The 500th Anniversary of the Birth of Saint Thomas More

Author: Kenneth D. Whitehead


Kenneth D. Whitehead

For many years there were learned disagreements about the exact date of the birth in London of St. Thomas More, but his principal recent biographers seem now to have resolved the problem in favor of the date of 6 February 1478 (1). Hence we can now count five hundred years since the birth of this remarkable hero of English history, Renaissance humanist, wit, scholar, writer, and lawyer, who, as a judge, gained the reputation of being "the best friend the poor e'er had" (2); who, knighted, rose to be Speaker of the House of Commons, ambassador, and, finally, Lord Chancellor of England; yet who, convicted through perjured testimony in 1535 in one of the most notorious trials in European history, was, in his own words delivered from the scaffold, beheaded for "the faith of the Holy Catholic Church" (3).

Four hundred years later Thomas More was canonized by that same Catholic Church in company with his contemporary the heroic Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher (4), who was beheaded less than a month before More for having denied that King Henry VIII had become, by act of Parliament, "Supreme Head of the Church in England". The two saints exchanged communications with each other while they were being held in the Tower of London for trial and execution; and, at one point, Fisher wrote to More that the way they had chosen was certainly strait and narrow enough to be the way to heaven (5). In this judgment the saintly bishop proved to be correct.

The story of St. Thomas More, in its broad general outlines, is so well known and its significance considered so obvious, that one ventures only with trepidation to make some observations on the meaning of More's life and martyrdom for us today—especially for those of us who are Catholics, living, as More did, in a period when "the faith of the Holy Catholic Church" for which he went to the block is widely challenged, both by the spread of "new doctrines" among the faithful, and by the contemporary "powers that be".

If we examine the prevailing sentiments of today, sentiments which tend to go against the authority and doctrine of the Catholic Church, and in favor of the sort of wrecking operation which Henry VIII and his men successfully carried out on the Church in England, we can only be somewhat surprised that admiration for St. Thomas More nevertheless continues to be so widespread and, apparently, so sincere. For in his day More resisted the efforts that were being made to destroy the authority of the Catholic Church and change her doctrines; he resisted the sort of thing which was generally thought to constitute progress now. Nevertheless, in More's case, once the passions actually engendered by the Reformation in England cooled, his actual views, like his Catholic faith, haven't been held unduly against him, as they have been held against, for instance, a St. Ignatius of Loyola. And the result is that today, liberals and conservatives, Protestants as well as Catholics, and, indeed, unbelievers, all try to claim More as one of their own.

Various views of More's life

Take the Anglican Jonathan Swift, for example. Swift, like More in his book Utopia, satirized the behavior of supposedly Christian peoples and nations by writing about imaginary places where reason truly did rule even though the salvation offered by Christ, the grace added to nature, was unknown in them. The same Jonathan Swift called More the person "of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced" (6). Another great eighteenth-century English man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson, was of the same opinion exactly (7). The non-Catholic historian Thomas Babington Macauley similarly considered More to be "one of the choice specimens of wisdom and virtue" (8).

These views of More are probably not as surprising, though, as the view of one of the pioneer theorists of international socialism, Karl Kautsky. For Kautsky, More, who died for the papacy and for the Catholic Church, "like, a giant, towered over his contemporaries". Less surprising is the view of the Catholic G.K. Chesterton, who said that Thomas More "may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history" (9).

In recent years, the play A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt (10), from which an excellent popular movie was made, has served to disseminate widely the idea that Thomas More was executed because he dared to assert the right of the individual conscience against the tyranny of the state; he is revered more for this than for anything else today. And it is certainly true that be did defend the rights of conscience against tyranny, although many who admire More only on these grounds probably do not share, or, indeed, perhaps even understand, the instructed Catholic's view of the matter—which was surely this Catholic saint's own view of the matter too—namely, that it is the Church which is ultimately the guarantor of the rights of the individual conscience (cf. Second Vatican, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 6).

Thomas More's virtue was the fruit of his Catholic Faith

For the Catholic, in other words, St. Thomas More is not just an isolated case of wisdom and virtue—a great and gifted man who happened, for some reason, even when faced with the supreme challenge of giving up his life to be able to realize his potential to the full, as we might express it today. No: Thomas More really only became such a paragon, irresistibly admired by all, because he practiced his faith to the full!

