Today the Catholic Church celebrates two great English saints and martyrs. I am forever grateful to my history master at Ratcliffe College, back in the day, Fr Bill Curran, who explained this great truth to me: “They were martyrs because they were saints, not saints because they were martyrs.” How true that is! Both John Fisher and Thomas More were men of exemplary life, one a bishop, one a lawyer and family man. And it was because they lived such upright lives that they were content to be martyred for the faith.
It is often held, correctly so, that Fisher and More were martyrs for the rights of conscience. Certainly, both men believed, as does the Church, that there are certain rights that the State can never arrogate for itself, and that includes those matters which are matters of conscience. But to see Fisher and More going to their deaths for freedom of religion, and for the rights of the individual against those of the over-mighty state, victims of Tudor totalitarianism, is only part of the story.
Both died for the integrity of the Catholic Church. Both firmly held that what Henry VIII wanted to do was not simply wrong, but impossible. A King could not be head of the Church; there was no such thing as the Church “of England”; there was one Catholic Church, holy and indivisible, under the visible headship of the Vicar of Christ, the Pope. The Pope of the day, Paul III, understood this, as that is why he made Fisher a cardinal, much to the fury of Henry VIII. The scarlet of the Cardinalate is the sign that members of the Sacred College are prepared to shed their blood for the faith, yet St John Fisher remains the only Cardinal who has ever been martyred. Contemporaries of Fisher and More also understood that the Papal Supremacy was what was at stake, and many of them, such as Bishop Bonner, indulged in some very impressive mental gymnastics to try and find reasons for the royal supremacy in the Church’s tradition.
But the royal supremacy, then as now, was never more than a religious fiction covering up a political necessity. Nor is England the only country to have gone down this route, but wherever the State has grabbed control of the Church, the result has been bad for the State and even worse for the Church. Moreover, the concept of a “national Church” is clearly a bad one, and the alliance between faith and nationalism deeply deforming for faith.
On Sunday we are celebrating the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the traditional time to show our loyalty to the See of Peter, and to acknowledge that the authority of the See is founded in the words of Jesus Christ Himself. I am sure both Saints John Fisher and Thomas More are rejoicing in heaven at the way the Papacy survived the storms of the Reformation. As then, as always: ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, ibi vita eterna: where Peter is, there is the Church, there is eternal life. May Saints John Fisher and Thomas More continue to inspire us, and bear witness to the truth for which they died.