that they’re incredibly talented soccer players.

Ultimately, the students said, Vlad and Belony are like family to the St. Louis community, and they want to help them and their brothers and sisters back in Haiti.

During the school year, each class at St. Louis is required to do some sort of outreach or stewardship project. With a tangible connection to Haiti through Vlad and Belony, the 8th grade class began brainstorming ways they could help those affected by the hurricane. While the 8th graders are currently leading the charge, they hope for it to become a school-wide initiative, with the goal of establishing a more long-term relationship between St. Louis and the St. Luke Foundation.

We’re in such a self-centered world, and I love the idea of kids helping kids and feeling good that they can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

“We’re always looking to see how we can get our children to be involved in projects that take them away from themselves,” St. Louis principal Kathy Byrnes told the Denver Catholic. “We’re in such a self-centered world, and I love the idea of kids helping kids and feeling good that they can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Luckily for them, they have a direct line to Haiti and the St. Luke Foundation through Walent, Vlad and Belony. Walent can articulate the needs of the foundation to the students, and they can raise the money accordingly. Their goal is to raise $5,000 by the end of the school year to donate to St. Luke, but they hope to exceed that goal. As of this writing, they’ve raised nearly $3,000.

The school has also started a Razoo crowdfunding page for anybody to donate to, and one of the first donors was none other than Belony.

The St. Luke Foundation started with simple clinics in 2000 and has since grown to entail two hospitals, three clinics and 32 schools. They provide jobs for 1,000 Haitian people, and Walent said that it is 100 percent Haitian led. The organization empowers the Haitian people to help themselves and provides them the necessary resources to do so.

The resolve of the St. Louis Catholic School to raise money to give to Haiti is a testament to their reputation of being, as Byrnes says, “The little school with the big heart.”

More information

To learn more about Father Rick Frechette, the founder of St. Luke, visit http://www.stlukehaiti.org/watch

To learn about St. Louis’ efforts to support St. Luke, visit stlukehaiti.org/stlouis

To contact Wynn Walent about the work in Haiti, please email wynn.walent@stlukehaiti.org