The instructed Catholic knows what More himself was also always perfectly conscious of, namely, that his virtue derived from his working out in his own life of the implications of God's gift of faith to him; it derived from his earnest striving to "complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body... the Church" (Col 1, 24). Like St. Paul, St. Thomas More ever passed the ultimate test of being able to rejoice in his sufferings! His cheerfulness, even in prison and on the scaffold, have become legendary.

When told that the king had mercifully commuted his original sentence of being hanged, drawn, and quartered to being beheaded, More quipped: "God forbid that the king should use any more such mercy unto any of my friends!" When his jailer wept over his plight, the saint comforted him: "I will pray for you, and my good Lady your wife," he said, that we may meet in heaven together where we shall be merry for ever and ever".

Throughout most of his life, this man, who was destined to lead such a busy life in the world, nevertheless scrupulously practiced what his friend the great scholar Erasmus called "a genuine piety, free from taint of superstition and marked by regular prayers" (11). As a young law student, he lived with the Carthusian monks and followed their regimen, and even thought of becoming a Franciscan friar himself before finally deciding that his vocation was to marriage. In his family, prayers and religious observances were as regular as the Church's own succession of fasts and feasts. Though he loved the Bible, as did his friends Erasmus and Colet, he also understood and participated regularly in the sacramental life of the Church. Once the Duke of Norfolk, the greatest noble of the realm, was scandalized when he condescended to visit More in his house at Chelsea only to find the latter singing in the choir in the chapel, wearing a surplice.

Later on in life, the Saint "'tamed his flesh" by wearing a hair-shirt under his judge's and chancellor's ceremonial robes, a secret which he tried to limit to his confessor and to his daughter Margaret who laundered the hair-shirt for him, but which now, of course, the whole world has heard about (12).

More consciously sought Christ's help in trials

When his supreme hour arrived, St. Thomas More was acutely conscious that he would never be able to see his martyrdom through on the basis of his own power, but only through God's power working in him: "Yea, and though I should feel my fear even at point to overthrow me too," he wrote to his daughter Margaret from the Tower, "yet shall I remember how St. Peter with a blast of wind began to sink for his faint faith, and shall do as he did, call upon Christ and pray him to help. And then I trust he shall set his holy hand unto me, and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning" (13).

The prudence, temperance, justice and final marvelous fortitude exhibited in the exemplary life of Thomas More, a man admired by the whole world, was, then, the result of his taking seriously and living "the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles" in the Church. The Church, indeed, canonizes saints such as he proved to be not for their own sake—for, enjoying the beatific vision they are beyond our praise—but especially in order that we might be able to see and emulate the choice examples of heroic virtue the Church is able to make out of those who will respond to and cooperate with the graces she purveys.

What sanctity actually is—the response to God's grace working in us—is little appreciated today. The whole world may admire Thomas More, but "the faith of the holy Catholic Church," and, indeed, the papacy, for which he, quite literally, gave up his life, are less admired today, apparently even by some supposedly still within the household of the faith. When we consider the contemporary state of the faith and of the papacy for which More gave up his life, however, his whole life and the manner of his death are even less explicable on natural grounds. They are explicable only on the basis of More's faith. For we, in the second half of the twentieth century, with the example before us of a series of absolutely outstanding Popes extending at least as far back as Pope Pius IX in the middle of the last century, can scarcely even imagine, much less appreciate, the low estate into which the papacy had fallen during the lifetime of St. Thomas More.

The papacy not at its best in More's day

Fr. Bede Jarrett observed in this connection: "Remember the papacy More lived under. He lived under the worst of the Renaissance popes; Alexander VI ruled and died within More's lifetime. That is to say, the papacy he knew was not the papacy that you and I know and reverence—great, purified, outstanding, spiritual. That is the marvel of his faith. That is where so much of his exquisite discernment shows up against his time when the rest of the world went astray. He died for a papacy that, as far as men could see, was little else than a small Italian princedom ruled by some of the least reputable of the Renaissance princes" (14).

