Today is the feast of the twin martyrs, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. There are books yet to be written on both, for all that have been written, but since so many more have been written on the latter I wish to write more on the former.
Now, in the first place, Fisher was a far greater theologian than St. Thomas More, who was a rhetorician and a lawyer, though no less devout a layman than Fisher was a bishop. Fisher established the seminary system in all but name, and made sure good preaching was the norm. This is rather an interesting thing. In the late Renaissance, patronage, which was designed to move ahead those who were worthy had become instead a way of rewarding friends and picking favorites. Men became pastors and bishops solely due to royal favor, and the Popes tended not to care because they received the first year’s income of that diocese, a sort of Church tax called the Annates. Suffice it to say the whole thing had gone very wrong in the fifteenth century, and now preaching was a rarity. Some Bishops did not preach a sermon in their lives. Many bishops lived elsewhere, and would attempt to have other dioceses consecrated under them, or when those had been exhausted abbeys, so they could live it up in Paris or Rome or some other large city, and appoint a vicar for low pay to administer his diocese. These often did not do so well, particularly since they were not paid for the job. At the time St. Charles Borromeo entered Milan as its Archbishop, there had not been a Bishop who actually resided in Milan for 125 years! Yet that holy reforming bishop had a portrait of two saints in his room, one of St. Ambrose, and the other of St. John Fisher.
St. John Fisher had become famous for his holiness across Christendom, though he had only left the country once and that was on a state visit. He used to say: “If I preach not to the people I shall be damned.” Fisher would have been known to Henry VIII also. They’re fates seem intertwined. At age 10, Fisher was brought in to refine Henry’s Latin, when he was already the confessor to the Queen Mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. At the death both of that lady and of Henry VII, Fisher preached their funeral orations. His reputation as a preacher was known by all, and in 1521, Cardinal Wolsey would tap his powers of oratory for his ends.
The crisis that brought Fisher to the world stage as a scholar and a saint brewed up in Germany. Luther had begun what we today call the “Reformation”, and after some back and forth with Rome, Leo X and his theologians, in a Bull titled “Exultate Domino” condemned Luther’s various propositions, on the Sacraments and other matters. Interestingly for us, Exultate Domino did not condemn the doctrine of “salvation by Faith alone”. Not because the Pope supported it, but because that was not seen as being an important position to address, at least not as much as Luther’s other doctrines. So Luther just re-asserted them, in his work De Babylonica Captivitate, or “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”
It was at this point that King Henry VIII of England came onto the scene. Henry, perhaps the best educated king in the history of England, or at least since St. Alfred the Great, considered himself no mean theologian, and he quickly made use of two men to write a response to Luther. These two men were the future saint Thomas More, and Bishop Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has been suggested that Warham had no actual input other than a nominal one to show clerical influence, and that may be. What we do know, is that Henry’s work was well received in Rome, and Leo X conferred upon Henry the title of “Fidei Defensor”, which English monarchs still use today, and we can see how well they have done, surveys show the Anglican Church will cease to exist in a decade or more. Nevertheless, what particularly pleased the Pope was this rousing defense of the papacy in the dedicatory epistle:
“Sed nostro in Christianum rempublicam ardori, in catholicam fidem zelo, et in apostolicam sedem devotioni non satis adhuc fecisse existimantes, propriis quoque nostris scriptis quo animo sumus in Lutherum, quodve de improbis ejus libellis nostrum sit judicium, innuere voluimus, omnibus apertius demonstrare, nos sanctam Romanam Ecclesiam non solum vi et armis, sed etiam ingenii opibus, christianisque officiis in omne tempus defensuros ac tutaturos esse. Primam ideo ingenii nostraeque mediocris eruditionis feturam nemini magis quam Vestrae Sanctitati dicandam consecrandamque esse duximus; tum ob filialem nostram in eam observantiam, tum etiam ob solicitam ipsius christianae reipublicae curam.”
