May 2021 Print

Saint Thomas More

By Malcolm Brennan

While St. Thomas More was a man of great subtlety and complexity, his story in broad outline may be recalled simply. Son of a prosperous London lawyer, he followed his father’s profession with notable success even from the beginning. By the age of thirty-two he had long ago completed his education at Oxford and in London, he had lived the spiritual life of the Carthusian monks for four yeras (though not himself professed), he had married and begot his four children, he had filled several civic posts with the approval of his fellow Londoners, and he had grown in the friendship and respect of the greatest scholars of the age. In the years to come his fame and fortune would increase, his enterprises would diversify, his accomplishments would multiply, and all the while his reputation would grow as a man who was amiable, wise, “the best friend a poor man ever had,” and when the Lutheran heresies began to spread, as a stinging controversialist.

He progressed through a succession of positions in the government of King Henry VIII. Behind his various official positions—administrator, ambassador, counsellor, judge, executive—his basic position seems to have been that of intimate advisor and personal agent of the King, who was anxious to surround himself with the best minds and the best men of the age. (More’s head was never turned by the friendship which the King conferred on him: he explained to his son-in-law once that the King would gladly forfeit More’s life for the gain of a castle in France.)

When the great Cardinal Wolsey’s grand policies began to collapse, Henry chose More to replace him as Lord High Chancellor, the highest position in the government. At this time, 1529, Henry VIII was pressing for his divorce from Catherine, and he knew that Thomas More would not lend his support to the scheme. Yet Henry seemed to think that he could manage without More, as More seemed to think that he could serve as Chancellor and remain independent of “the king’s great matter.” This indicates how fluid and tentative the situation must have seemed to the principals, while to us who look back the events seem to march ineluctably toward catastrophe.

Subject more and more to his passion for Anne Boleyn (her sister had been a much easier conquest), Henry sensed that he would never have his divorce from Rome, and so he simply declared that Rome did not have authority in this matter anyway. And it did not take him long to declare that the Pope had no more authority in England than any other foreign bishop, and in fact less authority than the King.

Thomas More’s refusal to endorse this heretical challenge to the authority of the universal Church is what cost him his head.

The pathetic and inspiring tale of St. Thomas More’s last months in the Tower of London has moved the hearts of millions—the tale of his growing sanctity as death approached, of the misunderstanding of his friends and family, of his scruple to utter no word of treason or sedition, of his kindliness toward his jailers; and when finally condemned to die, the brilliance of his expose of the fraudulent trial, the serene dignity of his self-defense (in the cause of truth and justice, for his own cause was lost), and the elegance of his statements of traditional Catholic Faith. Here was all that was finest in the English character, here was the flower of manhood, here was Christendom’s champion.

But somehow Saint Thomas More continues to be misunderstood. For example: “Like Socrates, he dies for freedom of conscience.” And: “Thomas More in his Utopia attempts to oppose to the system of dogmatic theology an entirely new form of religion. He outlines here the ideal of religion without dogma.” And again: “Only in modern times, with the rise of scientific Socialism, has it become possible to do full justice to More the Socialist,” that is, Marxist.

Without undertaking to refute these points severally, it is nevertheless profitable to reflect on several aspects of the life and meaning of Thomas More.

When St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and St. John Houghton, Abbot of the London Charterhouse, were asked to take the oath which declared Henry VIII to be the supreme head of the Church in England, they promptly, stoutly, and unequivocally denounced it for the heresy it was. When the same oath was offered to Thomas More, he simply declined to make it, without explaining why. A principal reason for this silence was that he dared not tempt God by throwing himself into the face of danger. He had earlier explained to his family:

William Frederick Yeames, The meeting of Sir Thomas More with his daughter after his sentence of death, 1872.

God made the angels to show Him splendor—as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If He suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, then we may clamor like champions.

It is clear that More did not suddenly ‘get religion’ when he discovered the jig was up, and then luck into a martyrdom to make it to sainthood by the short route. As a young man he had hesitated long between the law and the Church as his profession, longer than his father liked. And while his principal spiritual formation occurred no doubt while he was living “religiously” but “without vows” among the Carthusian monks, his spirituality was not primarily monastic but rather Franciscan; that is, instead of trying to imitate the life of a monk he tried to imitate the life of Christ, who went about preaching, doing good works and anticipating the Passion.

Though not an infallible sign, another indication of More’s active devotion was his interest in theology. He wrote a number of polemical works in refutation of Luther—that “pinhead,” that “raving baboon,” as he called him. Early in these controversies More defended the Mass as the central and crucial issue in the contests, but before long he re-evaluated the central issue as the Papacy. The popes of his day were some of the least attractive men who had ever occupied the See of Peter, and their bureaucracies were arrogant and venal, but More had no trouble distinguishing between a pope and the Papacy. Luther spoke of a church of all those in charity and in which all were equal, except that some administrative duties were distributed here and there. More argued that the Church was unified by faith, not by charity, because 1) the Church had to be visible like its incarnate founder, and charity was impossible to see whereas a man’s faith could be seen as orthodox or heretical, and 2) because the Church contained sinners (lacking charity) as well as saints.

More also attacked the idea of the equality of believers, who deferred to one another more or less for the sake of efficiency and tranquility. No, he said, the Church has been given real authority because it is the body of Christ, to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and this authority is conferred differently to different members of the Church. Thus authority in the Church is a very immediate result of its divine foundation. And if authority is real, so is obedience. Obedience is not a tactic for muddling through various obstacles, but is a positive, central, sometimes heroic virtue for those who would imitate Him who was obedient unto death.

(We speak here, of course, not of dogmas which are more or less important in the hierarchy of revealed truths, but of dogmas as more or less central to the controversies of the age. In this sense it may be true that in the 16th century the Papacy was a more important issue than the Mass, while in the 20th century the Mass is the crucial issue. The reformers in More’s day were trying to replace one religion with another, while it is not too far fetched to say that today they are trying to replace religion itself with sociology, and politics, and economics, and public relations.)

A related issue is Thomas More as a kind of conscientious objector to the policies of Henry VIII. To an age like ours, which is treated to the spectacle of high government officials who promise not to let their consciences interfere with their official duties, the word conscience becomes obscure. The government is apparently full of people who are personally opposed to abortion, but whose consciences will not permit them to follow their consciences. (For these people the Biblical injunction about charity has been modernized and applied to conscience: Let not thy left lobe know what they right lobe dost.) We may be sure that St. Thomas More shows no such signs of a disintegrating personality.

When he speaks of conscience he is not speaking of a private law that he has made up for himself nor does he use such a law of the self to justify disobedience. He is not a refuser, a dissident, a protestant, one who arbitrates truth and right. Rather he is at great pains to discover “wittily, in the tangle of his mind” what the universal (i.e., catholic) teaching was and to conform himself to it. It was his tragedy (and glory) that Henry forced him to refuse an order of his king—not his authority, just an order. And More chose not to follow Henry into dissent, into novelty, into disobedience, but rather to remain obedient to the faith which had been handed down. The anomolous and unnatural state of a Catholic who is forced to defy authority unjustly exercised became such a commonplace later in the century that men invented a new word for it: recusant, a splendid word which came to mean a Catholic who refused to obey an order that violated the faith.

Saint Thomas More did not earn the martyr’s glory for saying, “I will not serve,” or “Ich kann nicht anders,” but for being what no protester or dissident could ever be, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Sancte Thomas, ora pro nobis.

Reprinted from The Angelus, April 1978.