Nor did More's experience as a mature man and European statesman provide much to offset the mediocre impression of the papacy which a man of his time would necessarily have had. Pope Clement VII, for example, an illegitimate son of the Florentine Medicis, before whom the fatal divorce case of King Henry VIII was brought, surely contributed greatly to the eventual loss of England to the Church by his constant maneuvering and temporizing, and by his unwillingness extending over several years to take any clearcut stand at all. Yet Clement was abundantly warned, by friend and foe alike, what King Henry VIII was capable of; the Pope failed to heed these warnings. If he had ruled immediately against the divorce, as he finally did rule against it, he might have caught Henry off guard, before the latter had been able to prepare all the ground necessary to make it possible to lead England right out of the Church; as it was, the Pope failed to .act until Henry had carried out the lengthy preparations necessary to enable him to carry out his public boast that "he would show the princes of Europe how small was the power of a Pope". Moreover, when Clement VII finally did act in the divorce case, he managed it all in such a way as to convince practically the whole world that he was acting, not on religious principle or canon law, but politically, in accordance with the wishes of the Emperor Charles V, nephew of the Queen Catherine whom Henry VIII was trying to put away.

More witnessed the "Political Papacy" up close

St. Thomas More witnessed this up close; he saw all the intrigue, the diplomacy, the political maneuverings, and the posturings which eventually led up to the final result which we all know about—the loss of England to the Church. And yet, none of this shook his faith in the papacy as a divinely-established institution in the Church. To see a Vicar of Christ fail so lamentably in a matter where the Pope's simple duty seemed so perfectly clear to much of Europe might have shaken the faith of many in the Church, but it did not shake the faith of St. Thomas More. His faith was not shaken because he lived by that same faith in the sense St. Paul speaks of when he counsels us to "walk by faith and not by sight" (II Cor 5, 7). More wasn't judging the papacy on the basis of the behavior of the Popes of his own day, by what he saw; he was judging the papacy, precisely, by faith!

More personally witnessed the obliteration of every vestige of papal authority in England. Outside of Bishop Fisher and some courageous Carthusian monks he had scarcely anyone around him to confirm and sustain him in his refusal to take the oath which Henry VIII required of all of his subjects. The splendid Indian summer of the faith of English Catholics which resulted in the Forty Martyrs was still decades in the future. More had to walk by faith because that was all he had to walk by: the institutional supports for his faith were all removed, the props were all kicked out. Still More knew by faith "that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (11 Cor 5, 1).

Others were able to reconcile their consciences and subscribe to Henry VIII's oath; this amounted to swearing to believe today, on pain of death, the exact opposite of what one had had to believe yesterday, also—such were the times—on pain of death. That the King of England forced all his subjects to subscribe under solemn oath to such a contradiction was surely, morally speaking, one of the greatest outrages to human dignity ever perpetrated by the tyranny of a state prior to the rise of the full-fledged totalitarian states of our own day. Most of those who took the oath probably managed to persuade themselves that God wished nothing better of them; the Catholics of England had been lured into Henry's trap one step at a time. No particular step ever seemed to go too far. Up to the very day when they all found themselves swearing that the King and not the Pope was the earthly head of the Church many of them had probably convinced themselves that they hadn't really given up anything that was essential to their faith. After all, the King might at any time turn his attention to other matters besides religion; he might even die in any one of the frequent plagues of the time. Or the Queen might die in one of them. That would settle the problem of the divorce. Anything might happen to save the situation. Meanwhile, the ship had to be kept on an even keel. So even the bishops must have told themselves.

St. John Fisher himself had earlier been satisfied with a formula, accepted by all the other bishops, that the King, if his mind was so set on the phrase, could be Supreme Head of the Church in England "so far as the law of Christ allows". This was the phrase which Bishop Fisher managed to get tacked on to the King's claim before the Convocation of Bishops. Later, Henry simply had the Parliament drop that phrase; and thus he became simply "Supreme Head".

The papacy was the cornerstone

St. Thomas More, however, seems never to have been in any doubt during the whole crisis either that Henry VIII's divorce was possible, or that the King's assumption of the Pope's powers in England meant or could mean anything else but the destruction of the Catholic faith itself. If it is true that "Where Peter is, there is the Church", it must be equally true that where Peter no longer is, where Peter's authority is denied or has been usurped by another—whether he is a king, or another bishop, or a simple priest—then the Church isno longer present there either. This truth was certainly the cornerstone of the faith of St. Thomas More. No private reservations with him to the effect that we didn't necessarily have to follow every act of this Pope that we happened to have today, provided we continued to "respect" the "office"!

