As the synod of bishops wraps up its work confronting the momentous challenges that face the institution of marriage and family life, it’s worth remembering that some of the most heroic moments in the history of the Church are when it took a stand for marriage.
Here are three extraordinary moments and the saints they made.
John the Baptist
He called the people to repentance, he baptized, and he proclaimed the coming of One mightier than he, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:4, 7-8). John the Baptist truly prepared the way of the Lord as prophesied (Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:3). And when the Lord appeared, it was John who baptized him. As John himself foretold, he decreases and Christ increases as the accounts of the gospel unfold. Then, somewhat later in the gospels, we are reminded of him when it’s reported that he has been beheaded by Herod.
What did he do to tick off the king? His unceasingly calls to repentance? His baptisms?
Not according to the gospel of Mark. Instead, it was John the Baptist’s denunciation of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias that cost him his life. One night, Herodias’ daughter performed a dance at a lavish dinner party Herod was throwing. Herod was so pleased he offered her anything she wanted—even half his kingdom. She asked her mother, who told her to ask for John the Baptist’s head (read the account in Mark 6). Herod, who feared John the Baptist’s holiness, reluctantly complied with her wish. Think about that for a moment: the first martyr of the New Testament era died because of his firm teaching on marriage.
A Mistress-Mad King and the Siege of Rome
This clash between a king and a pope over an annulment led to three renegade synods of bishops, the deposition of two corrupt bishops, and eventually an invasion and siege of Rome.
It all started in 856 when Lothair II, the king of the medieval kingdom of Lotharingia—which straddled present-day France and Germany—married a noblewoman named Theutberga. When Theutberga failed to produce a male heir, Lothair sought an annulment and marriage to his mistress Waldrada who had given birth to a son.
The case of the marriage dragged on through three synods of bishops. At the first one, in Aachen in 860, Theutberga reportedly confessed to incest and abortion—apparently doing so under duress. A second synod at Aachen two years later annulled the marriage and Lothair married his mistress.
But it was far from over. Theutberga appealed her case to then-Pope Nicholas I, who ordered another synod at Metz to meet at review the case. This synod turned to be rigged in favor of the king and was denounced by the pope as “as a gathering of robbers like that at Ephesus”—a reference to an early Church council that had been hijacked by heretics. Nicholas promptly summoned two the most culpable bishops to Rome, gave them an opportunity to fess up, and then deposed them when they didn’t.
Lothair meanwhile wasn’t content to let the ecclesiastical process play out on its own. Instead, he got his brother, who happened to be the ‘Holy’ Roman Emperor, to invade Italy and lay siege to Rome. For two days, food supplies were cut off to the pope. When he wouldn’t back down, the army did. In 865, Theutberga was returned to her husband, though marital conflict continued.
The incident, writes Catholic historian Warren Carroll, sent a message to all present and future kings of Christendom: “[T]he pope had made it unmistakably clear to all Christendom that kings as well as other Christians were under the law of Christ and that His Vicar would enforce His law” (The Building of Christendom, 351).
Sources: The Building of Christendom by Warren Carroll; the Catholic Encyclopedia.
One Divorce, Many Martyrs
The basic outlines of the story of St. Thomas More are well known by many Catholics today: in the 1520s, English King Henry VIII sought and was denied an annulment of his first marriage from then-Pope Clement VII. The pope refused, triggering a series of events that ended with the Church of England breaking off from the Catholic Church and Henry having Parliament declare him the head of the new national church.
More resigned his position as chancellor of the government—somewhat akin to Attorney General today—in protest. He would be called to far greater sacrifices. In 1534, Parliament passed an act requiring certain individuals to take an oath accepting the children of Henry and his second wife, Anne, as legitimate. The oath included a clause denying the authority of any foreign power to say otherwise. More refused, earning himself a prison cell in the Tower of London and eventually death by beheading when he was convicted of not accepting the king’s purported spiritual authority.
Perhaps less known by Catholics today is the fact that this crisis gave the Church not one, not two, but many martyrs. The others include:
■ John Fisher: An exemplary preacher and bishop, John Fisher distinguished himself in his sermons rebutting the heresies of Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther.
Fisher was perhaps more outspoken about the evils of Henry’s marital peccadillos than Thomas More. When the case of the divorce went to court, Fisher represented Henry’s first wife, Catherine, “declaring that, like St. John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage,” according to his biography in the Catholic Encyclopedia. After the divorce went through Fisher openly preached against it. He would end up refusing to take the same ominous oath as Thomas More had and, like his fellow saint, he was beheaded after a stay in the Tower of London.
■ St. John Houghton: A Carthusian monk and priest, John Houghton also ran first ran afoul of authorities for refusing to accept Henry’s second marriage under an oath. He later was able to take the oath with a caveat—only to again end up in the king’s crosshairs for refusing to take another oath accepting his supremacy over the Church. He was hanged, then drawn and quartered. As the executioner prepared to cut out his heart, John Houghton reportedly said, “Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?” Thomas More was among those who witnessed the martyrdom of John Houghton and his companions, telling his daughter, “See how the blessed fathers go to their deaths as cheerfully as bridegrooms to a marriage.” Two months later, he would follow suit.
The Protestant Reformation is easily the greatest crisis the late medieval and early modern Church faced. Seemingly everything was under assault by the Protestants—Marian devotion, the priesthood, the Real Presence, the authority of the pope, the nature of salvation—but it was their defense of marriage that produced the first martyrs of this period. In all, what would come to be known as the English Reformation would produce 40 martyrs, in addition to Thomas More and John Fisher, though not all necessarily were directly related to the issue of Henry’s divorce.
‘An angelic lance’
Catholic historian Warren Carroll well sums up how Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage has left its mark on the history of the Church:
It has shaken empires and toppled kings. It has been a sword against the arrogant and a shield for the defenseless, a stumbling block for the ambitious and a rock of refuge for the virtuous, a guarantor of hearth and home and a scandal to the worldly, for two thousand years … [t]errifying in its purity as an angelic lance (The Founding of Christendom, 357).
Let’s hope and pray Jesus’ teaching marriage, its history, and its embrace by saints from John the Baptist to Thomas More is on the mind of the bishops in Rome this week as they confront once again the historic challenges facing the institution of marriage.