Monday, July 09, 2012

SS John Fisher and Thomas More: Heroes, Heretics and Hard hearts

Eleazar, one of the principal scribes, an aged man, and of a well favoured countenance, was constrained to open his mouth, and to eat swine's flesh. But he, choosing rather to die gloriously, than to live stained with such an abomination, spit it forth, and came of his own accord to the torment, As it behoved them to come, that are resolute to stand out against such things, as are not lawful for love of life to be tasted. But they that had the charge of that wicked feast, for the old acquaintance they had with the man, taking him aside, besought him to bring flesh of his own provision, such as was lawful for him to use, and make as if he did eat of the flesh taken from the sacrifice commanded by the king; That in so doing he might be delivered from death, and for the old friendship with them find favour. But he began to consider discreetly, and as became his age, and the excellency of his ancient years, and the honour of his gray head, whereon was come, and his most honest education from a child, or rather the holy law made and given by God: therefore he answered accordingly, and willed them straightways to send him to the grave. For it becometh not our age, said he, in any wise to dissemble, whereby many young persons might think that Eleazar, being fourscore years old and ten, were now gone to a strange religion; And so they through mine hypocrisy, and desire to live a little time and a moment longer, should be deceived by me, and I get a stain to mine old age, and make it abominable. For though for the present time I should be delivered from the punishment of men: yet should I not escape the hand of the Almighty, neither alive, nor dead. Wherefore now, manfully changing this life, I will shew myself such an one as mine age requireth, And leave a notable example to such as be young to die willingly and courageously for the honourable and holy laws. And when he had said these words, immediately he went to the torment.  (II Maccabees vi.18)
I hate, with a passion, the English Reformation. Please don't misunderstand me: I do agree that there was some need of reformation to address prevalent issues which were subsequently discussed at the Council of Trent (though without the presence of English Catholics). However, with the establishment of the Church of England comes the charge of treason for dissenters and with Treason comes torture and death regardless of service, good character and position. Many, many good Christians die as a result of reforming the English Church: some are orthodox, some are heretical, but all have a legitimate claim to martyrdom. I hate that these good men die without some council, some discussion, some reasoned discourse to air the conflict of doctrine. While I understand Henry VIII's desire to stabilise his dynasty and broker some peace in a land still recovering from the Wars of the Roses, there are other, better means and thus he is still very far from being my favourite monarch despite being the product of his time.

We celebrate SS Thomas More and John Fisher today, two men who are willing to stand up to a king who forces men to choose between their country and their religion. Their choice is to remain with the Church of their birth, not to recognise the king as Governor of the Church, but rather to continue allegiance to the Primacy of the Pope. Thus it is that they face the tide and are swamped by it, albeit temporarily. Yet as G. K. Chesterton says, "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

There is much in common with these two men, Eleazar and St Polycarp, all of whom stand against heresy despite the venerability of their ages and offices. The word "heretic" has negative overtones, primarily because people like to think of themselves as being orthodox, in the right, or justified in their beliefs. The word literally has the sense of a choice, an option between many alternatives. However, with choice comes consequence and one cannot avoid what happens as a result of what one chooses.

In this day and age, we are overwhelmed with choices of what to do, what to wear, how to live, who to live with: we relish our freedom to choose and to change our minds when our choice does not have quite the outcome that we hope for. Indeed that freedom to choose is very much a mark of what it means to be truly human. Yet it is a freedom that we do abuse.

Each choice that we make really does affect others. Our little choices can affect the major life-changing choices of other people. If one person chooses to buy their coffee from Costa's, it could potentially be the loss of a sale that causes the closure of a branch of Starbucks with the resulting loss of jobs. For want of a nail... This sounds like a slippery-slope argument but slippery slope arguments are about future consequences; History is about examining the minute causes of large scale events.

Henry VIII did not change the doctrine of the first Seven Councils, though he did tamper with the Canons. This is no problem in Christianity because it is merely a question of governance, not of belief. If one takes the Canons of the Second Council of Nicaea at face value, every Bishop should know the Holy Scriptures by heart. Since then, the availability of printed Bibles and prayer-books have rendered that Canon obsolete, much to the relief of every episcopal heart. Note carefully, though: it is the law that has changed, NOT the doctrine of God. It was Cranmer and his Protestant influences under the juvenile king Edward VI who sought to change the doctrine of the newly established church. Cranmer is indeed a heretic in the real sense of the word but,  in my view at least, a most lovable heretic, and I do spare a thought for him on March 21st on the anniversary of his martyrdom. Despite his heretical beliefs, he did bring forth a prayer-book which now allows and tolerates Catholic teaching as well as Protestant.