We have solid testimony to the fact that More's view of the place of the papacy in the Church was for him a fundamental article of faith—an articleof faith which, as we have seen, was for him certainly in no way contingent on the performance of the papal incumbents of his day. He once told a friend that when he first became concerned with the rise of heresy in the Church the initial object of his solicitude was over "perverse opinion touching the Sacrament of the altar," that is, over the Mass. Papal supremacy seemed to him a matter of less importance, instituted merely for what More for a time called "the quietness of the ecclesiastical body".

The same friend to whom this opinion had been expressed reported, however, how More quickly changed his mind and actually reproached himself for having held and expressed such a view: "Whither was I falling when I made you that answer of the primacy of the Church?" More demanded of his friend. "I assure you, that opinion alone was enough to make me fall from the rest, for that holdeth up all" (Emphasis added). It was thus, Cardinal Reginald Pole later observed, writing about this very incident, that More "began to show him what he had read and studied therein, which was so fixed in his heart that for the defence of the same he willingly afterward suffered death, overcoming all Satan's temptation by the light supernatural, and by a supernatural love that the mercy of God had given him for his salvation" (15).

The depth of our saint’s conviction that the papal primacy over the Church ultimately "holdeth up all" can be seen in another statement he made about the Holy See in one of his controversial works—a statement no doubt grounded in More's own personal observation of how the men of his day would slide almost ineluctably into schism and then into heresy once they bad allowed themselves to be infected by the anger and hatred against the Holy See which was such a staple of the religious polemics of the day. More observed the following about this phenomenon: "I am moved to obedience to that See not only by what learned and holy men have written, but by this fact especially, that we shall find that on the one hand every enemy of the Christian faith makes war on that See, and that, on the other hand, no one has ever declared himself an enemy of that See who has not also shortly after shown most evidently that he was the enemy of the Christian religion" (16).

This was an eminently practical lesson which Thomas More learned as the logic of the Protestant Reformation developed: merely to object to the actions of the Holy See was to put oneself on the road out of the Church of Christ! To attack the Pope meant to end up denying the truths of the faith! Napoleon Bonaparte put it much more crudely a couple of centuries later: qui mange du Pape en meurt; he who would devour the Pope will surely choke to death on him!

As a young scholar and humanist, Thomas More had delighted, along with friends such as Erasmus, in satirizing and "exposing" the unfortunately all too prevalent abuses in the Church, and the follies and shortcomings of the clergy, especially of the monks. A very prejudiced Protestant historian even remarked about him: "When More wrote the Utopia, he was in advance of his time. None could see the rogue's face under the monk's cowl clearer than he" (17). Thomas More, in short, had already tried the route of reforming the Church by exposing errors and abuses. After a while things got much more serious, as even Erasmus probably came to see.

Attacks on the clergy engender hatred of the Church

Though the motives of the Christian Renaissance humanists in exposing abuses in the Church had no doubt been of the best—to see these abuses corrected—once Martin Luther had launched the Reformation in earnest, all the bad feeling stirred up by the earlier exposure of abuses was actually exploited by the enemies of the Church to cripple and then help destroy the Church. Henry VIII himself eventually became a master at the art of exploiting for his own purposes the resentments of his subjects against the Church and the clergy. And then, of course, the Protestants and the Protestantizers took up the general hue and cry against "abuses" with a vengeance, as the means and the justification to have done with "popery" (and, not incidentally Catholicism itself) in England once and for all. While many may have spoken up out of true righteous indignation about the state of the Church, they were swiftly carried by the force of their very indignation, as we have just heard St Thomas More himself testifying, into denying the actual doctrines of a Church which had come to appear so unworthy to them.

