Louie Verrecchio
June 28, 2012
Patron saints of the Constitution?
By Louie Verrecchio

Saints Thomas More and John Fisher are being invoked with increasing regularity these days as models of inspiration in the battle to protect religious liberty in the United States; more specifically, as it relates to the Church's collective efforts during the Fortnight for Freedom.

In the words of Archbishop Lori, who formally opened the fourteen day observance with the celebration of Holy Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore on June 21st, "When called upon by the King to betray his principles and his conscience, however, More chose instead to put everything at risk, including his own life."

As for St. John Fisher, he was "an able defender of the faith" who "strongly opposed state interference in Church affairs," according to Archbishop Lori.

All that Bishop Lori states is on point, of course, but apart from some crucial details one might come away with the mistaken impression that these brave martyrs, if alive today, would willingly suffer death in order to defend the broad based right to religious liberty that is set forth in the United States Constitution. Not so.

To be very clear, it's important for us to recognize that neither More nor Fisher willingly laid down their lives in defense of any supposed "right" for men and women to live according to the dictates of some ill-defined principles such as may reside in the individual conscience.

For example, neither one of them would have made the supreme sacrifice to defend any so-called "right" on the part of non-Catholics to preach religious falsehoods in the public arena simply because they claim to feel duty bound in conscience to do so; rather, these men died very specifically in defense of the sovereign rights of Christ the King and of His Holy Catholic Church. In fact, as Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More was responsible for enforcing the anti-heresy laws and even dealt death sentences to four of the unrepentant offenders who came before his court.

As Bishop Lori pointed out, "More and Fisher refused to sign the Act of Supremacy and both of them paid for their principled stand with their lives." (The "Act" to which Bishop Lori refers was a royal proclamation issued by King Henry VIII that declared himself to be the "Supreme Head" of the Church.)

So while the case may be made, as Archbishop Lori stated, that "More's witness enriches the Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person," it is perhaps more important for us to consider how St. Thomas More's witness enhances the Church's teaching on the importance of acknowledging the indispensable role of objective religious truth — the same that has been entrusted to the Catholic Church alone as custodian and teacher — in a rightly ordered society.

Apart from still more explanation, one could very well draw mistaken conclusions as it relates to the "dignity of the human person" as well; for instance, one might adopt the false notion that martyrs like More and Fisher died in the belief that all men and all religions are of equal dignity before the Lord.

The Council Fathers of Vatican II tell us otherwise, saying, "The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God" (GS 19).

Clearly, this means that the realization of human dignity on the individual level is directly related to our response; how we answer the call, or in some cases, whether we answer the call at all. These things have a bearing on the degree of dignity that we possess.

The Council Fathers also say, "The very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart" (cf GS 14).

Serve evil, even if by ignorance, and human dignity suffers loss; that is why the Council can say, "Man's dignity is rooted and perfected in God" (cf GS 21). Note well that it is perfected; i.e., this dignity is not, in other words, a static property.

The further one moves away from God, the more human dignity suffers imperfection. Likewise, the more profoundly one is united to God's holy will, the more one's dignity is perfected.

St Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, said, "By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and therefore falls away from human dignity, in so far as man is naturally free and exists for his own sake, and falls somehow into the slavery of the beasts" (cf ST — II — II Q. 64 A. 2).

Contrast this with the words of Pope John Paul II who said, "Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity" (Pope John Paul II — Evangelium Vitae)

Looks rather contradictory, does it not? In reality, it isn't.

In his recent book, Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person, theologian and ethicist Dr. Gilbert Meilaender explains this very well saying:
    Human dignity invites the possibility of comparison. It gives us a meaningful way to speak about how some humans have a greater dignity than others precisely because they flourish to a greater degree than others do. It also helps us articulate several senses in which dignity can be lost or diminished. But against the dangers of such comparison, the notion of personal dignity provides protection.
I do realize that the very idea of human beings having anything other than a perfectly equal dignity is shocking to modern sensibilities, but simply consider the effects of Baptism: Every human being has the innate personal dignity that is founded on the fact of being created in the image of God. Baptism, however, restores the likeness of God, and so we can say without hesitation say that the Baptized person possesses a uniquely profound degree of dignity that is owed to the indwelling of the Trinitarian life.

From there, this dignity can suffer loss as one sins, but it can also develop along the way of perfection as one practices virtue.

With regard to the religious liberty debate, when we hear it said that St. Thomas More's example is a witness to human dignity, and that he "stands for those who go about their daily work in accord with their faith," we need to understand that this is true only to the extent that we are talking about those who worship God in truth, as the Lord Himself has revealed that He wills to be worshipped — in the Holy Catholic Church.

As I write, the Supreme Court just ruled that "Obamacare" is constitutionally sound.

If nothing else, this should serve as a wake-up call; a much needed reminder that our salvation does not lie in the U.S. Constitution, but rather in a life lived according to the timeless precepts of the Church.

"Until now, it has been entirely possible under federal law for conscientious owners to conduct private businesses in accord with one's conscience and the teachings of one's faith," Bishop Lori said from the pulpit on June 21st.

Well, yes and no; it has always depended upon exactly how that person lived, regardless of any claims to "conscience" or the teachings of their particular "faith." For example, Mormon polygamists were sometimes imprisoned for failing to adhere to Federal marriage laws.

The fact is the Second Vatican Council literally invited the State to regulate religious freedom:
    This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits (DH 2). [Emphasis added.]
So, here we are, discontent with the way in which the Obama led government is regulating religious freedom in the United States, but let's not pretend that the very act of regulation itself is entirely unanticipated.

Given the fact that the Declaration on Religious Freedom doesn't define what constitutes a bona fide "religious" belief or an honest-to-goodness "religious" institution, neither can we be surprised that the Obama Administration is going about defining it.

Hey... I have a radical idea, why don't our bishops let the President of the United States and his godless minions know that the Holy Roman Catholic Church, by the will of Almighty God, is the only institution on earth that is qualified to rule on such matters; not the executive branch, not the legislative branch or the judiciary, but the Catholic Church. Period.

Until we do that, we have no one to blame more than ourselves when we don't like the decisions that are made by those in civil authority.

© Louie Verrecchio

 

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Louie Verrecchio

Louie Verrecchio is the author of several titles including the internationally acclaimed Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series. A columnist for Catholic News Agency from 2009–2013, his writing on a wide variety of Catholic topics has been published by media outlets all over the English speaking world. He has been the featured speaker at numerous conferences in parishes and dioceses throughout the United States, and his work has been endorsed by such notable churchmen as Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Alexander Sample, Bishop Walker Nickless and others. He is one of traditional Catholicism's most widely-read bloggers. For more information, please visit: www.HarvestingTheFruit.com

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