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 | Anna Kelley

St. John Fisher: Martyr for religious freedom and Catholic teaching

We live in an age where Catholic beliefs are not fashionable. In fact, our beliefs may get us labeled as backward and old-fashioned, zealous or something nastier. Many think it would be better if we were silent about our beliefs and banished worship to the farthest reaches of our private lives. We are encouraged, often aggressively, to call falsehoods truth.

Carol Jean Walters, the state director of Catholics for Freedom of Religion, said that our religious freedom “as guaranteed by our First Amendment, is the protection of the practice of one’s faith and morals within every aspect of our lives — in our homes, in our churches, at school and at work.”

While governments and private companies are taking action to limit our freedom of religion by way of mandates, policies, regulations and even laws in some cases, we can take solace in the fact that “nothing is new under the sun!” (Eccl 1:9). Many are familiar with the story of St. Thomas More, the Catholic politician martyred by King Henry VIII for opposing heresy. But few know the story of the man who shares St. Thomas’ feast day — St. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester.

John Fisher was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1469 and began studying at Cambridge University around 1484. He was exceptionally gifted and possessed a nearly unparalleled knowledge of sacred Scripture and Catholic teaching. Lady Margaret Beaufort, the grandmother of the future King Henry VIII, selected John to be her confessor because of his intelligence and virtue. He was appointed vice-chancellor of Cambridge in 1504 and was raised to the episcopate that same year. He was known for his sanctity and wisdom throughout Europe and was considered one of the greatest theologians of his time.

His greatest priority as bishop of Rochester was to improve the quality of preaching in his diocese. Fisher was dedicated to training virtuous and orthodox priests to lead the faithful. He devoted time to defending the truth of the holy sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist against the Protestant Reformation. He was eventually martyred by King Henry VIII, along with St. Thomas More, for not recognizing the king’s divorce or acknowledging the king as the leader of the church.

If you would like to get involved with Catholics for Freedom of Religion, please contact Carol Jean Walters at

The life of St. John Fisher shows us that religious freedom is the means to come to know and love the God who is truth itself. Fisher refused to bow to political pressure if it meant violating the true faith. He was willing to lay down his life in defense of the truth as all are called to do, if necessary.

Religious Freedom Week begins June 22, the feast of Sts. More and Fisher. We celebrate the rights and liberties we have to worship the true and living God even if Catholic teaching is not popular or trendy. We must never bow to political or social pressure to abandon our beliefs, and John Fisher’s life teaches us how we can preserve the truth even if it comes at a great cost.

St. John was a member of the clergy, but there is a great need for the laity to follow his example. Walters reminds us of the importance of the laity in the fight for religious freedom. While it may be tempting for us to leave this issue to clergy, we are the ones in corporate offices, classrooms and coffee shops. We are in the voting booths. We are the parents educating our children and grandchildren about their rights. We all must be aware of the liberties afforded to us by our country’s Bill of Rights to protect people from government overreach. 

“Our freedoms are God-given and God-given freedoms cannot be taken away by our government or anyone else,” Walters said.

Her chapter of Catholics for Freedom of Religion was formed to combat violations around our state and country and to inform Catholics about their right to exercise religious liberty in the public square. The organization is nonpartisan, focusing on education and advocacy for the preservation of the rights of all United States citizens to practice their religion without persecution from the state.

St. John Fisher’s life is a testament to the necessity to have the freedom to do what is good, what is true, what is beautiful. If we forbid the worship of or speech about the true God and things of heaven, we are no longer free.

Anna Kelley is the legislative affairs specialist for the South Carolina Catholic Conference. Email her at