You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.
The quote above is often attributed to communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. There is no record of his actually having said it, but it’s widely repeated because it pithily sums up a terrifying truth about the relentlessness of war. In an age when a large and influential segment of the population wages political warfare on all who seem to stand in the way of their urgent drive to replace reality as it is with a vaguely envisioned utopia, we can amend that to “You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”
For a long time now the Catholic bishops in the United States have dabbled in politics, mostly in a manner that we would call “virtue signaling” today: a statement about nuclear war in the 1980s, expressions of concern about capital punishment in the 1990s, some hand-wringing about immigration in more recent years. All issues with legitimate moral dimensions, it’s true, but all likewise issues on which serious Catholics can have legitimate differences of opinion. In none of them were the bishops confronting Catholics or others who were clearly advocating anything directly contrary to the moral law, or promoting an intrinsic evil. And for what it’s worth, none of them are areas in which Catholic bishops have particular competence.
Over the same stretch of time there has been another issue looming, one which is indeed a matter of intrinsic evil, about which there is no room for prudential judgment, and which is very much within the competence of the episcopacy: abortion. Abortion has been unambiguously condemned as a moral evil from the very first days of the Church: “thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide” (Didache, II.2). Now, to be fair, the bishops have been virtually unanimous that abortion is wrong. At the same time, they have been unable or unwilling to fully deploy their authority to teach, govern, and sanctify in the case of prominent prominent public figures who claim to be Catholic and. at the same time, promote abortion and other evils.
It has become increasingly difficult for them to dodge the issue. Now a man who claims to be “a devout Catholic” has become President of the United States, having promised to use the power of the U.S. government to make abortion more accessible at home and around the world, and furthermore at the expense of American taxpayers regardless of their religious or moral convictions. He is doing the same with regard to other moral evils such as same sex marriage. He has even pledged to drag the Little Sisters of the Poor throught the federal courts yet again to force them to pay for contraceptives for employees.
As it happens, we are honoring two great saints today who know what is to stand for the Truth in the face of an invasive government, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. St. Thomas More is more familiar to us than his contemporary St. John Fisher, partly because his magnetic personality still resonates almost five centuries later, but also in large part because of Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man For All Seasons. St. John Fisher’s story is no less compelling, however, and is in fact given greater prominence by the Church (both Saints are commemorated on the anniversary of his death, although they were not martyred on the same day). As a bishop who faced some particularly difficult choices, he is particularly relevant today.
Who was St. John Fisher? At the time of his death he was bishop of the English See of Rochester, and he died defending the authority of the Church, its vicar the Pope, and the sanctity of marriage, against a monarch who was willing to destroy all of those things in order to get his way: King Henry VIII. In my previous post (here) on Blessed Margaret Pole, who gave her life in the same cause, I wrote of Henry VIII that he:
could serve as a sort of patron “anti-saint” for our times. He was a man possessed of great gifts . . . Henry never mastered himself, however, and so his prodigious talents were put at the service, not of his people, but of his equally prodigious cravings for women, wealth, and power. In the end he tried to swallow even the Church. In his later years his grossly obese body became a living image of his insatiable appetites.
John Fisher was no stranger to Henry’s household. Before his episcopal ordination, Fisher had been the confessor of Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s grandmother, and reportedly tutored the future Monarch himself. The bishop’s long familiarity with the king and his family did him no more good than layman Thomas More’s personal friendship with Henry did him. Fisher had championed the marriage of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, and had resisted the king’s encroachments on the Church. At last, when he refused to take an oath recognizing the offspring of Henry’s new wife Ann Boleyn as the legitimate successors to the throne, he was put to death. He alone of the English bishops resisted to the bitter end King Henry’s usurpation of the authority of the Church and mockery of the sanctity of marriage.
Henry VIII’s bloated specter casts a longer shadow over the world today than at any time since his death almost five hundred years ago, now when a voracious state is devouring more and more of our freedoms, and casting an especially greedy eye on the free exercise of religion. It’s in this context that the American bishops, who just their annual meeting, voted last Friday to issue a document on “Eucharistic Coherence”, by which they mean the constant practice of the Church (going back to the days of the Apostles themselves) that individuals who engage in persistent and unrepentant public evil should not receive the Body and Blood of Christ in communion.
What this document will actually say is not yet clear; a committee will work on a draft over the next few months for the bishops to vote on at their November meeting. Given the past timidity of the bishops in this regard, it’s hard to envision them getting enough of the espicopate to sign off on a really clear and decisive statement. The brief statement on the USCCB website looks a lot like the all-too-familiar fence straddling:
Since the conclusion of the Spring Plenary Assembly of the U.S. bishops last week, there has been much attention on the vote taken to draft a document on the Eucharist. The question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot. The vote by the bishops last week tasked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine to begin the drafting of a teaching document on the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. The importance of nurturing an ever deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.
Clearly, we should not get our hopes up. All the same, we should keep engouraging our bishops to do the right thing, and keep praying for them: The Holy Spirit may yet give them the strength. The possibility that the bishops may at last take a stand has impelled a large number of pro-abortion self-identified Catholics in the U.S. Congress to issue a preemptive strike in the form of a so-called “statement of principles“. There really aren’t much in the way of actual principles in the letter. The pro-abortion legislators mostly point out all the areas where they agree with the prudential policy preferences of a large number of bishops, with the implication that all of those political stances somehow outweigh the moral depravity of abortion. The statement concludes with, well, with the the usual tired, unconvincing cliches:
We believe the separation of church and state allows for our faith to inform our public duties and best serve our constituents. The Sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory.
I examine the incoherence of the “weaponization” argument in my post “Who’s Really ‘politicizing’ the Body of Christ?”; I’ll simply point out here that this description implies that the real significance of the Eucharist is to influence political behavior, and that abortion itself is just another political issue. There is no recognition that the value the Church places on the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with politics, and the dismissive reduction of the horror of abortion to the trite evasion of “a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion” is simply insulting. This letter and the public comments of some of the individual signers are saturated with the same self-idolatry that we find at the center of the gender wars: I am not bound by any truth or reality outside of my desires – if I decide that I’m a Catholic, nobody can tell me differently.
And if reality is really reducible to our individual desires, then here’s no need for bishops . . . or a Church . . . or even a Savior. This is an important moment for the American bishops. They stand to lose whatever moral authority they have left if they allow themselves to be bullied by this crowd of political grifters. The spirit of Henry VIII might be alive, but his modern day emulators at least don’t have his power to remove the heads of their adversaries. May our bishops look to the example of St. John Fisher, pray for his intercession, and trust in the Lord to sustain them as they leave aside the temptations of mere politics and take up once again the true authority handed on to them from Christ through his Apostles.
St. John Fisher, pray for all Catholic bishops and priests, and be an inspiration to them, that they may follow your lead in bravely defending Christ’s Church and his Holy Sacraments. Amen.
Featured image top of page:
“Execution of Bishop John Fisher (A) and lord chancellor Thomas More (B) “.
Unsigned engraving from: Theatrum Crudelitatum Haereticorum, Antwerp 1592.