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: St. Bernadette’s Parish provides ministries with big reach

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St. Bernadette’s Parish provides ministries with big reach

Lakewood church is home to deaf, Native American, homeless ministries

Roxanne King
20160221-Churches-StBernadette (1)

St. Bernadette Parish, the pioneer Catholic church of Lakewood, outgrew its first worship space just 18 years after being founded in 1947. Today, the half-century-old church remains large enough but needs updated to better serve its exceptionally diverse congregation.

In addition to ministering to the faithful of central Lakewood, the parish heads Colorado Catholic Deaf Ministry, is home to St. Kateri Native American Community, runs a school and soon will be host to Marisol Home, which will provide transitional housing to homeless women with children.

“One holy, Catholic and apostolic church is a pretty good description for our parish,” said the pastor, Father Tom Coyte.

“Catholic means universal,” added pastoral associate Julie Plouffe, “and there is so much diversity represented in this one worship space: the deaf, Native Americans, service to the poor and the homeless, and to our school.”

Deaf ministry

When Father Coyte was named pastor of St. Bernadette’s two and a half years ago, he quickly realized his handsome church was in need of repairs and renovations—from the essentials of updating the heating, cooling and electricity, to improving the sanctuary for comfort and hospitality.

He wants all of his parishioners, including the deaf, to be able to enjoy full, active participation in the church liturgies. When Father Coyte arrived to St. Bernadette’s, the deaf community, which he’s led for 45 years, came with him.

“We became aware of how difficult it is to participate visually in our liturgies here,” Father Coyte said.

Because it’s essential for the deaf to see what’s being signed, the parish plans, among other improvements, to elevate the altar platform to increase visibility for the congregation. (The change will also aid seeing the schoolchildren when they take part in liturgies.)

Deaf ministry enables the hard of hearing to serve as lectors, ushers and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. It offers interpretive services for weddings, funerals and religious education classes, and organizes retreats.

“Deaf ministry is an archdiocesan outreach to all deaf persons and their families to be fully involved in parish and Church life,” Father Coyte said.

Services include religious education and interpretive outreach, and signed weekly Masses at two other parishes—one in the Colorado Springs Diocese.

“We also go to Pueblo and have been to other states,” Father Coyte said.

St. Kateri Community

The St. Kateri ministry, in which some 60 people from across the archdiocese representing about 10 Native American tribes celebrate a weekly Mass incorporating Indian traditions, has been at St. Bernadette’s since 1985.

“They’ve been embraced by the St. Bernadette community,” Father Coyte said. “They have a beautiful spirituality.”

Kateri ministry exists to evangelize and serve the archdiocese’s Native American community and provides religious education and community building.

Aid to the poor, homeless

Last fall, the Kateri community, which had turned the parish’s old convent into a chapel, moved their weekly Mass into the church proper. Catholic Charities is leasing and transforming Kateri’s former home for worship into a home for single-parent mothers with children. Marisol Home, set to open this year, will be able to shelter up to 18 families at once.

“St. Bernadette’s will be providing a lot of meal support and volunteer hours,” Plouffe said of the Marisol ministry.

Ministry to the poor and homeless has long been a cherished activity of the parish, which helps a near daily stream of indigent from Lakewood’s Colfax corridor with food, rent assistance and resource referrals.

“We reach out to many needy families in our school as well,” Father Coyte said.

Vast outreach

This spring the parish is launching a three-year, $1.5 million capital campaign to fund necessary improvements to make St. Bernadette’s more beautiful, functional and welcoming for its diverse congregation.

Just as the church’s unique ministries stretch beyond its parish boundaries, Father Coyte said so, too, does its need for donations.

“Our outreach is much larger than St. Bernadette Parish,” he said. “We’re a relatively small parish of 700 to 800 families, yet our ministries are quite ambitious.”

To Donate

Call St. Bernadette Parish, 303-233-1523