Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

St. John Fisher against heresy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 31, 2020

Before Henry VIII tried to make himself head of the Church in England, one of the most striking things about the work of St. John Fisher as the Bishop of Rochester was his regular involvement in cases of heresy. His lifetime was a transitional period between the world of Christendom—which was more or less firmly grounded in Catholicism—and the world as we know it today, where the expectation is that most people will either not hold or actively oppose the Catholic Faith.

Of course, most of the opposition in Fisher’s time came from people who claimed to be Christian but thought the Church no longer (or perhaps never) accurately represented the teachings of Christ. But as this had the result of overthrowing the sacramental system (especially in its social dimension) and eliminating the authority principle when it came to determining the truths of the Faith, the consequent confusion opened the way for skepticism and the rampant secularism we experience today. This is not to assess blame, but to recognize both a logical and an obvious historical progression. Christians, when it comes to dismantling the Church, must be careful what they wish for.

Judging heresy in his diocese

In any case, before the King co-opted the Church for his own personal, political and economic purposes, John Fisher found himself engaged on two fronts. First, as I mentioned, he had to judge cases of heresy which were brought before his own episcopal court. Typically he managed to get the accused person to admit his error, which is hardly surprising, since at this time heresy was a crime not only in Church law but in the laws of the monarchies throughout Europe. If an accused heretic did not satisfy the Church courts (which alone could judge questions of faith), he would have to be turned over to the civil authority, for heresy was also considered treasonous. The result was often execution, along with the seizure of any worldly goods, thus enriching the crown and depriving the heirs.

Church punishments for those who renounced their errors were in comparison light—a year or two of penance before being readmitted to Communion, and restriction of travel. Typically, a repentant heretic was not allowed to leave England for a period of time. The reason for this was doubtless twofold: First, the better to monitor his or her situation; second, the better to prevent the spread of errors. If we think of heresy as a spiritual infection, and we ponder the restrictions during our current Pandemic Era, these restrictions may be easier to understand.

Second, the quality of John Fisher’s mind was sufficiently respected throughout Europe that he was urged to refute the errors of Martin Luther, as was his friend, Thomas More. Unlike the “King’s great matter”, this was safe ground in England. Henry VIII himself had put his name to a defense of the seven sacraments (Assertio Septhem Sacramentorum), for which the Pope had granted him the title of “Defender of the Faith”. Thomas More at least edited this tract, and it is unlikely that the King was the main writer, but he had it published in 1521 under his own name. While Fisher was bishop, Lutheran ideas began to be circulated in England in ways that were far more damaging than the often strange ideas which grew out of the unsystematic Lollard errors of the previous century.

In both cases, though, acceptance of the new doctrines and attitudes was spurred by a widespread disgust with the palpable pride and worldliness of most bishops and many other clergy, in a Christian people that was extraordinarily ill-taught and ill-formed. We may be forgiven for noticing that this is not unlike the situation in the West today, but now the temptation is less to rid ourselves of Churchmen than it is to rid ourselves of God.

Still, in those days, a major controversy could easily arise about something which was not a Christian question of Faith but a Christian question about history. An example is whether the three “Marys” mentioned in the gospels (apart from the Blessed Virgin) were one and the same. On balance, John Fisher thought all three were Mary Magdalene, and he argued this question (which is still unsettled, and probably cannot be settled definitively) in a book entitled De unica Magdelena, published in 1519.

Refuting Martin Luther

Fisher was soon entering the lists against Martin Luther, however. In 1520, Luther had written a tract against the Pope’s condemnation of his errors, and by 1523, Fischer had published his confutatio against Luther. This work went through nineteen editions by 1564, including a German translation which was reprinted four times by 1536. In his biography of Fisher, E. E. Reynolds summarizes the argument of the book in ten points:

  1. Trusting one’s own interpretation of Scripture generally leads to error;
  2. Relying on one’s own inspiration in interpreting Scripture easily leads to error;
  3. When controversy arises over Scripture or any Church teaching, there is need for an authority to settle the matter;
  4. An appeal to the scriptures alone cannot always settle a dispute;
  5. Thus the Holy Spirit was sent and remains with the Church;
  6. The Holy Spirit speaks through a unanimity of the Fathers and by the full teaching of the Church;
  7. Those who do not accept this teaching of the Fathers reject the Spirit;
  8. If the Holy Spirit has spoken through the Fathers, how much more does He speak through the Church assembled in council;
  9. Apostolic traditions which are not recorded in Scripture must nonetheless be observed;
  10. In addition, the customs received by the universal church must not be rejected by any Christian.

We can see at once that the argument advanced by St. John Fisher is essentially the same as the argument that must be made against private interpretation of Christianity today. We now know, even more than St. John Fisher, that the lack of an authority principle in a putative Christian body renders that body incapable of preserving and understanding Divine Revelation rightly down through history. I have written about this many times; it has been demonstrated repeatedly by the wide differences in beliefs among various Christian churches or other organizations which reject communion with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church under the authority of the successors of Peter.

The need for an authority principle in any religion which claims to be based on a Revelation of God is so clear by now that—without assigning blame to any Christian who has been isolated from Rome through upbringing—the lack of Christian unity is a strong argument for “outsiders” that the truth manifestly does not exist in any special way in Christianity. Indeed, the situation is so bad that, as soon as our secular culture goes through a moral shift—such as approving abortion or homosexuality or gay marriage—just as quickly do various churches, having illogically appropriated the name of Christ, begin to change their tenets of faith and morals to suit their own worldly comfort and satisfaction.

But the need to resist such a gross error was growing rapidly in Europe in the sixteenth century. Three years after he wrote his Confutatio, Fisher also preached a two-hour sermon, in the presence of the King, against errors arising in England, which he was able to trace back to Luther. The text was immediately published. One of its finest points is the disproof of Luther’s position that “faith alone” is required for salvation. Fisher used Luther’s favorite authority, St. Paul himself, to dispel this error. He simply quoted and explained the text of the day, 1 Cor 13:1-13:

Saint Paul in the Epistle this day plainly condemneth this opinion, for he saith that faith, hope and charity be three diverse things…. He saith further…, If I had all and every faith, so that I might by my faith remove any great mountain, yet if I have not charity, I am nought. Wherefore if a man have all manner of faith, and wanteth charity, he is never the more justified. Withouten charity therefore no man can be justified; but who that hath charity hath also good works; as the same Saint Paul also proveth at length in the same Epistle. Wherefore withouten good works, either done, or in a full will to be done, no man can be fully justified. [quoted in E. E. Reynolds, Saint John Fisher: Anthony Clarke Books, rev. ed. 1972, p. 119]

Judging from his manner of life, Fisher would have been glad to die in the attempt to improve the spiritual and moral quality of the clergy; and he would have been glad to give his life in the fight for souls against heretical priests. But it was not these evils that killed him. It was his equally spiritual controversy with the King of England.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: StygisM6599 - Jul. 31, 2020 4:21 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this essay. I've always loved St John Fisher and only wish a "Man for All Seasons" had been made about him.