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“I die the king’s good servant,” said Thomas More before kneeling at Tower Hill, “and God’s first.” Four hundred years after his death, at his canonization ceremony, Pope Pius XI said of More,
When he saw the doctrines of the Church were gravely endangered, he knew how to despise resolutely the flattery of human respect, how to resist, in accordance with his duty, the supreme head of the State when there was question of things commanded by God and the Church . . . It was for these motives that he was imprisoned, nor could the tears of his wife and children make him swerve from the path of truth and virtue. In that terrible hour of trial, he raised his eyes to heaven, and proved himself a bright example of Christian fortitude.
Two weeks before More’s death, John Fisher, a cardinal, died on the same spot. Like More, he had refused to accept King Henry VIII’s claim to the head of the Church of England, after the monarch broke from Rome. The bodies of the martyrs were laid together in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Their heads were displayed on pikes above the River Thames.
It is a gruesome episode in English history, but the Church has long taken strength from the sacrifices of Fisher, More, and the many others who have defied corrupt potentates to defend the faith. Their memories have served as powerful reminders of the call to believers to “stand firm,” as the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers at Galatia: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
It is appropriate, then, that priests across the country kicked off the Catholic Church’s Fortnight for Freedom, “a special time of prayer, fasting, education, and witness for a new birth of religious freedom in our beloved country,” on Friday, June 22: the feast day that Fisher and More share. Timothy Cardinal Dolan celebrated the 7 a.m. kickoff mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, with a small group of faithful: members of religious orders, businessmen and women, young couples, families.
But while the effort has frequently been framed as a backlash against the Obama administration, the Church’s aim is not essentially political. In his new ebook, True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty, Dolan explains that the Church understands that the fight to preserve religious liberty is part of a larger, more dramatic mission: to renew a “culture of life” in the United States—and throughout the West—which has been overtaken by what Blessed John Paul II called, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), a “culture of death.”
The culture of death, according to Dolan, “denies the basic solidarity—the idea that we are responsible to and for one another—inherent in the human person and that is obsessed instead with efficiency and convenience.” Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and essayist, puts it more starkly: “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”
But few care to acknowledge the need for responsible community in a society beholden to the all-important “I.” In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul identified the culture of the modern West as one of “having” and “doing,” characterized, in Dolan’s estimation, by a new trinity: pragmatism (“the only value is whether or not something works”), utilitarianism (“value is whether or not something or someone is useful to me”), and consumerism (“value only in something’s ability to fill a need, or satisfy an urge”).
These forces, John Paul observed, strip life of its intrinsic value, placing its worth, instead, in its use as a means to an end. That understanding has contributed to the destructive practices that typify our age: embryonic stell cem research, for example, in which a living child can be destroyed for a “greater” purpose. But if this is the case, Dolan writes, then all human life exists at the mercy of stronger forces. The person matters hardly as much as what can be done with them. “Having” and “doing” trump “being.”
That life is its own end, worthy of protection, is clear to all through the natural law, Dolan contends, that “concept of objective truth, known by anyone with the power of reason.” A just human law—here he quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—is “rooted in eternal law and the natural law.”
The forfeiture of natural law leads to degraded freedoms, which is why, explains Dolan, religious freedom is so important:
Churches and people of faith . . . understand the inherent dignity of the human person and serve as a safeguard against attacks on that dignity. If we allow the human person to become a thing, and a human life to become a commodity that can be valued more or less depending on circumstance, political ideology, or current whims, then we have embarked on a perilous path.
After the Mass I sat down at a coffee shop off E 51st Street. A large group of nuns, coming from St. Patrick’s, passed by the window. As the Church spends the next two weeks praying, fasting, learning, and teaching, the sight of nuns walking past the MetLife building is a reminder to all Christians: The call to believers is not the work solely of the clergy or those who have committed themselves to the “religious life.” The whole flock is consecrated to the work of Christ, to being in the world, if not of it, advancing a culture of life in an age of atomization and convenience.
In this work the Catholic Church stands with the responsible members of every faith who recognize that religious liberty cannot be exiled from the public square if America is to remain a sanctuary for, as Lady Liberty proclaims, those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Men and women of conscience nationwide understand that preserving America’s religious liberty is necessary if the country will continue to be “the last best hope of earth.” Yet the duty is not a grim one. The culture of life for which the Church and its supporters work is a robust, hopeful vision of personal and communal flourishing. As the Church begins its Fortnight for Freedom, said Dolan in his homily, “we lift up our hands”—but not in anger or accusation: in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, to the God who has given us freedom in abundance and a country where we can live it out.
Ian Tuttle is a junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD and an intern at National Review.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty
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