Four men of history. Four men of courage and integrity with a high regard for religious freedom.
St. Thomas More — an English lawyer, social philosopher, author and lord high chancellor of England under King Henry VIII — opposed the Protestant Reformation and the king’s separation from the Catholic Church. In refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England and the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, More was convicted of treason and beheaded. He was a great man of integrity and bore witness to the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience in the face of persecution and death.
St. John Fisher was a bishop and cardinal. He tutored Prince Henry who was to become Henry VIII. He opposed the king’s divorce of Queen Catherine and became the chief supporter on the queen’s behalf, stating he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage.
Fisher resisted King Henry’s encroachments on the church, including the king as head of the church in England. When the king demanded that each bishop take an oath of succession, Fisher refused. He faced criticism and ridicule from fellow clerics, who had succumbed to taking the oath. Several efforts were made to persuade Fisher to submit. When he again refused to take the oath, he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded.
John Adams — second president of the United States, a member of the Committee of Five that edited the Declaration of Independence — was known to be a devout Christian, a bit of a hothead, and a government centralist, who believed the government should take care of certain aspects of the lives of its citizens. He said, “The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved …”
Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. A more genteel personality, Jefferson viewed limited government as the best. For a brief time, he practiced law, at times defending slaves seeking their freedom. He was proficient in mathematics, horticulture, mechanics and architecture. While he shunned organized religion, he was influenced by both Christianity and deism.
In the Declaration of Independence, both Jefferson as author and Adams as signer proclaimed the existence of certain self-evident truths that should be recognized: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
A self-evident truth is, by definition, evident to anyone. The right to life is inalienable because it is not of human, but divine, origin. And, because man does not create himself, no government can deny its citizens the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our “inalienable” right is to life — not to abortion, physician assisted suicide, etc.
All four of these great men, in their time and place in history, showed deep courage to face oppressions of marriage, life and religious freedom. They faced ridicule by their own colleagues. They faced the threat of loss of property, harm to their families and even death.
Celebrating our freedoms
Our religious freedom is a precious gift, a gift that is being challenged both at home and around the world. While our teachings on life, marriage, sexuality and medical ethics may be seen as discriminatory or hateful by some, they are truly expressions of the value of human life and human dignity. The decision to practice our faith, to adhere to moral convictions, to live our life of faith in the public square is what so many thousands have fought and died for.
While it is not easy to address some of the hot-button issues of the day, we too may be ridiculed and scoffed at. Yet, we should not be afraid.
St. Thomas More and St. John Fischer understood that serving God and their courageous stance could lead to martyrdom. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, seeing the harm religious oppression produced, understood that a new country had a moral obligation to declare the importance of religious liberty, which had to be the backbone if we were to become and remain a great nation.
As we celebrate the very freedom we have come to enjoy this Fourth of July, may we remember the sacrifice of our Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and each individual who fought and died for us to enjoy such freedom.
May we ask the intercession of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher to be worthy of receiving this precious gift and to aid us in having the courage to stand up for our religious liberty.
Chris Codden is director of the Office of Marriage and Family of the Diocese of St. Cloud. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.