Can a faithful Catholic also be a loyal patriot? How far may a Catholic go along with a political regime which actively seeks to attack and destroy his mother Church? Are there redlines at which a Catholic, even if he loves his native land, must firmly plant his feet and declare brazenly, “I will not be moved”?
These are questions many devout American Catholics are asking in 2021, given the multi-pronged assaults on the Church from the state, corporate media, and even many of her own members. Thankfully, many saints have trod this same path before. Their witness offers helpful and timely advice. The feast of two such men, the English Sts. John Fisher (1469-1535) and Thomas More (1478-1535), we celebrate today.
Many Catholics are familiar with the story of St. Thomas More. One of the most brilliant men of his day, More was a polymath who excelled at law, statesmanship, theology, and philosophy. He authored the famous political treatise Utopia and served as English King Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor, one of the most senior and important positions in the royal government.
More was also an active Catholic polemicist against the nascent Protestant Reformation. His A Dialogue Concerning Heresies was an instant classic, and it was even lauded, many generations later, by prolific Protestant apologist C.S. Lewis. Yet in his unswerving allegiance to Christ and His Church, More ran into trouble with the increasingly Protestant-sympathetic King Henry.
The great English statesman sought to tackle a shrewd, careful line, but he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy, which declared Henry to be the Supreme Governor of the English Church. For More, that Erastian position was in direct conflict with traditional, magisterial teaching on the ecclesial supremacy of St. Peter’s successor, the bishop of Rome. As More declared at his execution “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”
St. John Fisher was also remarkable. He was both a scholar and a cleric. For a time, he served as chaplain and confessor to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, mother of King Henry VII. Later, he accepted a position as doctor of sacred theology at Cambridge and soon thereafter was elected Vice-Chancellor of the University. The famous humanist Erasmus described Fisher as “one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul.” Fisher was later appointed bishop of Rochester.
Declared cardinal in 1535, Fisher objected to King Henry’s decision to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and, by extension, spurn the ecclesial authority of the Roman pontiff. Like More, Fisher was executed upon order of the crown, quietly accepting beheading in London. Not long before he died, he wrote: “Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.” On the scaffold, he prayed to God to save both the king and the realm and “send the king good Counsel.”
In these two men, we can observe several qualities that enabled them to remain firm patriots while resisting evil and unjustified encroachments against the Church and her teaching. Perhaps the most salient lesson is to recognize and communicate that truth is always in the best interest of our homeland. To perceive faithfulness to Christ and faithfulness to our nation as in conflict is to misunderstand the true nature of patriotism.
For as holy men and women like the Polish Sts. John Paul II and Faustina Kowalska have taught us, true patriots understand that our native lands can only fully realize their God-given character and mission when they seek to glorify and obey our Lord. Faustina wrote in her diary: “My beloved native land, Poland, if you only knew how many sacrifices and prayers I offer to God for you! But be watchful and give glory to God, who lifts you up and singles you out in a special way. But know how to be grateful.”
Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher understood this profound truth. They maintained deep affection for their beloved England. And it was precisely out of that patriotic devotion that they could not obey wicked laws that would sow chaos and bring about the realm’s destruction. In obeying Christ and His Church, More and Fisher were actually seeking to save England.
Another invaluable lesson these Reformation-era saints teach us is the importance of praying for our leaders, even those actively working against the Church and objective truth. Politicians seek to codify policies that will undermine Catholic institutions, from schools to hospitals to adoption agencies. They aim, in no uncertain terms, to force faithful Catholics to abandon their conscience, or teach certain ideologies about the human person and sexuality that are incompatible both with Catholic teaching and verifiable scientific and philosophical reality. It is easy to harbor malice and resentment toward such people.
Yet More and Fisher teach us that we must always pray for our leaders. Indeed, it is only divine intervention that can change the warped hearts of those who have come to believe that it is the Catholic Church, and not materialistic secularism, that is the real obstacle to human progress. Moreover, in the process of praying for our persecutors, God changes us, forming in us Christ-like qualities of charity, mercy, and humility. It was Jesus who, on the cross, interceded for His tormentors: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Finally, More and Fisher teach us that the best response to persecution is not necessarily rhetorical fireworks. Both of these Englishmen tried to walk a tightrope, uninterested in needlessly provoking the monarchy, while also indefatigably refusing to compromise on truth. That, too, must be our policy in these uncertain times. Sometimes, because of various important equities, we must prudentially consider how best to respond to the falsities of our time.
Surely, we must “live not by lies,” as Solzhenitsyn urged, but that does not necessarily mean penning an angry email to our boss or abandoning every organization that peddles woke nonsense. Often, there are mouths to feed within our own household. And if we recklessly abandon our professional or civic roles, we lose the opportunity to quietly and charitably resist these anti-human ideologies from within, including by the witness of our lives. We must be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” as Christ exhorted us (Matthew 10:16).
Of course, there will always be redlines. We must not violate our consciences, nor say or do what is in direct conflict with divine revelation and magisterial teaching. We cannot “call good evil and evil good” (Isaiah 5:20). Yet even when we fight, we do so not because we hate our nation and our countrymen, but because we love them and yearn for their repentance. We hope that they might work for the authentic good of the polis, and, Lord willing, the kingdom of God. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, we must be America’s servants, but God’s first.
St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, pray for us!
[Image Credit: St. Thomas More (left) and St. John Fisher (right), by Hans Holbein the Younger.]