In the collective consciousness of English Catholics, the story of Sir Thomas More, martyr and saint, is a seminal figure. Sir Thomas, chancellor to King Henry VIII, was tortured and then executed under the orders of the king, for refusing to compromise his Catholic faith by approving Henry’s proposed divorce. As such, he is the most prominent and best known of the English Catholic martyrs of the persecution that followed, under Henry himself, and later under Elizabeth I (and the residual discrimination against Catholics that still persists in English constitutional law).
As Sir Thomas’ break with the king was over an issue of marriage, there is powerful symbolism behind the Conservative MP Damian Collins’ explanation of why, as a Catholic, he planned to vote for equal marriage – because, he reasons, it is what he believes More would have done:
I will be supporting the Same Sex Marriage Bill because I believe in a society where people have freedom of religious expression, but also one where outside of religion people are equal in the eyes of the law. But as an MP of Roman Catholic faith, I have been drawn to considering over the last few weeks, what Thomas More would have made of this issue.
Saint Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and a former speaker of the House of Commons is famous for the moral stand he took against his King, even though it cost him his life. It was learning about his example at school which prompted me to choose him as my Confirmation Saint. Thomas More is particularly remembered because he could not in conscience swear an oath recognising the Succession to the Crown Act 1533 which had the effect of annulling one of Henry VIII’s marriages and therefore changing the royal succession. He could not swear the oath because, although he would abide by the Act’s content, he could not in conscience say that he agreed with it. Parliament, he said, had the right to decide matters of marriage, and had the right to require all subjects, including Catholics, to abide by its laws, but it could not have the right to require Catholics in conscience to agree with them. As a result he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed.
Last month press reports of a letter signed by a large number of Catholic clergy who opposed the Same Sex Marriage Bill asserted that if it passed that this could be seen as a return to the persecution that Catholics experienced during the English Reformation, because they would be required to acknowledge equal rights to marriage, against the teaching of the Church. I’m not sure that Thomas More would agree with this, and nor for that matter do I.
The Same Sex Marriage Bill is not seeking to tell the different churches and religions what they should believe, or to restrict them practicing their beliefs as the do now. Churches will not be required to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies if they do not want to. The Catholic Church will remain free to teach that marriage is a sacrament of the Church, it is between a man and a woman, that its purpose is for the procreation of children, and that it is for life. Of course, sadly, many people who are married by the Church are not able to have children, and a great many marriages end in divorce. The law of the State in allowing divorced people to remarry is already against the teaching of the Church, and a form of marriage that the Church would not recognise or perform. So we already have a system of marriage by the churches and the state which are sometimes compatible, and other times not.
continue reading – Damian Collins MP (Con) at Huffington Post.