“But convinced that, in our ardor for the welfare of Christendom, in our zeal for the Catholic faith and our devotion to the Apostolic See, we had not yet done enough, we determined to show by our own writings our attitude towards Luther and our opinion of his vile books; to manifest more openly to all the world that we shall ever defend and uphold not only by force of arms but by the resources of our intelligence and our services as a Christian, the Holy Roman Church. For this reason we have thought that this first attempt of our modest ability and learning could not be more worthily dedicated than to your Holiness, both as a token of our filial reverence and an acknowledgment of your careful solicitude for the well-being of Christendom.”
As a side note, this passage has an interesting history; when Henry was composing it, Thomas More told him he should leave that bit about the Pope out. Henry refused and there it is today. The reason is, because More, as a friend of Erasmus and follower of the Humanist opinion of the day, did not believe that the Papacy was a divine Institution, Henry Did.
But how? It is the reverse of 13 years thence! The reason is, contemporary humanist opinion had not separated the occupant from the office, and more followed what was then a common opinion among men of the new learning, that the Papacy was a human institution rather than a divine one. In time we’ll see how More and Henry reverse on this point, tragically for the former.
Leo X was thrilled that in an age of doubt, a Catholic sovereign would offer his services to the Papacy. The book received a formal approbation from the Pope and in England a special ceremony was devised for the book. Wolsey pulled out all the stops. At St. Paul’s Cross, London, Wolsey prepared a ceremonial burning of all of Luther’s books, and anything related, as well as a staged event. He tapped Fisher (though the two had been at loggerheads in the past) to preach the sermon, since he was renown for his holiness and learning. Fisher preached a brilliant sermon, before not only average Londoners but also foreign dignitaries refuting Luther’s principle error, on faith alone. In addition, at a certain point during the sermon, Fisher stopped and mentioned the book written by Henry, and Wolsey held it up with great cheering and approval by the crowds.
As another side note, you can still see today people advancing a claim made after 1535. Some say that Fisher was the ghost writer of the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum. In actuality, this was spin following Henry’s break with Rome. The Assertio was an embarrassment at that point, and Henry’s regime needed someone to lay the blame on, so it became Fisher, not More. For More’s earlier attitude was well known, and it could not have the appearance of truth that he had written the offending passages defending the Papacy. Today some still on this basis make the case, and it is included even in Fisher’s Opera Omnia from Antwerp. Yet, the Latin style of the Assertio has little in common with Fisher’s, and the Assertio makes no mention (just as Leo X did not) of Luther’s doctrine of Faith Alone, which Fisher addresses as often as possible in all his writings because he realized this was the central lynchpin of all Luther’s teaching.
Luther, however, angered that anyone should dare answer him, wrote a response to Henry VIII, where he answered not one of the king’s arguments but instead called him names and restated his arguments. He never actually answered anything. Thus St. Thomas More entered the fray, with a letter to Luther that is still difficult for Thomas More scholars to deal with because More had descended to Luther’s level, hurling an equal amount of abuse at him.
Thus Fisher enters into the fray, so far as we know unbidden, and wrote one of his first great treatises against the Theology of Luther, the Defensio regiae assertionis contra Lutherum, or the Defense of the King’s book. In it, Fisher shows his erudition, quoting Luther and then proceeding to to defend the Catholic position. Thus quoting Luther and then responding:
[Luther] “I protest (he says) that I never said, nor wished to hold anything unless it is something firstly read in the sacred letters, thereupon from the Fathers received by the Roman Church and preserved even to the present, and from the canons and pontifical decrees preserved and that can be preserved.” [Fisher] “Thus he once protested, but what does he say now?
[Luther] “I want you to be my witness (he says) that I would have it that you be compelled that there is no authority whatsoever in the Holy Fathers.”
[Fisher] So much for the Fathers. Moreover concerning canons and decretal letters which he opines, it is clear from there, that he handed them to the fire. But he does not even admit the Bible, unless it is such that he can wrongly and with great cunning distort for his side. For the epistle of James, which can in now way be adapted to his heresy, he scarcely receives. O intolerable madness! The Epistle of James, which the Church has venerated for so many years as truly universal, did not flow from heaven, but the destructive dogmas of Luther, having relates so many demonstrable lies has certainly flowed from heaven? Behold you see, O excellent reader, is at variance not only from himself, but from the Scriptures. From himself, because what he protested, he scarcely preserved. From the Scriptures, because the epistle of St. James, being clearly opposed to his heresies, he refuses to admit.” [Defensio, Contra Babylonica Captivitate, ch. II., my translation]
Now let us see how Henry rewarded the good Bishop for his defense of his sovereign!
