There were many devout and faithful Catholics in England in the early sixteenth century. But when King Henry VIII declared himself to be the head of the Church in England, he forced every one of his citizens to make a decision about their faith. Option #1: Agree that the leader of your government is also the leader of your religion. Option #2: Refuse to agree with option #1, but be prepared for your government to retaliate against you.
Two great men, now acclaimed as saints of the Catholic Church, chose option #2. Although they paid for that decision with their lives, their words and actions can still teach us a great deal about how to respond when other people, particularly people in positions of authority, refuse to respect our God-given right to religious freedom.
Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) was born in London and grew up in a strict but loving home. His family were faithful Catholics, and he received a good education at school.
His teachers recognized Thomas’ intelligence and hard work. By the time he was an adult, his colleagues were calling him brilliant and eloquent, and some even called him a genius. Thomas became a highly-respected lawyer in London, then a member of Parliament, then a well-known poet and writer, and eventually Lord Chancellor of England. But what many people noticed first about Thomas was not his great intellect. Instead, they were impressed by his life of faith and virtue.
Thomas More was a friendly, humble, thoughtful man. He was uniformly kind and generous to everyone, but the people he invited to his dinner table were lively thinkers, not the rich and powerful men one was expected to fawn over for the sake of career advancement. He shrugged off insults and was honest in his business dealings.
He seriously considered a vocation to religious life as a young man but eventually decided to marry. He made sure his daughters were as well-educated as his son, made prayer a daily part of the life of his entire household, and paid attention to the needs of the poor. His decision to remarry almost immediately after his first wife’s death was probably more for the sake of his young children than for himself.
Saint John Fisher (1469-1535) was also recognized for his intelligence from a young age, but, unlike Thomas, he did decide to become a priest. With the financial support of a countess and through his own hard work and initiative, he revitalized the University of Cambridge. When he was made bishop of Rochester, he simply added the heavy duties of administering a diocese to his service as chancellor of a university. John became widely known as a scholar, writer, and religious reformer, and despite the power of his prestigious positions, he lived a personally austere life.
When King Henry decided to try to divorce his legitimate wife to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, the political repercussions took years to play out. Thomas initially received the king’s permission to stand apart from this decision and to continue in his duties as lord chancellor, making no public statements about the issue. John, on the other hand, became one of the counsellors to Queen Catherine and successfully defended the validity of her marriage to the king. John was imprisoned twice for that reason and an attempt was made to poison him, almost certainly ordered by Boleyn.
But the king’s lust and pride ultimately led him to throw both men in prison. When they refused to give in to the king’s demands, they were both executed: John was beheaded on June 22 and Thomas on July 6.
What do the lives of these two men teach us about the value of religious freedom? They remind us that whatever our vocation—priest, president, checkout clerk, or grandmother—we all deserve the right to live that vocation, both in the way we worship and the way we live our lives outside of our place of worship.
In 2012, the US Catholic bishops instituted an annual event to remind Americans of the importance of religious freedom. They were (and still are) concerned about efforts made by some authorities to deprive people of faith of their freedom to practice that faith.
Unsurprisingly, they chose Saints Thomas More and John Fisher as patrons for this program. Both men were, as Thomas famously put it in his final words before his execution, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
During the upcoming Religious Freedom Week (June 22-29), we too can put God first in our lives. We can pray for our country and for those whose health, property, livelihoods, and consciences are being threatened because of their faith. We can become better informed about any action (or inaction) that endangers anyone’s religious freedom. And we can take action as these two great saints did, whatever our vocation happens to be, to stand up for the freedom to believe in God, worship Him, and behave like followers of Jesus Christ.