What’s the old saw? “Hindsight is 20/20 vision.”
We look back on Henry VIII as one of history’s great tyrants. An absolute monster of a man, he was guilty of just about every mortal sin on the personal side, and his revolution in England was among the most notorious cultural revolutions, purges and crusades of pillage and theft the world has every seen. His bloodthirsty, rapacious ways are clear to us now and St Thomas More and St John Fisher stand out as radiant lights in the midst of Henry’s horrendous crimes.
But it wasn’t that way at the time. To stand things on their head, let me explain why Henry VIII was regarded as a jolly Englishman, the best of the best and all of the rest. First of all there was the political aspect. The big guy was going to make England great again! It was the time of the rise of nation states and Henry emerged jostling alongside the Kings of France and Spain as a great power. He was the kind of guy to make all patriotic Englishmen proud. He stood up to the foreigner and asserted the rights of England.
For some time the English monarchs had been dueling with the church to control the temporal aspect of church life. The goods, the legalities and the politics of the church were arguably, something for the English to take care of. Why let those Italians be in charge of doling out the rich pickings of the monasteries, the parish churches and cathedrals? Why let the Spanish and the French control what was rightfully England’s? When Henry proposed to be the head of the Church of England plenty of Catholics argued that it was his right to be the temporal head of the church, and the pope was still the spiritual head of the church. It was England for the English and Henry was sticking up for their rights as well as his.
Did he want to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon? She was the aunt of the Charles V – King of Spain the Holy Roman Emperor and no friend of England. She was a foreigner…an immigrant…if Henry wanted a good English girl for queen it was understandable. Furthermore, the pope was controlled by the Charles V–no wonder he wasn’t willing to grant the annulment.
Henry VIII an evil fellow? Many people wonder why all the bishops but John Fisher submitted to the Act of Supremacy which made Henry head of the Church in England–but this was unprecedented. They didn’t know whether they were coming or going. As I pointed out, there was a good argument to be made for the king being the head of the temporal goods of the church. It was for the good of the church to have local power centered locally–not far away in Rome. Furthermore, everybody knew the popes and all the cardinals in Rome were as corrupt and immoral as could be. It didn’t matter if you disobeyed them or dissented from their authority. After all, the Vatican was infiltrated by nefarious enemies of the church.
If Henry was determined to assert himself it was to reform the church in England. The pope, the cardinals and all the fat abbots weren’t going to do anything about it. So, when Henry’s man, Thomas Cromwell started to investigate the monasteries and convents with an eye to reform who could complain? The king was going to clean things up, make the monasteries run more efficiently, close down the few smaller ones and the ones that were bankrupt and update a centuries old and worn out institution. The actual dissolution of the monasteries and the wholesale theft of their buildings, lands and goods took place over a nearly twenty year period. Only when it was too late did the people realize what had really been done.
Theologically? Henry was actually granted the title “Defender of the Faith” by the pope for the treatise he had written defending the Catholic faith against Luther. The idea that Henry was anything but a good Catholic was beyond imagination.
The point I am making is that the people of the sixteenth century lived in exciting, tumultuous and confusing times. It is easy to blame all those who gave in and submitted to Henry’s tyranny, but it didn’t look that way to a lot of the people at the time. St Thomas More and St John Fisher had the presence of mind and discernment of the spirit to see what was really happening and to make the right stand for the right things at the right time. This took not only great courage, but great wisdom, discernment and shrewdness.
The 1930s in Europe were a similarly confusing time. Many Christians supported the fascist regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco because they were considered a bulwark against communism. The fascist leaders seemed to stand for law and order, a re invigorated economy, a strong national identity and good values. They were for hard work, family, patriotism, personal morality and doing one’s duty. They were against the lazy, the immoral, the godless and unwashed. They seemed to be for all that was good, clean, strong and vibrant.
Hindsight, as I say, is always 20/20 vision.
I think we live in similarly confusing times. The lawlessness in our cities, the threat of socialism, the resurgence of communist ideology rumbles and makes us turn to that which seems a bulwark against such godlessness and anarchy. But we should be aware and be alert. Any worldly system can go bad. Communism and Fascism–the extremes of left and right– both end up in genocide because both systems are essentially materialistic and atheistic. One system may give lip service to religion, but you will notice they are not giving homage to Christ the King. They are simply nodding with the church leaders to get them and the religious people on their side. Do not trust either system. Be vigilant because your adversary the devil stalks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
At Mass yesterday I had a clear vision of the only sure thing. In the midst of a changing, uncertain and confusing world do not put your trust in princes. Do not imagine that a political system or a political leader will bring about God’s kingdom. If you are conservative just look at what the “conservative” judges delivered last week. If you are liberal, just look at what the left wing extremists have foisted on our nation this summer and look at their agenda to see what they have planned for America and the world.
In the midst of the shifting sands and the swirling winds there is only one Rock. It is the rock Christ Jesus and him crucified. It is the rock of Peter and his church. It is the rock of the Mass whereby that one, full final sacrifice is brought into the present moment and applied to our needs. Consider history. Everything else has crumbled and fallen. For two thousand years empires have come and gone. Leaders have risen and fallen. Jesus Christ remains..the same yesterday, today and forever.
He remains and the systems of this world, (although they sometimes pretend to be in alliance with Christ and his church) are opposed to Jesus Christ.
It was so when he was here on earth and it had remained so. Therefore be alert and watchful and build your house upon the rock and not upon the sifting sands.