Fisher went on to write more books against Luther, and others. He became famous throughout Europe not only as the holiest bishop, but as the greatest theologian. This fame lasted long after his death, as the Council of Trent’s decree on Justification cites John Fisher more than any other theologian, including St. Thomas.
But now that holiness would be tested, in the same way as More, between obedience to God and obedience to the King. A word about More, as we noted earlier, Henry believed the Papacy was divine, More did not. As More took up his pen not only against Luther but also against William Tyndale, who fed his English readers Luther in English translation, More read with interest the writings of Fisher. As he saw page after page quoting the Fathers of the Church defending the divine origin of the Papacy, and again reason and scripture, More was converted to accept the Papacy as such.
Henry on the other hand, as the Pope had failed to deliver the divorce, began to question the papacy. Now is not the time to go into Anne Boleyn, that will be a future writing. But Henry had resolved on a divorce, and Wolsey, while considering the case went to see St. John Fisher, who also theologically and canonically showed Henry’s case to be nonsense. Moreover, Fisher would become a stout defender of the Queen in the ensuing divorce. As things turned out badly for him, Anne Boleyn’s chaplain, Thomas Cramner, suggested to him another course. We find kings in scripture, but not Popes, perhaps it is because the Papacy is not a divine institution?
The result was, Henry and Thomas Cromwell (who again, I will write more of in the future) devised the Act of Royal Supremacy. Fisher had sworn to the act whereby the children of Henry and Anne would inherit the throne, on the principle that a sovereign may determine such things, though he did not recognize the marriage to Anne. Both he and More had used the legal principle: Qui tacet, consentit. The problem for Henry is that the act of Issue was not sufficient to condemn them. So the Act of Royal Supremacy was crafted to make sure Fisher, More and anyone of like mind, would be guilty of treason.
The Act of Royal Supremacy declared that Henry was supreme in both Church and State, and as we shall see, it is the archetype of all government today. It established legal positive law, not divine law, tradition, common law, etc., as the norm. This is seen most clearly in the trial of More, where he declared the parliament could not give the King the title “Head of the Church of England”, because that title had been given to the Pope, and accepted and received by their fathers, accepted in law even before there was an England. Thomas Auldley, the Lord High Chancellor, declared: “English law is what the King and Parliament say it is.” Or as another historian put it:
Fisher was condemned and sent to be executed, on 22 June 1535, having undergone trial and execution just after the great Carthusian Martyrs. On the scaffold he declared:
“Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church. And I thank God, hitherto my stomach hath served me well thereto, so what yet hitherto I have not feared death. Wherefore I desire you help me, and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death’s stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for any fear. And I pray God, save the king and the realm, and hold his holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel.’
Thus fell the first martyr of the College of Cardinals, and one among the number of the many martyrs of the English Reformation, under Henry’s murderous tyranny. Fisher’s body was unceremoniously buried with no dignity in an unmarked grave, his head boiled and placed on a spike on London Bridge. Yet while it was there, the fragrant smell of roses could be discerned by all passers by, and all remarked on the Bishop’s holiness and the king’s ruthlessness. Finally Henry had enough and declared that Fisher’s head should be removed, to make way for Thomas More’s!
The Royal Supremacy would live on, transform and affect us today. It is more than merely another branch of the Reformation, what happened in England was unique. Every state today rules on the same principles as the Royal Supremacy, positive law, control of religion, and a limiting of freedom by the prerogatives of the state. Even in America, with its vaunted Republic, this is and has always been true, as we shall see in other writings. Henry then, is not mere exponent of the Reformation, but is the beginning of all modern revolution.
For more, you can purchase Fr. Vincent McNabb’s short biography of St. John Fisher, which is a masterpiece of literature as well as a good basic presentation on the Saint’s life, in print for the first time in 70 years!