A great historian of our own century, A.F. Pollard, whose treatment of the Reformation period is nevertheless marred not so much by an overt anti-Catholicism as by an apparent simple inability to comprehend what the Catholic religion might be all about, has aptly remarked: "Englishmen are singularly free from the bondage of abstract ideas, and they began their Reformation, not with the enunciation of some new truth, but with an attack on clerical fees". Or again: "The hostility of the laity to the clergy, arising out of (their) grievances," A.F Pollard remarks further, "was in fact the lever with which Henry VIII overthrew the papal authority, and the basis upon which he built his own authority over the Church" (18).

One does not lightly, Thomas More learned, embark on campaigns against the clergy or the papacy, even when the "facts" one is bringing out about them happen to be true. For the hatred of the Church and papacy, thus engendered, benefits only the enemies of the Church and the papacy founded by Jesus Christ.

"Rebuking and inveighing, tumult and sedition"

For to such lengths could "attacking abuses" lead. Those who engaged in it, St John Fisher wrote, "seem to reprove the life and doings of the clergy, but after such sort as they endeavour to bring them into contempt and hatred of the laity, and so finding fault with other men's manners whom they have no authority to correct, omit and forget their own" (18).

"In railing standeth all their revel," More himself eventually said of these Protestants and Protestantizers (who, of course, all started out at some point as Catholics!). Already when he wrote Utopia,More had regarded "contentious rebuking and inveighing" as a penal offense; and he further had no sympathy for "the tumult and sedition" stirred up by heretics. But during a period in his life, the fact also remains that Thomas More himself expended considerable energies—and even authored several huge volumes—exchanging polemics with these very heretics. At one point he, a layman, was actually commissioned by the hierarchy of England to answer such attacks on the faith as those launched by William Tyndale. It was the fashion throughout a good part of what has been called the Reformation and the Counter Reformation periods for scholars and publicists to engage in interminable (and today almost unreadable) polemics and counter-polemics. Henry VIII's own book defending against Luther the seven sacraments through which the King acquired from the Pope the title Defensor Fidei, Defender of the Faith, was written in accordance with the same contemporary polemical fashion.

One of the things that was most exasperating to adversaries of More such as Tyndale, incidentally, was the case with which More could admit that there were indeed abuses in the Church and yet be so patient about them. More was not scandalized by the evidence that Catholics, including the Pope and the bishops, remained sinners, even though the redemption which their sins required had already been accomplished by Jesus Christ and the benefits of this redemption were continually offered to all in the Catholic Church. This canonized layman actually said: "The Church must needs be the common known multitude of Christian men, good and bad together, while the Church is here in earth. For this net of Christ hath for the while good fishes and bad".

And as another one of More's modern biographers, Daniel Sargent, has observed: "This unsanctimonious, unselfrighteous, unpharisaical view of the Church made More not a tense purist who thinks that there are no abuses in the Church. I might say, if I were not sure that I should be misunderstood, that More was glad that there were abuses in it. It reminded him that he was human, and what a thing—human nature—it was that Our Lord came down to assume, and out of which God was constructing a Church" (Thomas More, page 155).

Obviously, More believed that the doctrines of the Church remained true, and her sacraments efficacious for sanctification and salvation, regardless of the imperfections of her members or even the behavior of her "agents". Not for More the stance of indignant "Protest"—"The Church has got to be the way I want!"—which led those who adopted it to become, literally, Protestants! Mere words do not, in fact, effect reforms; only lives do. That is one of the most important lessons the saints have to teach us.

What St. Thomas More ultimately came to think of all the bitter words even he had sometimes used as means to defend the faith, we may perhaps gauge from the fact that as the situation in England became more serious and it became clear that a break with Rome over Henry VIII's divorce was coming, More left off polemics and arguments about the faith: the time was coming when he would have to witness with his life—as we know that he splendidly and successfully did when the time came.

