State-imposed lockdowns, suspended sacraments, locked churches, city riots, vandalized statues, “cancelling,” educational upheavals—these tribulations rippling from COVID-19 have rocked Catholics and the practice of our faith. As the pandemic gripped the country and the months marched on, religious freedom came under attack from two directions: from state governments that curtailed the free exercise of religion and from the ascendant cultural left repressing the right to free speech, particularly on matters of sexual morality. It can seem that dark forces are gathering, soon to fall fatally upon our Church and upon ourselves.
Under this shadow we begin Religious Freedom Week tomorrow, June 22, on the feasts of two martyrs who refused to allow the evils sweeping through England to subsume their faith: St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. To find comfort, strength, and hope in this precarious time, we would do well to turn to St. Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.
Composed in the Tower of London as he awaited his execution, More’s fictional dialogue pairs a young man Vincent, who is panicking over the “the Great Turk” and his imminent invasion of the land, and Anthony, his dying uncle. The Turk, of course, is King Henry VIII, who imprisoned More for refusing to acknowledge his majesty as the head of the Church of England. The spiritual plight of the English people that Henry caused was remarkably similar to what the ever-expanding secular riptide caused this year. “What we fear the most,” laments Vincent, “is already happening: many of our own people are falling prey to him, or have made an alliance with him, joining him ahead of time as a way of keeping him from ravaging the land.”
Now this secular riptide demands that we become “woke” in acknowledging the false gods of our age, or be swept away, as happened recently to Virginia elementary school teacher Tanner Cross for speaking out—and alluding to St. Thomas More in the process—against his school district’s “pronoun policy.” To Cross, and to others facing “cancellation” for adhering to the moral law of God, More offers this encouragement, one that he also offered to himself:
A man who suffers in the cause of justice, who chooses to defend the right even to his own hurt, can gain comfort in the clearness of his conscience. Especially one who has been falsely accused of a crime and has had false witnesses rise against him, and who is punished and shamed before the world for it. He may have a hundred times more consolation than pain in his heart. Such are the consolations of a man who abides by the truth and is persecuted for justice during a time when white is called black, and right is called wrong.
Like many Catholics today, young Vincent shudders at “being cancelled,” that is, at losing his job and status in the king’s persecution, and he seeks his sagacious uncle’s advice in how to grapple with the attendant temptations and fears. More, speaking through Anthony, is stoic before his death, at equal parts gentle and uncompromising. “We can only think of suffering as a gracious gift of God that he gives to his special friends.” Whoever remembers this will suffer patiently because he “remember[s] that God allows his suffering for his own welfare, and he will be moved to gratitude. The grace of suffering will then increase, and he will find great consolation in it.”
Vincent and Anthony acknowledge that, when tribulation arrives, many of their contemporaries will chose their wealth or status over their faith. Such was the case then, and so it is today, when religion has been privatized as a personal commitment rather than a means to eternal salvation. Will today’s Catholic, fed husks instead of the fruits of faith, clothed with felt banners rather than the armor of Christ, sheltered in ugly churches rather than beautiful ones, remain steadfast against persecution?
For More, persecution separates the wheat from the chaff, and there can be no middle ground. “Christ will not take your service by halves; he will have you love him with all your heart, or not at all.” Nor can Catholics compromise portions of the faith—the moral teachings, for example—and still remain faithful: “Forsake one point of the faith, and you forsake them all, and you will get no thanks from Christ for keeping the rest. If you begin by setting up conditions with God…you will find that you are only making an agreement with yourself, and Christ will be no part of the transaction.”
More could speak so starkly because of his profound faith that the only thing of consequence in this life is God. The man locked in the tower can be more free than a king because the ruler is consumed by the things of the world while the prisoner abandons the world for God. The prisoner, in other words, is free to offer God the highest form of worship: his life.
Short of real imprisonment, Catholics require religious freedom because through it we show our love for God over the things of this world. By willingly leaving aside work to worship our Creator, we put the gods of our age in their place—one they never accept, for they are jealous gods. The temptations to renounce God and His Church will increase as secular Mammon engulfs more of our country and our fellow citizens.
As we celebrate and fight for religious freedom, let us call upon St. Thomas More for fortitude and inspiration, as there are few texts more moving than the closing pages of his Dialogue. We need not despair under pressure, the saint tells us, for if only we consider the kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ in His passion for us, “our cold hearts would become inflamed with the fire of his love, and we would not only be willing, but would be glad to suffer death for the one who endured such a death for our sakes.”
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