Thomas More and the True Nature of Religious Freedom
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the USCCB’s “Fortnight for Freedom,” rebranded this year as “Religious Freedom Week 2022” with the theme this year being, “Life and Dignity for All.” The annual custom originated 10 years ago when then-President Barack Obama decided that already cheap and widely available contraceptives were neither sufficiently cheap nor widely available. He had his Department of Health and Human Services issue a ruling that required all health insurance plans (with very limited exceptions) to cover the cost of contraception, free of charge.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholics organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, protested, rightly, that this ruling would have forced them to be complicit in the evil of contraception. It would have forced them to directly provide the material means for their employees to engage in that evil. This, they insisted, they could not do. And to attempt them to do so was a violation of their religious freedom.
In response, the Bishops proclaimed the first “Fortnight for Freedom,” beginning on July 21, the vigil (in the new calendar) of the feasts of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. (In the pre-1962 calendar, the feast of Thomas More is on July 9.) It was to continue through July 4, Independence Day.
The focus on religious freedom made sense for several reasons. First, President Obama and others had been insisting that their contraception mandate did not affect religious freedom at all. People were still free, Obama insisted, to go to whatever Church they wanted and to worship how they wanted every week. In response, Catholics like Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Philadelphia, pointed out that freedom of religion could not be reduced to freedom of worship. Freedom of religion went beyond what a man did in Church for an hour on Sundays. It meant the right to live his life free to do what true religion told him he ought to do. Religion was not to be forced out of public life and confined to worship services once a week.
The second reason a fortnight for freedom made sense was that religious freedom was genuinely under attack, and not only by Obama’s government. This has only become more obvious in the years since. More and more devout Christians have been forced to fight for their right to live out their religion in their lives and businesses. The government has attempted to force florists, bakers, and photographers into providing their services for same-sex wedding ceremonies. There are attempts to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions; a high school coach is fired merely for taking a knee in silent praye; and teachers must fight to avoid being forced to call boys girls and girls boys.
Why, then, begin with the Novus Ordo feasts of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher? Because almost alone, in 16th century England, they refused to support the tyrannical Henry VIII’s decision to declare himself head of the Church in England and then to grant himself the divorce the Pope had denied him. Bishop Fisher was the only English bishop to remain faithful–and he was martyred for it. Thomas More was no firebrand; but his conscience would not let him declare a lie to be the truth. He would neither acclaim Henry as head of the Church nor would he affirm Anne Boleyn to be the king’s wife.
And so Thomas More, properly, became a symbol of the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Like John the Baptist, he preferred to lose his head rather than call a lie the truth. Unlike John the Baptist, he did not denounce Henry publicly, did not tell Henry that it was not lawful for him to have Anne as wife. He simply refused to offer Henry his approval. And that refusal spoke volumes. In Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, Cromwell complains that More’s silence is “echoing up and down Europe.” The wicked demand not only the silence of the good, but increasingly, their approval and positive affirmation. Henry stood condemned not by a single word Thomas More said, but by the word More refused to say. And so More had to lose his conscience or his head. He chose the latter.
Thomas More’s freedom of religion and conscience should not be misunderstood. Modern culture often interprets “freedom” and “conscience” in a purely libertarian sense. In this sense, “freedom” simply means freedom from constraint. It becomes a kind of license, the ability to do whatever one wants. But of course, this was neither More’s sense of freedom or conscience at all, nor is it a reasonable one. Rather than interpret freedom in a libertarian fashion, we should interpret it in a teleological fashion, connecting freedom to purpose and truth.
Imagine a man with a libertarian sense of freedom. He purchases a new car. It comes with a long manual telling him how often he must change the oil, air filters, what kind of gas to put in the car, and how to care for it. The man is furious. How dare the car manufacturers tell him what to do? Do they want to control him? It is his car and his choice! He will not put gasoline in the tank. He will put in apple juice! And suddenly, the man will find that his exercise of “freedom” will mean that he is not free to have a working car. The man who truly wishes to be free will act in accord with the purpose of the car and the nature of reality. And he will find that he who submits to truth and reality will find that he is more free than the man who rejects it.
The freedom the Catholic seeks is the freedom to live God’s law, to live and act in the truth, and to follow God’s will. This is not merely a matter of worshiping at church once a week, but of living one’s entire life–social, political, economic, moral–in accord with God’s laws. Archbishop Chaput put it this way:
Scripture says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). We work best for religious freedom by first opening our hearts to God’s will instead of our own; and loving our country and our Church; and renewing the witness of the Church with the zeal and purity and obedience of our own lives. That freedom, that joy, no one can ever take from us.
Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, Pray for us.