This past Tuesday was the Feast Day of Saint Thomas More. Sir Thomas More was Henry Vlll’s Lord Chancellor during the King’s attempts to persuade the Catholic Church to grant him an annulment. His marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid, claimed the King, for it had produced no heirs. Henry argued that he should be free to marry Anne Boelyn so that the reign of the House of Tudor would be protected.
King Henry’s argument failed. So the King declared himself-and successive monarchs- head of the church through a Parliamentary move called the Act of Supremecy. A legislation proving that purely legal/politically based reasoning can justify anything, centuries ago.
Decades ago in an undergraduate English class, I was introduced to Thomas More through the eyes of another atheist, screenwriter Robert Bolt. One of the more successful playwrights of the last century, Bolt wrote the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and The Mission. But it was A Man For All Seasons for which he was best known.
I recall well my hunger-yearning, more accurately-for something or Someone so precious that I would give my life rather than betray it-Him.
In case you would like to read the entire play, click here. I’ve done so six, maybe seven times since that long ago class.
More was a man, Bolt writes in his Preface to A Man For All Seasons, who did not race to martyrdom unlike most of the saints revered by the Church and rejected by Bolt. Quite the contrary. More was a man of law and a loyal subject of the King of England, considering Henry to be a friend. Married with four children whom he loved dearly, Thomas More was a lover of life, good food and fine wines. He was a humanist; a concept which in the sixteenth century, conveyed submission to God and his law.
A man who did not want to die.
The years from 1529 through 1535 were years replete with attempted compromise. In 1529, Sir Thomas More was appointed Lord Chancellor of England; in 1535, More was beheaded for his treasonable refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy declaring Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and which validated Henry’s annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boyleyn. Over and over the statesman sought conciliation- a way to reconcile the rupture between his king and his faith; a way to prevent the schism between the Church and the King. Finally, More persuades King Henry to accept his resignation as Lord Chancellor in hopes that the resignation could serve to recuse him from signing.
MORE (Straight at her) If we govern our tongues they will! Now listen, I have a word to say about that. I have made no statement. I’ve
resigned, that’s all. On the King’s Supremacy, the King’s divorce which he’ll now grant himself, the marriage he’ll then make-have you
heard me make a statement?
ALICE No-and if I’m to lose my rank and fall to housekeeping I want to know the reason; so make a statement now.
MORE No- (ALICE exhibits indignation) Alice, it’s a point of law! Accept it from me, Alice, that in silence is my safety under the law, but
my silence must be absolute, it must extend to you.
ALICE In short you don’t trust us!
MORE A man would need to be half-witted not to trust you but- (Impatiently) Look- (He advances on her) I’m the Lord Chief Justice, I’m
Cromwell, I’m the King’s Head jailer –and I take your hand (He does so) and I clamp it on the Bible, on the Blessed Cross (Clamps her
hand on his closed fist) and I say: “Woman, has your husband made a statement on these matters?” Now-on peril of your soul
remember-what’s your answer?
MORE And so it must remain. (He looks around at their grave faces) Oh, it’s only a life line, we shan’t have to use it but it’s comforting to
have. No, no, when they find I’m silent they’ll ask nothing better than to leave me silent; you’ll see.
…The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfil his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ” (No. 17).
This harmony between the natural and the supernatural is perhaps the element which more than any other defines the personality of this great English statesman: he lived his intense public life with a simple humility marked by good humour, even at the moment of his execution.
This was the height to which he was led by his passion for the truth. What enlightened his conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality. As I have already had occasion to say, “man is created by God, and therefore human rights have their origin in God, are based upon the design of creation and form part of the plan of redemption. One might even dare to say that the rights of man are also the rights of God” (Speech, 7 April 1998).
And it was precisely in defence of the rights of conscience that the example of Thomas More shone brightly. It can be said that he demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience which is “the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul” (Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, 58), even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time.Proclaiming St Thomas More
Norfolk: I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us for friendship?
More: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for friendship?
Cranmer: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas?
More: I don’t know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man’s conscience. I condemn no one.
Cranmer: Then the matter is capable of question?
Cranmer: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty — and sign.
More: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? No, I will not sign.
Of Pope John Paul ll and Thomas More.
And of lawyers and politcians, then and now.
And of the dark side of the law.
My sole experience as a juror was so appalling that I based a novel on it: Do You Solemnly Swear: A Nation of Law, The Dark Side. And not frequently enough do I pray for the imprisoned man who may well be innocent.
In a piece a year or so ago, I wrote of an astounding statement made in 1776 by then Carinal Karol Wojtyla:
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine providence. It is a trial which the whole Church… must take up and face courageously…
We must prepare ourselves to suffer great trials before long, such as will demand of us a disposition to give up even life as a total dedication to Christ…”
The italics are mine.
The recent decision of the US Bishops to exclude those Catholic politicians promoting abortion from the Eucharist has ignited yet more polemics from all sides, religious and secular. For readers interested in an explanation of this decision, I ask that you read Archbishop Cordelione of the Diocese of San Francisco’s highly reasoned response to the sixty catholic House Representatives and Senators, “Statement of Principles.” The Archbishop ends his fine piece this way:
Rejecting abortion is a tall order for a Catholic Democrat in the current environment, I know. But this week especially, the week when we remember St. Thomas More, is a good time to look deep in the soul and ask: Will I be God’s servant first?Response to the Statement of Principles
But the battle isn’t just in Washington or Sunday mass, it rages close to our homes and families. A brief conversation with parents of school-aged children will reveal a national educational agenda which is distinctly opposed to the core values of most Americans. In fact, it is anti-church and anti-gospel. In an answer to just how far ordinary Americans can be pushed, a teacher risks speaking Truth.
Tanner Cross is a Virginia teacher suspended for his refusal to bow down to gender ideology or critical race theory. Speaking to the school board, Cross paraphrased St. Thomas More’s dying words, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Cross declared, “I’m a teacher but I serve God first.“
….”I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink…Margaret, I know this well: without my fault he will not let me lost…do not let your mind be troubled by anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.”
Lin, as we have previously discussed, more than once, your admiration of St. More, I completely agree with you and your essay. I feel like I’m making cheap judgements in this regard, as my life is not yet at stake. I pray that I might endure as did your hero in his closing. St. Thomas not only gave up the position of Chancellor to the Exchequer of England, but his loyal friends, and ultimately his temporal life.
Right, well said, Paul…cheap judgements? I don’t think so.
Simply because what I loved so much about the way Bolt wrote was to emphasize More’s love of all the gifts in his life. Of his many attempts at compromise. Of his endearing humanity. Until it became quite clear that he was left with no other option. Somehow that meakes it possible for me to think, yes, I could do the same-only with Grace, of course.
Thanks for the message from Arizona!