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St. John Fisher, Marriage, and Moral Absolutes

by Dr. Samuel Gregg


St. John Fisher was by far the most formidable defender of the validity of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage, penning at least 7 tracts on the subject. Widely regarded as one of the greatest bishop-scholars of his time and a successful Chancellor of Cambridge University, Fisher’s writings underscore his deep familiarity with the Scriptures, church fathers, and scholastic and renaissance thought.

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Crisis Magazine Online

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Sophia Institute, April 7, 2014

In his October 2013 article on the question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Cardinal Gerhard Müller underscored that the Catholic Church had risked much to uphold Christ’s teaching regarding true marriage’s indissolubility. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith singled out the fact that Catholicism had suffered the schism of “a Church in England” “because the Pope, out of obedience to the sayings of Jesus, could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.”

In this context, most people immediately think of Saint Thomas More. In at least two accounts of his trial, More stated that the real core of Henry VIII’s animus against him was that More did not believe Anne Boleyn to be Henry’s wife. After all, one reason for More’s imprisonment was his refusal to affirm, on oath, the marriage’s validity.

In truth, however, More had tried to say as little as possible about the King’s Great Matter before and after his resignation as Lord Chancellor. In public at least, the real water on the marriage issue was carried by another Saint: Cardinal John Fisher of Rochester.

Fisher was by far the most formidable defender of the validity of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage, penning at least 7 tracts on the subject. Widely regarded as one of the greatest bishop-scholars of his time and a successful Chancellor of Cambridge University, Fisher’s writings underscore his deep familiarity with the Scriptures, church fathers, and scholastic and renaissance thought. Not many people learn Greek in their forties. Yet Fisher somehow managed to do so.

Concerns about what his scholarly peers might think, however, didn’t prevent Fisher from confronting doctrinal and moral error. He also actively combated corruption and lax morality among clergy and laity alike. Nor was Fisher ever distracted from his pastoral responsibilities. Testimonies abound to Fisher personally serving the poor, spending long hours in the confessional, regularly visiting the sick and dying, penning devotional writings for ordinary folk, and leading an abstentious life. Eligible for any number of more famous sees, Fisher chose to remain in the very poor, insignificant diocese of Rochester.

There was thus no contradiction in Fisher’s life between being a true shepherd who cared personally for his flock and a careful scholar who measured his words and trusted in reason. Nor did Fisher regard upholding truth and naming sin for what it is as somehow incompatible with mercy. This is why he invested so much effort in discerning whether Henry was in fact truly married to Catherine. Fisher’s intent was not to create difficulties for the English king. As Fisher insisted many times, his concern was to relieve the King’s worries about his marriage’s validity.

Fisher also recognized that if Henry attempted to contract a marriage with another woman while Catherine was still alive, the King would be entering an adulterous relationship. Given his immense knowledge of the sources, Fisher undoubtedly knew—as some scholars recently reminded us—that the overwhelming majority of councils, church fathers, and popes had argued from the apostolic times onwards that any remarriage after divorce while a spouse lived was tantamount to adultery, which, like any mortal sin, impaired one’s communion with Christ’s Church. While Fisher encouraged people to receive communion frequently in his writings about the Eucharist, he also warned against the very real moral and spiritual dangers (not to mention scandal) involved in receiving communion when improperly disposed.

It’s worth remembering that Christ’s moral teaching was perhaps at its most specific in defining true marriage’s indissolubility. This definition hinged on the Decalogue’s negative Commandment against adultery. In short, it was precisely through proposing a moral absolute and its implications for marriage that Christ affirmed his moral teaching was grounded in the order of creation.

Reflecting on Saint Paul’s statement that love fulfills the Commandments, Saint Thomas Aquinas asked himself why Paul exemplified the point in Romans 13:9 by itemizing negative Commandments from the Decalogue’s second table. Aquinas’s answer was that the negative precepts (praecepta negativa) were more universal than the affirmative precepts, such as “Honor your parents.” The latter were always germane but were left to people’s judgment to decide how to make them effective. The negative precepts, however, were more universal in respect to situations because they were binding semper et ad semper (always and in every situation). Hence, Aquinas added, there’s no situation in which someone may, for example, commit adultery: not even, as Aquinas specifies elsewhere, where an act of adultery would save a society from total destruction.

This is one reason why the Church’s pastoral practice can’t involve acceptance of or tolerating adulterous acts or relationships. Christ Himself told the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), that He saved from stoning, that she was to go and sin no more. He didn’t say: “Well, if after some time, you express your sorrow to your local rabbi and fulfill these five criteria, I’ll tolerate you remaining indefinitely in a state of what is, objectively-speaking, chronic adultery, thereby contradicting what I, the Son of God, have insisted, to even my own followers’ consternation, to be true marriage’s indissolubility.”