Speaking about God and to God

But before we reach that final consummation, we should record another incident from More's life which testifies to something which More thought enormously more important to the defense of the faith than mere arguments; the incident concerns More's son-in-law William Roper, the husband of his beloved eldest daughter Margaret. In the early 1520's, William Roper, while living in More's own house, took up with the new Lutheran ideas, and, with the zeal of the new convert, was concerned with spreading them. Roper only escaped actual prosecution when Cardinal Wolsey spared him out of friendship for More, then rising in the King's service. Let us hear one of More's early biographers. Nicholas Harpsfield, tell how William Roper's Lutheranism was finally dealt with by More: "And so after he continued in his heresies, until upon a time, Sir Thomas More privately talked in his garden with his daughter Margaret, and amongst other of his sayings said: 'Meg, I have borne a long time with thy husband; I have reasoned and argued with him in those points of religion, and still given to him my poor fatherly counsel: but I perceive none of all this able to call him home; and, therefore, Meg. I will no longer argue nor dispute withhim, but will clean give him over, and get me another while to God and pray for him'. And soon after, as he verily believed, through the mercy of God, at the devout prayer of Sir Thomas More, he perceived his own ignorance, oversight [error] malice and folly, and turned him again to the Catholic faith, wherein, God be thanked, he hath hitherto continued" (20).

Thus prayer availed where words and arguments did not avail; like St Monica praying for her son, Thomas More learned the lesson that would serve him in good stead later. Even when he could no longer talk to his son-in-law about God, be could still talk to God about his son-in-law. "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain" (Ps 127, 1)!

For there arrived in the life of Thomas More—as there arrives in the lives of all of us if only we learn to discern the time of our visitation—a time when things truly are in the hands of God. More had never had any illusions about the kind of man he served in Henry VIII."If my head could win him a castle in France", he once told his son-in-law, "it should not fail to go" (21).

More's view of authority

Yet Henry VIII was the King; and Thomas More was a man who could not conceive of a society based upon any other principle than the principle of authority. More respected the legitimate authority of the state in its own sphere every bit as much as he respected the authority of the Church in her sphere. As we have seen, even his hatred for heresy was mainly hatred of seditious heresy, heresy which undermined authority and the fabric of unity which bound men together. While More was Lord Chancellor and engaged in public controversy with the Lutherans he once, with a tolerance uncommon for his time, entertained in his own home the Lutheran scholar Grinaeus who, however, had promised not to spread his heresies while in England! While respecting consciences, More drew the line there.

Without authority, whether in Church or state, St Thomas feared that, in place of law, "insolence and the strong hand should prevail"; hence he didn't imagine that abuse of authority ever served to nullify it; and he himself loyally served even a King who was a tyrant—up to a point! When it came to a conflict of authority, of course, he was willing to die rather than see the civil authority usurp the sphere of the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church.

It was no doubt because he saw so clearly how everything must be bound together by some kind of authority—otherwise we have chaos—that Thomas More was unwilling to resort to or condone for his "cause", the Catholic faith, the "tumult and sedition", the "contentious rebuking and inveighing", which he so deplored in the heretics. We should never forget that Thomas More's defense at his trial was precisely that he had always been silent;he had never spoken out", either against Henry VIII's divorce or his "supremacy"; he never spoke at all on these subjects even to the members of his own family (who might have been questioned under oath). It was, in fact, Martin Luther,not any Catholic, who held that it is always a duty to "speak out"! "It is not rebellious to let oneself be deposed," Luther once declared, "but it would be rebellious if one who preaches the gospel did not chastize the vices of the authorities".

Those who hold today that the defense of the faith by the laity must always necessarily involve "speaking out" should ponder, rather, the example of the Lord Chancellor of England canonized by the Catholic Church. His legal defense against treason was, precisely, his silence on the subject of Henry VIII's divorce and upon the King's claim to be "Supreme Head of the Church in England"!

No doubt More would have agreed that there are times and places "to speak out"—if good is thereby verifiably accomplished or the truth of the faith advanced. Moreover, More was not unwilling to try to exert, prudently and privately, what influence he could upon those in authority; he did privately express his opinion even about the projected divorce to his dread Sovereign during the period before it became a crime of high treason to do so (22). But More cannot be invoked in favour of the idea that one always has the duty to "speak out" regardless of what might constructively be accomplished by doing so. Like Christ before Pilate, Thomas More "gave no answer" (Jn 19, 9) when he prudently judged that his cause would only suffer more from "speaking out".

More refrained from public criticisms

In public, therefore, More took the position that he was "the King's true faithful subject", and, as he said, "I pray for his Highness and all the realm. I do nobody no harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live" (23). He also refused to criticize or condemn anyone for not standing fast in the faith as he did himself. "I meddle not with the conscience of them that think otherwise", he said. "I am no man's judge" (24).

