So the "Fortnight for Freedom," the two-week countdown to the 4th of July, starts this week. The unusual observance come s at the request of the US Bishops, who see the freedom "endowed by the Creator" at risk in the very nation that first made freedom a pillar of identity (see "Declaration of Independence," 1776).
Today's Mass readings set before us an interesting conundrum: In the first (from 1 Kings), the king is thwarted in his goal of obtaining a certain desirable piece of property. His wife, the notorious Jezebel, uninhibited by scruples, gets the job done. Yet in the Gospel, Jesus tells us to "turn the other cheek" and "go the second mile."
In establishing the "Fortnight for Freedom" in the days leading up to July 4 (rather than, say, the two weeks beginning with July 4), the bishops made sure that two saints in particular would come to our attention. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, a layman and a bishop, were the most prominent Catholics in the entire realm of King Henry VIII.
Henry wanted a regional return to a kind of "Caesaro-papism," of the sort the Byzantine world had known. It had been a time when the Roman Emperor, in virtue of being a Christian as well as the supreme ruler, could convoke Church councils to resolve theological quarrels. In the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, there was a kind of opposite situation. You could perhaps call it "Papal-Caesarism." The Pope had so much temporal power, he was effectively just another king--indeed, a king with more extensive territories and claims than merely hereditary rulers. Henry wanted to opt out of that arrangement. And he expected his Parliament, his Chancellor, and the Very Rev'd Lord Bishops, to support him.
More, especially, "turned the other cheek" for as long as he could. He stepped down from public office and attempted to live a quiet, private life at home. But there was a line he would not cross. He would not violate his conscience. And his conscience, formed by careful study of the issue, had led him to the conviction that the Pope's role in the Church was established by "our Blessed Lord" upon the Apostle Saint Peter. He could not turn away from Peter's successor without turning away from the Lord himself. Bishop Fisher took a more direct approach, acknowledging that he would probably become "a martyr for the sacrament of matrimony". Sadly, Fisher was one of the few bishops of the time to take such a stand. The capitulation of the many may have changed the course of history.
For quite a while, the Bishops have seemed almost alone in their protests that the HHS mandate requiring all employers except houses of worship and institutions that employ and serve only their own co-religionists to pay for birth control and sterilization "services" no matter what the institution's teachings. Even the Catholic Health Association demurred--until Friday.
It may take quite a while before other Catholics are on board. Some may feel that "bishops are promoting their own views without consideration for how many of their parishioners feel," as one Chicagoan said (in this article in the Tribune). Some even wonder why the bishops are allocating resources to the issue, when those same funds could be used for the care of the poor. (They don't seem to realize yet that the HHS mandate will take those same funds from the care of the poor and allocate them to providing free birth control and sterilization procedures for people who already have jobs and benefits.)
For Henry VIII, it was a matter of offspring: securing an heir for the throne; for the current administration, it is a matter of avoiding offspring. In both cases, the response of the bishops could be critical--if not for history, at least for the church.