The Narrowness of Martyrdom

A broad justification for martyrdom is preferable to a narrow one. A person would prefer to die for something grand, sweeping, and generally held. Perhaps world peace, or what used to be called the fellowship of man.

Martyrdom is in practice narrow. When St. Thomas More died on a scaffold in Henry VIII’s kingdom, it was for a narrow matter. Henry said he was the head of the Catholic Church in that realm, and Thomas disagreed. Thomas believed only a bishop could head the Church, specifically the bishop who had succeeded St. Peter on the chair in Rome.

It is a strange thing, though, that Henry would kill for narrowness. It was so important that he, with the backing of Parliament, considered it treason to disagree. Henry and Thomas agreed on nearly everything else in Catholic teaching, and Henry died still an enemy of Protestantism. For his own need to control the Church, however, Henry repeatedly killed.

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Few resisted him, perhaps because the matter was so narrow. Would it really matter if Henry were called the head of the Church? It would not change the reality, after all. The sacraments also continued, the bishops and priests still taught, and none but the religious orders, possessors of great wealth, were entirely despoiled. Many probably thought Thomas, and the sole bishop to lose his life resisting, St. John Fisher, were unreasonable.

Yet Henry’s remaining orthodoxy passed with him, and by Elizabeth’s time the Catholic Church was nearly extinct in England. Thus a point of initial compromise need not be broad and general. A narrow compromise with the truth still establishes a fundamental principle.

That principle is jurisdiction. Control exercised in an area previously under the sole control of another, even if the matter is narrow, implies a new control over the whole area. Henry’s immediate concern was to obtain from the Catholic Church an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When the Church refused, Henry could only obtain his desire by asserting jurisdiction over the Church herself. Thomas and John disputed the King’s jurisdiction, but most Catholics compromised.

In our own day, another narrow matter regarding marriage implicates the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. The federal government says the sex difference is irrelevant in marriage. The Church disagrees. Can the federal government accept the Church’s disagreement, or will it force the matter, thereby asserting jurisdiction over the Church herself?

One need not think the federal government will, like Henry, assert actual headship over the Church. The jurisdictional issue is nevertheless similar. Consider how intensely those who argue for the irrelevance of the sex difference press the point. They would not allow those of us who believe sodomy a sin to call it that. They would have us call it “marriage,” thereby naming it good. Once backed with the force of law, Catholics would no longer be free to disagree and to act on that disagreement in the public sphere.

The willingness to use coercion here is not surprising. The liberal freedoms of religion, speech, and association have never been based on truth. Liberalism instead promises the government will not decide truth, leaving all free to act according to conscience. But consciences conflict, and when asked to resolve these conflicts, the liberal state does so without reference to truth, which it has already rejected as a guide. Conscience purposefully uninformed by truth is simply will. Liberalism therefore places will over truth, or more particularly, over the faculty for discovering truth, reason. The freedom of people who want same-sex “marriage” necessarily will triumph over the freedom of people who argue against it based on reason.

Catholics still have the Church in support, but if the federal government deems the Church’s authority to be insufficient, the government will have supplanted the Church’s jurisdiction over her members in a matter of faith and morals. Already Catholics in and out of government are treating two persons of the same sex as married, and others are prepared to do so. The federal government exercises great power in this country.

If few Catholics are prepared to resist, perhaps it is because the matter is so narrow. Would it really matter if people of the same sex were called married? It would not change the reality, after all. The sacraments also continue, bishops and priests still teach, and our wealthy institutions are not yet despoiled. Many Catholics probably believe resistance would be unreasonable.

But we should always remember our Lord’s warning to enter by the narrow gate. “For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who enter that way. How narrow the gate and close the way that leads to life! And few there are who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher with the grace of God found the narrow gate. We must likewise prepare to resist any claim by an earthly power to jurisdiction over a matter of faith and morals. St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, gave us the fundamental rule: “ ‘We must obey God rather than men’ ” (Acts 5:29).


  • John Andra

    John Andra is a lawyer living in Lawrence, Kansas.

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