The date…July 6, 1535. The place…England. The time…the English Reformation. A 57-year-old husband, father, lawyer, and faithful Catholic is lead to the scaffolding where he is to be executed, beheaded, tried treason for refusing to render allegiance to the King as the head of the Church of England. He told those gathered to witness his death, “I am dying the King’s good servant- but God’s first.” Saint Thomas More had been an up and coming lawyer and parliamentarian. He eventually caught the eye of King Henry VIII who appointed him Lord Chancellor in 1529. He resigned at the height of his career in 1532 when the King persisted in challenging the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. Thomas found himself caught between his faith and his responsibilities as an agent of the King. Recognizing that there was no way to rectify the conflict between his faith and the state, St. Thomas More chose to resign and spent his remaining years writing treatises in defense of the Church.
Fast forward almost 500 years. The date…Sept. 4, 2015. The place…Morehead, KY. Kim Davis, a county clerk is ordered by the court to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples or face contempt of court charges and jail time. She refuses to comply citing her conviction that marriage can only exist between one man and woman. Her stand ultimately leads to her imprisonment. She is lauded by some as a hero for standing up against an immoral law. Others are vilifying her for attempting to force her personal beliefs on others while holding a government position. Which side is right? What is a faithful Catholic to do and believe about the current environment in which we find ourselves? How do we interpret this specific situation and its effects on the rest of us?
I think the answer to the first question is that both sides make a valid argument. Those who are lauding her for taking a stand against an immoral law (that being the redefinition of marriage throughout the nation) are correct. As faithful Christians, we have an obligation to always live in the Truth of the faith. Living in a pluralistic society, as we do in the United States, inevitably means that we are going to encounter situations in which our firmly held religious beliefs are going to bring us into direct conflict with the larger society. It is at these moments when the voice of Christ can be heard in the back of our mind, “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24). Ms. Davis made a very firm and public stand stating that God’s law trumps the law of the state and that she, in good conscience, could not participate in the issuing of marriage licenses to same sex couples. This stand led directly to her being held in contempt and escorted to prison. Based on this, she is to be lauded for holding to her firmly held religious beliefs and her willingness to accept the consequences of that stand.
But there is another side to this story. Kim Davis was a duly appointed agent of the state of Kentucky who either through a public oath, or at a minimum because of her job description, was expected to uphold the laws of the state in accordance with her office. By virtue of her employment she was expected to represent the interests of the state of Kentucky and not her personal interests. Regardless of the morality of the law, there was an expectation that she would enforce the law as transmitted by the state government regardless of her personal views. In this sense, those opposing her make a valid argument against her stand. In carrying out her duties as a county clerk, Ms. Davis was not acting on her own behalf but rather as an agent of the state. She was lawfully imprisoned for refusing to carry out the duties of her office.
Here lies the difference between St. Thomas More and Kim Davis. Both individuals acted on the convictions of their faith, but one chose the better path. Saint Thomas More recognized that there was inherent conflict between his faith and the duties of his job. He understood the term agency. Agency is defined as
a fiduciary relationship between two parties in which one (the ‘agent’) is under the control of (obligated to) the other (the ‘principal’). The agent is authorized by the principal to perform certain acts, for and on behalf of the principal.
In their positions, both Thomas More and Kim Davis were acting as “agents” of the government (the ‘principal’) who expected them to publicly represent their interests. Saint Thomas recognized that he could not rectify the position of the English government of his time with his firmly held religious beliefs and understood that he could no longer in good conscience continue to act as an agent of the government. As a result, he chose to withdraw from his position so as to not compromise his faith or his role as Lord Chancellor.
On the other hand, Ms. Davis, who also recognized the conflict between her beliefs and the expectations of her office, chose instead to act as her own agent instead of as an agent of the state, violating the relationship she had established with the state by virtue of her employment. When she chose not to issue the marriage licenses, an act that the principal (the state government) expected her to do, she violated the terms of her employment as she was not longer acting as an agent of the state.
Another difference between St. Thomas More and Kim Davis was the fact that St. Thomas recognized that, as a faithful Catholic, he had no right to force others to act in accordance with his firmly held beliefs, especially while an agent of the government. He chose to withdraw from his position and, as a private citizen, live with the consequences of that stand, that being the loss of his job and the good graces of the King.
What makes Thomas More’s situation rise to the level of sainthood and martyrdom is the fact that after vacating his government position so that another who was willing to act as an agent of the state could take office, he was hunted down, imprisoned and eventually executed for attempting to live out personally and privately his faith. On the other hand, Kim Davis was held in contempt and placed in prison for trying to force her firmly held beliefs on those who do not hold the same values, in a government position. Sometimes, a consequence of faithfully living out our faith is sacrificing the position, the power, and the prestige that worldly positions afford us.
A Fruitful Witness
A consequence of living in a pluralistic, and increasingly diverse, democratic society is that the values we hold are at odds with those around us. As Catholics, we believe that all have a right to pursue happiness and the good in their own way. We believe that through the faith of Jesus Christ and the One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church true happiness and the ultimate good can be attained. However, faith is not something that can be forced upon another. In 2008, while addressing Bishops and clergy from Kazakhstan and Central Asia, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI encouraged them to keep the flame of faith alive while calling out the dangers of religious fundamentalism. He reminded those in attendance that:
The Church does not impose but freely proposes the Catholic faith, well aware that conversion is the mysterious fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit. Faith is a gift and a work of God, and hence excludes any form of proselytism that forces, allures or entices people by trickery to embrace it….A person may open to the faith after mature and responsible reflection, and must be able freely to realize that intimate aspiration. This benefits not only the individual, but all society, because the faithful observance of divine precepts helps to build a more just and united form of coexistence.
As a people of faith, we are called not to force our beliefs upon others (even when it may be happening to us), but to stand in faithful witness to the truth through our own holiness of life. As difficult as it may be, people have the right to make wrong choices. We have an obligation to speak and witness to the truth, but more often than not, sacrifice bears a more fruitful witness to the Truth than forced compliance. This is the beauty of St. Thomas More. He chose to sacrifice his very life for the sake of the faith and in doing so gave strength to other believers to continue their own witness.
In her 2000 year history, the Church has encountered many governments, regimes, and cultures that have sought to change Her views through manipulation, coercion, or outright persecution; She has outlasted them all. No doubt, if our country continues down the moral path it is going, faithful Christians will encounter more and more resistance to their firmly held beliefs. We are called, like Thomas More, to be good servants of the “government”- but God’s first. This means participating in society in order to improve it and help the Truth to be manifest, but to recognize that we may be forced out of participation in certain areas of life because they would compromise our beliefs and endanger our souls. Saint Thomas More, pray for us!
- Fr. Robert Fath