Friday, Catholics all around the world celebrate the feast of St. Thomas More. Perhaps no other Catholic saint better embodies the importance the Catholic Church places on conscience rights. He chose death before he would take an oath that violated his conscience.
The man who ordered his death, King Henry VIII, was More’s close friend. All Henry asked was that More, a devout Catholic and former chancellor of England, recognize his divorce to Catherine of Aragon and swear allegiance to him, not the pope, as head of the Church of England.
One of King Henry’s mistakes about St. Thomas More was that he underestimated the power of the human conscience. Our president makes a similar mistake with Catholics today.
More’s feast day coincides with Thursday’s kickoff of the Fortnight for Freedom, a period of prayer, fasting, and lay action that Catholic bishops have called for in the wake of our government’s refusal to back off the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring that religious employers violate their consciences and provide contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization as a part of their healthcare plans.
In calling for this period, American bishops in a statement entitled, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” wrote, “If citizens are not free in their own consciences, how can they be free in relation to others, or to the state? If our obligations and duties to God are impeded, or even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free, and a beacon of hope for the world.”
And so the Catholic laity is standing in unity with their bishops to protest this mandate. And religious believers of many faiths are standing with us. Because they know as well as we that hewn into the bedrock of all religious belief is the sacred space that conscience occupies.
Many have taunted Catholics for their unwavering response to the mandate. Like the words you would expect from a bully on a playground, we hear heckling like, ‘It’s just a pill. No one is making you take it!’
Others have tried to re-make the debate over the mandate into a conflict over women’s health and rights, as if the Catholic Church were trying to deny women access to contraception by refusing to pay for it. This debate is about attempts to bully religious people and institutions into defying their most basic beliefs.
Like Catholics today, Thomas More was assailed by pressure to comply with the king’s unjust request. As he sat confined in the Tower of London, awaiting beheading, his own daughter entreated him to say the words the king demanded.
The classic film that depicts the life of More, A Man for All Seasons, contains a scene in which More gently explains to his daughter that he cannot sacrifice his conscience, no matter what the consequences. More says, “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then--he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.”
Like More before us, Catholics today understand that wrapped up in this conflict is the essence of what it is to be human. What many, including policy leaders like President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius, fail to understand, is that the self and the soul are one and the same and the human conscience reigns supreme over them both. And human fear dissipates when the self is at stake. Human courage swells in its place when our right to be our self in the most profound of ways is threatened.
When Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen, lawyers, and politicians, he said “precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity.”
Nearly five hundred years after More died a martyr in order that his moral integrity remain intact, Catholics in this country are venerating his example. Throughout the coming two weeks, Catholics will show through their faith and their works that they are deeply committed to the American, and the profoundly human, principle of religious freedom.
The fortnight will conclude on July, 4.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, which commenced American independence on July 4, 1776, died 50 years later, on July 4, 1826. He once wrote that, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”
More and Jefferson were men for all seasons. They are men for this season. They were men who knew living fully meant a willingness to sacrifice everything for religious liberty.
That is what we Catholics are speaking truth to during this coming fortnight. And together we will be heard.