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
Wikimedia Commons

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: A cinematic lesson in hope

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Weigel 6.27.16

At a moment like this when there doesn’t seem to be a lot going right – ascendant authoritarianisms throughout the world; lethal violence by ideological fanatics; feckless responses to both from the democracies – it’s good to be reminded that things can be different, and in fact were different, not so very long ago.

Recapturing those days and summoning memories of a time when the good folks won, cleanly and against all the odds, is the singular accomplishment of a splendid new documentary, Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, which should be on everyone’s summer must-watch list.

It took me nineteen years of research and three books (The Final Revolution, Witness to Hope, and The End and the Beginning) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in ninety-three minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the twentieth century: the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place: something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new Bishop of Rome.

Central and eastern Europe weren’t liberated by conceding that the communists had a point, even if they were rather brutal and inefficient in making that point socially, economically, and politically. Nor were the countries of the Warsaw Pact liberated by churchmen and western diplomats cosseting the dictators that ran those party-states. What we used to call the “captive nations” were liberated because “good” and “evil” were “called by their right names,” as the Solidarity martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popieliuszko, used to put it.

Central and eastern Europe didn’t break free of the shackles of totalitarianism without trying, failing, and then trying again: it took a critical mass of people, determined to “live in the truth” no matter how difficult, to implode the communist culture of the lie and give a new birth of freedom to the lands Stalin claimed as his prize for helping beat Hitler.

And the countries of central and eastern Europe didn’t regain their liberties by adopting the usual 20th-century method of social change, mass violence. Understanding that people who begin by storming Bastilles usually end up building their own (as one Polish dissident said), the new freedom fighters inspired by John Paul II deployed weapons that communist brutality could not match: truth, national memory, tenacious organizing, and personal resilience.

For those whose memories of St. John Paul reach back only as far as his last years, Liberating a Continent is also a powerful reminder of what a handsome, charismatic, and utterly compelling man John Paul II was at the height of his physical powers. He radiated confidence, moral strength, and the courage of a happy warrior. And because of that, those whose lives he touched felt empowered in return.

The displacement of history by “social studies” in U.S. elementary and secondary schools has been a disaster for historical understanding. And while the new “social history,” which wants to do history from the bottom up, has taught us many things, there are still occasions when great men do bend history’s curve in a different direction; Liberating a Continent is also a useful reminder of that. John Paul II didn’t make “1989” happen by himself. But without him, a continent wouldn’t have been liberated when it was and how it was. So I’d suggest adding this terrific film to the curriculum of every Catholic (and indeed every Christian) high school in North America, to remind students what happened in their parents’ lifetimes and to inspire them to moral greatness themselves.

Liberating a Continent will be aired on various public television stations in the months ahead; that schedule will be regularly updated at www.jp2film.com. But while you’re checking for local airings at that site, go to the “purchase” tab, order a copy online, and settle down for an hour and a half of superb entertainment that will lift your spirits in a darkling season.