The validity of Henry’s marriage was thoroughly debated throughout Christendom. It’s well established that the King’s agents engaged in extensive bribery to secure opinions favorable to his cause. By buying off complaisant theologians and clergy disinterested in truth, intimidating others, and using highly questionable exegesis, Henry sought to create a climate of opinion to pressure the pope into granting his wishes. Undaunted, Fisher and other defenders of the bond continuing writing extensively on the subject and, in the end, helped establish what in retrospect seems difficult to dispute: that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid.

What all the participants in this debate shared, however, was the conviction that if Henry’s marriage was valid, it truly was till-death-do-us-part. This was the entire premise upon which the dispute took place. No-one believed that an adulterous relationship could, in certain instances, be treated as if it was a true marriage.

Except, that is, for Henry himself. At one point, the King attempted a farcical end-run around Christ’s teaching by suggesting to the pope that, like the Old Testament Patriarchs, Henry should be allowed to “replace” an older, infertile wife with a younger, more fertile wife. Eventually, Henry said, he would ask the pope to give him a dispensation for this situation. As this would have amounted to the pope condoning adultery and bigamy, it was an obvious non-starter. Moreover, the King’s proposal implied that he accepted what he would later deny: the bishop of Rome’s unique dispensatory powers.

Plenty of people have suggested that Fisher and others should have been more “realistic” and less “black-and-white” and helped secure the marriage’s annulment, thereby preventing schism and stopping Henry from committing further grave sins. The problem, however, was that the entire witness of Scripture and church tradition, not to mention reason itself, told Catholics that there was no realistic solution which involved denying the reality of true marriage’s indissolubility or tolerating on-going adultery, whatever the circumstances. As Cardinal Müller stated more almost 600 years after Fisher’s execution, Christ reminded us that marriage is “a reality that comes from God and is therefore no longer at man’s disposal.” In short, marriage isn’t a romantic aspiration or mere legal convention: it’s a R-E-A-L-I-T-Y grounded immediately in God’s creation. The fact that this reality may be incomprehensible to some in our oh-so-sexually liberated Western societies doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Based on the Pauline privilege, the Church has always claimed the competence to determine if a marriage is truly a marriage. That’s why Catholics could debate Henry and Catherine’s marriage at all. But the Church has never accepted that one person can be married to two people at the same time; or that, over time, one man can somehow become gradually married to another woman in a type of second-tier marriage while his first spouse still lives; or that the principle of tolerating a lesser evil somehow justifies the free choice of intrinsically-evil acts such as adultery. Though martial separation is sometimes necessary (there were plenty of instances of that in Fisher’s world), there are no “good remarriages” while any of the remarried couples’ original spouses remain alive.

As time passed, Christ’s teaching about marriage became less and less important to Henry. It’s known, for instance, that Henry and Anne underwent a wedding-service (and possibly two) even before he secured a putative annulment of his marriage to Catherine from a now-thoroughly subjugated English church well down the path to schism. In later years, the King obtained an additional two annulments (including one declaring his erstwhile marriage to Anne invalid) from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. As a side-note, let’s recall that upon being made archbishop of Canterbury, the very same Cranmer publically sworn an oath of allegiance to the pope, having previously swore another oath secretly in which he pledged not to intend such an oath of allegiance to mean anything. In short, Cranmer promised—on oath—that he intended to lie in public, and on oath!

All the behavior described above should be labeled for what it was: pharisaical. That’s not an expression that characterizes Bishop Fisher’s defense of the marital bond. Indeed Fisher clearly knew his life was forfeit from the moment he faced down the bought-and-sold theologians, the court lackeys, and his king on the final day of the papal legatine court before Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio abrogated its proceedings to Rome in 1529.

This much is indicated from not only Fisher’s proclamation in Henry’s presence of his willingness to shed his blood in defense of true marriage’s indissolubility, but also Fisher’s invocation of John the Baptist’s example. As the Gospels relate, the Baptist incurred Herodias’s wrath precisely because he reproved her husband, Herod Antipas, for divorcing his wife and marrying his (living) brother Philip’s wife. The implied analogy would hardly have been lost on King Henry. Such remarks virtually guaranteed Fisher would suffer the martyrdom prefigured by the red robes of his never-conferred cardinalate.

None of this is to diminish some Catholics’ real dilemmas today vis-à-vis true marriage. Nor is it impossible to imagine more can’t be done to help people establish whether a marriage is valid, especially in societies where people’s grasp of the reality of marriage is so weak. What, however, some mainly German-speaking bishops don’t apparently comprehend is that, pastorally speaking, the Church isn’t in the business of adapting what isn’t in its power to adapt. Rather it’s responsibility is to help us, as Thomas More penned in his last written prayer in his prison cell, “To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life.” All of us fall at different times on that narrow path. But through the Church’s offer of repentance through confession and the subsequent resolution to go and sin no more, it is possible to rise again.

And that is the paradigm-shift to which Christ calls us: one in which Christ’s teaching transforms our lives rather than the other way around. For, as John Fisher well understood, how else could the truth set us free?

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America can Avoid a European Future (2013) and Tea Party Catholic (2013).

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