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 | By William R. Bloomfield

Religious Freedom and Saints Thomas More and John Fisher

June 22 marks the feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. Both are considered patrons of religious freedom, and their feast is good cause for examining this subject.

Since the earliest days of the Church, we have seen conflicts between the state and the freedom to exercise the Christian faith. Not long after the first Pentecost, the Sadducees forbade the apostles from proclaiming the Gospel. They imprisoned them, but the apostles continued preaching. Peter boldly declared: “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. The Roman Empire likewise persecuted the apostles and early Christians, such that many of the earliest saints were martyrs.

With the Roman Empire’s collapse, and as Christianity spread and eventually became the dominant religion throughout Europe, legal challenges to Christians and their practices became less common. For this reason, the 16th century martyrdoms of St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and St. Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor of England, are more notable. These men were, of course, not martyred by a pagan king but by a Catholic king in one of the most deeply Catholic countries of Europe. Moreover, More and Fisher were not just any men—not only had they held high offices, but they were also intellectual giants of 16th century Europe, each participating in the major intellectual and theological issues of the day.  

Like the Christians of old, More and Fisher held steadfast to their faith rather than compromising to the ideas and pressures of the day. Both found themselves unwittingly in conflict with King Henry VIII when the king sought a divorce from his wife, Queen Catherine. Despite strong pressure to give in to the king, More and Fisher held fast to the Church’s teaching, i.e., Christ’s teaching, that marriage is indissoluble. King Henry VIII eventually split with the pope over this issue and demanded that his subjects recognize him as the supreme head of the Church of England. Bishop Fisher and More declined and were ultimately beheaded: Fisher on June 22, 1535, and More two weeks later on July 5.

Given More’s and Fisher’s defense of marriage and the papacy against the state, it is not surprising that they are both regarded as patrons of religious freedom. Rather than compromising their Catholic faith, they gave witness to it by forfeiting their lives in the Church’s defense. Sadly, as the culture of the United States separates more and more from the Christian culture that has served as a moral foundation for this country, there are ever more religious freedom conflicts in this country. While no one is being beheaded, there are greater pressures being applied to religious persons who dare to challenge ever-changing secular orthodoxies. 

In recent years, we have seen religious freedom conflicts over governmental insurance mandates that required religious individuals and organizations to cover immoral medical procedures of their employees, such as abortion, contraception, and sterilization. We’ve also seen attempts to compel Catholic adoption agencies to provide adoptions to those living in extra-marital relationships, and challenges to religious bakers, artists, florists, and caterers who decline to participate in same-sex “marriages.” Now, with the rapid advance of transgenderism and gender ideology, we are seeing governments use non-discrimination laws to pressure religious individuals and organizations into adhering to this latest ideology—an ideology that rejects the biological reality that human beings exist as either male or female from the moment of their conception.

Most striking about these new attacks on religious freedom is that—despite years of removing any hint of religion from the public square under the guise of “separation of church and state”—the state now seeks to intrude in the very governance and operations of religious institutions. A major question presented is: will Catholic parishes, schools, and agencies be permitted to operate their institutions in accord with their Catholic faith by recognizing the biological reality that human persons are either male or female? Fortunately, the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, recognizing the duty and corresponding right to worship the Creator, protects the “free exercise” of religion, and there are many good religious freedom law firms, such as the Becket Fund, assisting religious organizations to protect their rights. Through the good work of Becket and others, there are also good religious freedom precedents that suggest that the state should not be permitted to intrude into these governance decisions of churches, particularly when churches are motivated (as here) by the sincerely held religious belief that God created human beings as either male or female. (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27.)

Neither the apostles, early Christian martyrs, nor Saints John Fisher or Thomas More looked for conflict with the state. Nor does the Catholic Church seek conflict today. But should we face such conflict, through the example and intercession of these great saints, may we hold steadfastly to the faith, invoke our legal defenses, and answer, as Peter did: “We must obey God rather than men.”

William R. Bloomfield is the General Counsel for the Diocese of Lansing