Posts Tagged ‘English works of John Fisher Bishop of Rochester (1469-1535): sermons and other writings 1520-1535’

Why St. John Fisher Should be Named Doctor of the Church

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

The consummate Renaissance scholar Rev. Edward L. Surtz, SJ (1909-1973), one of the few to actually study the complete works in Latin and in English of St. John Fisher (1469-1535), maintained that St. John Fisher should be named a Doctor of the Church.

Fr. Surtz’s reasons included the key influence on the Catholic Counter-Reformation by Fisher’s Latin theological and controversial writings, which were more widely read on the European continent in their day than the predominantly English religious controversial writings of St. Thomas More. According to Fr. Surtz, St. John Fisher’s writings formed an important bridge between the Church Fathers, the Scholastics, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As Chancellor of Cambridge University, Fisher firmly established in English Universities the “new learning” of the classics, the Scriptures, and the Early Christian Writers in their original languages.

To those interested in the Reformation in England, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, I cannot recommend highly enough Fr. Surtz’s book, The works and days of John Fisher an introduction to the position of St. John Fisher (1469-1535), Bishop of Rochester, in the English Renaissance and the Reformation.

Here is a short selection from Fr. Surtz’s argument for naming St. John Fisher a Doctor of the Church —

The purpose of this book is not to make a biographical study of Fisher but to see him against the intellectual background of the Renaissance and the Reformation. It tries to ascertain his precise position on such key points as the nature and function of a university, humanism and Scholasticism, Greek and Hebrew, corruption and reform, orthodoxy and heresy, faith and justification, grace and the sacraments, the Church and the pope, the bishops and the councils, priesthood and the laity, tradition and Scripture, and so on.

The term position implies personal relationships to his opponents and to his allies — and there were many of both, Catholics as well as Protestants. He had hardly ended his refutation of continental Reformers (especially Luther and Oecolampadius) when he himself became the target for English Reformers (such as Tyndale and Frith). The term position also involves connections with what comes before (the Schoolmen and the Fathers, now seen with new eyes) and with what comes after (the Council of Trent and theologians like Robert Bellarmine). In view of his writings he merits the title which undoubtedly will be awarded him in time: Doctor of the Church.

Surtz, Edward L. 1967. The works and days of John Fisher an introduction to the position of St. John Fisher (1469-1535), Bishop of Rochester, in the English Renaissance and the Reformation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. v-vi.

As a student at Loyola University, Chicago, in the last four years of Fr. Surtz’s life, I only recall once seeing him walking across campus. I greatly admired his scholarship at the time, and therefore am duty-bound to draw attention again to a conclusion he made after prodigious and lonely labor: that St. John Fisher should and would be named Doctor of the Church.

Much of the work of Catholic writers of the English Reformation remains either unknown or inaccessible in current language. Many of the Latin works of St. John Fisher still await a modern translation, not to mention the need for modern renderings of his English works. Here is a partial list of St. John Fisher’s writings.

Of St. John Fisher’s English writings, the following two books are the most accessible:

Fisher, John. 1998. Exposition of the seven penitential Psalms, in Modern English with an introduction by Anne Barbeau Gardiner, San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Fisher, John, and Cecilia A. Hatt. 2002. English works of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (1469-1535): sermons and other writings, 1520-1535. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The following more recent book by Richard Rex is of singular importance for understanding the significance of the thought of St. John Fisher:

Rex, Richard. 1991. The theology of John Fisher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sometimes a single scholarly witness such as Fr. Surtz (or Richard Rex) can open the eyes of the world to undiscovered or neglected truths. I do not want Fr. Surtz’s efforts to be forgotten! I therefore recommend that we listen to him, and ask and pray that St. John Fisher be named a Doctor of the Church.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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