Thursday, June 22, 2006

Defensor Matrimonii - St. John Fisher

St. John Fisher

On 22 June 1535, St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, England, who had been just made Cardinal Priest of Saint Vitalis by Pope Paul III, was beheaded on Tower Hill in London. Officially, he had been convicted of treason for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII as the new head of the Church of England. This was, however, a culmination of an eight year battle that St. John fought with the king over his marriage with Queen Catherine of Aragon.

In the summer of 1527, Bishop Fisher was summoned to Westminster Palace for an interview with King Henry. The king had earlier consulted with Cardinal Wolsey, his Chancellor, on the matter of annulling his marriage to Catherine, whom he had been married to for eighteen years. Both the king and the cardinal sought Fisher's opinion on the matter. As the late Michael Davies recounts in his excellent biography of the saint, Fisher "fell on his knees and attempted to give the king his reply in the posture, but the king raised him to his feet.... [T]he decision he had come to was that Henry and Catherine were truly man and wife (Henry had argued that his marriage to Catherine was invalid on the account that she was first married to his brother Arthur, but the marriage lasted only months, and was not consummated). This was not the answer that the king wanted, as the bishop well knew, and from that day forward... [Henry's] grudge daily increased against him."

By the autumn of 1527, Henry announced to Cardinal Wolsey his intention to marry Ann Boleyn, who was a member of Queen Catherine's household. A year later, on 8 November 1528, the King gave a speech before a great assembly that he was bringing the question of his marriage before a legatine tribunal, which would investigate its canonical legality. This court opened a few months later on 31 May 1529. During its proceedings, Queen Catherine pled her case, defending the sanctity and legality of her marriage to Henry.

Bishop Fisher served as the Queen's counsellor while the legatine tribunal met. At its fifth session, he gave a speech that made clear how far he was going to defend the marriage of Henry and Catherine. He stated that "[St. John] the Baptist in olden times regarded it as impossible for him to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage," and that he was even ready to follow his namesake's example in order to defend the sanctity of marriage.

This comment brought the wrath of King Henry, who did not like being compared to the king who had St. John the Baptist executed (King Herod Antipas). Henry claimed that the bishop "was motivated by 'unbridled arrogance and overweening temerity,'" and that he had "never been guilty of such cruelty." But as one biographer of St. John Fisher noted, "the circumstances of Fisher's death bear so close a resemblance to those of the Baptist's, that it is strange that even Henry did not observe and seek to avoid it. Both were cast into prison... [and] were beheaded, and both by the revenge of impure women. But what Herod did reluctantly, Henry did with cruel deliberation."

Even after the legatine tribunal adjourned, and the case was recalled to the papal courts, Bishop Fisher continued his defense of the marriage between Henry and Catherine. He wrote at least seven books on the topic. He preached often on its legality from the pulpit. He continued his efforts in this regard up until his arrest in 1534.

St. John Fisher's eight-year-long defense of the marriage between King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon provides an excellent example on how the sanctity of marriage should be defended. As this sacrament is mocked increasingly in contemporary Western culture, with high divorce rates, cohabitation, and a growing acceptance for homosexual "marriage," faithful Catholics should follow St. John Fisher's example and zealously defend the cause of marriage, even if this leads to persecution and martyrdom. As the two St. John's realized, we could not ask for a more noble cause to die for.

Sancte Johannes, ora pro nobis!

[For another article on St. John Fisher and the sacrament of marriage, go to Only One Man: Bishop John Fisher and Christian Marriage. The history cited in this article was taken from the Michael Davies book mentioned above. The picture of St. John Fisher is from a stained glass window in the Cathedral Church of St. Marie in Sheffield, England.]


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