This is the rub. In many of the choices that we face in our religion, we have the choice between what is orthodox and what is heretical. Our duty is always to choose the orthodox and thus choose to travel with God on His terms rather than ours. To choose God places a limit on what we can choose to do in our lives. We are bound to follow Christ with our cross - indeed the word "religion" has at its heart the notion of being bound and restricted. The "lig" is the same as the "lig" in ligature. This is something which the secular world cannot grasp, for the secular world seeks to make a choice out of every aspect of life and curses any attempt to restrict the freedom of choice.

In many ways, that is noble. Everyone should have the freedom to choose how to live and to paint their lives onto the canvass of Spacetime. This is the freedom with which God has created us and in which He rejoices. One must remember that the same God Who created the universe has a great interest in the lives of every sentient being and, being of an Infinite Majesty, can and does care about what each individual does. To deny this, is to deny the omnipotence of God.

Yet our choices need limitation in order that we can live with each other. We are limited beings who easily make false absolutes of our own wills. Whether we puff ourselves up with the grandiose conviction of our righteousness or constantly wallow in the abject abnegation of any good within ourselves, we still exhibit the sin of pride that our will and choice takes precedence over the judgment of God Who often convicts us of the contrary. Our hearts harden when our choice is restricted and we push back. Again, we see this in the Reformation as the pendulum swings between Catholic and Protestant, each side almost gleefully making martyrs of their heretics. Nonetheless, the cause of heresy is pride and its cure is the return to the Catholicism of the Seven Oecumenical Councils and to the humility of the hassock.

It is worth pointing out, though, that pride is a very prevalent sin and does not always manifest itself in heresy.

We see this now in the Church of England as it attempts to find some kind of order from the chaos of trying to ordain women as bishops. This is heresy in its technical sense - it certainly is not Catholic doctrine. Yet the Synod wrestles with trying to have its cake and eat it. This is the result of too much choice and of not allowing oneself to be bound by religion. The hardness of heart from the so-called inclusive majority is forcing out the orthodox minority. I honestly wonder if WATCH and FiF have ever actually sat down together to discuss this between themselves rather than use the Synod as their platform.Perhaps they have, but certainly no good has come of it. FiF will label WATCH "heretic" in a more pejorative sense, just as WATCH labels any dissent from the "priesthood" of women as "misogynist".

There will be lesser martyrs on both sides from the fallout of this synod. Treason is no longer punishable by death, but rather by ostracising, denouncing, excommunicating and demonising. The question is whether one is simply going with the flow, or standing against it. However, let us not be hard-hearted in our dealings by rejecting the heretic with the heresy, but rather exercise our charity in humility even in walking apart. Indeed, walking apart may be the most charitable way forward.

1 comment:

ed pacht said...

Some find my approach rather odd, but I love to celebrate and venerate together such apparent opposites as More and Cranmer or Hooker and Bonaventure, while despising equally both Reformation and Counter-reformation. The Church had been remarkably tolerant of a wide range of opinions up until maybe the century before the Reformation period, and power struggles between the papacy and the various monarchs had always gone on, with the happy result that nobody had absolute power.

In my view Rome itself was slipping into heresy in its assertions of a kind of power Jesus never intended, in its denigration of Scripture, and in its overdefinition of many doctrines. I am convinced that heresy is ever and always an overemphasis of something that, in the full context of the Faith is true. There was a rediscovery of Scripture and a realization of the abuses in practice that Rome was making into centerpieces of operation, and loyal churchmen such as Luther and Cranmer began to seek real change. The papacy declared them heretic at a time when they still taught within what had always been acceptable limits.

Rome's response, in my opinion, is no different from what it would have been if it was intended to split the church and drive people further from the center. Luther and Cranmer (and Henry)originally were filled with strong desire to be part of the Catholic Church as it existed, but to provide the opportunity within it for a less corrupt and more Scriptural Catholicism. If Rome's actions had been different, the split would not have come.
Predictably, but not justifiably, the Reformers, confronted with the unjust response from Rome, reacted by moving away7 from the center to a place that can justly be called heretical -- and Rome, as shown at Trent, likewise moved from the center.
There's plenty of heresy to go around. Both camps (as I see it) are filled with it. There's also plenty of sanctity tpo go around, and that is also found in both camps. It was time for healing then, but healing did not come. It is time for healing now. Can it maybe happen?