I have found no record, for instance, that Thomas More ever publicly criticized or reproved the Catholic bishops of England for having been so easily cowed and intimidated by the King. In a private letter from the Tower intended only for his daughter's eyes, he did refer—most charitably, we have to judge in retrospect—to "a weak clergy lacking grace" (25). Another time he remarked, again privately, that the bishops had shown themselves to be "ignorant of the doctrines pertaining to their holy religion" (26). Considering that the hierarchy and clergy of England, had, well, simply abandoned the faith, these judgments of More's were charitable indeed!

In fact, it probably never ever occurred to St. Thomas More that pointing out the errors and failures of others who are supposed to be serving the Church, be they bishops, or even the Pope, was an activity which a Christian should profitably be engaged in, or a permissible form of "Catholic action". Even if this idea had occurred to him, no doubt he would constantly have remembered instead the beam in his own eye; for such was, typically, his practice. For pointing out the errors and failures of others in the Church, or their shortcomings in doing their duties, is not,after all, really a form of Christian witness. Christian witness involves proclaiming the truths of the faith—and embodying them in our lives. Thomas More, "walking by faith and not by sight", maintained his cheerfulness, and, more importantly, his charity, even though the Church was, objectively, being pulled down in ruins in front of his eyes. That is the example he provided and that is the example we ought to be providing today.

More's trial the time to speak out

Only after he had been already convicted by perjured testimony did More break his silence and deliver before his accusers and judges that stirring defense of the faith and of the papacy for which we Catholics still honor him today. As an accomplished lawyer he first did everything he could to avoid conviction at his trial, but, once, convicted, he judged that his witness would glorify God and confound his persecutors and judges. So he finally did speak out.

"Seeing that I see ye are determined to condemn me (God knoweth how) I will now in discharge of my conscience speak my mind plainly and freely touching my indictment and your statute withal.

"And forasmuch as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part whereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual pre-eminence by the mouth of our Saviour Himself, personally present upon earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law, amongst Christian men insufficient to charge any Christian man" (27).

In other words, the law of civil supremacy over the Church was no law; but Thomas More nevertheless had to suffer because the King in fact had the power to lord it over the Church. The Pope's power is a spiritual power; if men choose to disobey, they will very probably get away with it in this world. In such circumstances, the Christian, like his Divine Master, often, can only suffer. More was ready.

In the spirit of that same Master—who had said to His disciples, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Mt 5, 44-45) and who prayed from the height of the Cross itself, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23, 34)—in the spirit of that same Master, St. Thomas More ascended the heights of sanctity himself as he moved towards his own final suffering and death. He actually said to those assembled at his trial, who had all caved in to the imperious demands of Henry VIII themselves and were now condemning More to death for refusing to cave in: "More have I not to say, my Lords, but that like as the blessed apostle St Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present, and consented to the death of St Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in Heaven, and shall continue there friends for ever, so I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in Heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation" (28).

If the Church he served and died for waited 400 years to declare that he was in heaven, it must have been because his witness and example were going to be what we would need now, today: for the Church gives us the saints we need at the time we need them. Here was a layman who, in a time of unparalleled crisis, did serve the Church; in his life there are a whole multitude of lessons for us if only we will strive to learn them.

After the trial and conviction of St Thomas More nothing else remained on earth for the man who had loved life with such obvious gusto. On the eve of the Feast of St Thomas à Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had resisted the royal power, and the Octave of St Peter, for whose patrimony More was giving up his life, the saint wrote to his daughter Margaret from the Tower: "Tomorrow long I to go to God. It were a day meet and convenient for me... Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven" (29).

It was the last thing St. Thomas More ever wrote. In the closing words of one of the contemporary accounts of his trial and execution which circulated all over Europe, we read further that: "The following Wednesday he was decapitated in the great square in front of the Tower. He spoke little before his execution. He only begged the bystanders to pray to God for him, promising that he, for his part, would pray for them. Afterward he exhorted them and earnestly begged them to pray to God for the king so that he might have good counsel, and finally he protested that he died the king's good servant but God's first" (30).


1) See Chambers,R.W. Thomas More,In the Bedford Historical Series: Jonathan Cape, London, 1938; Reprinted 1967. Page 49. Also, Reynolds, E.E. St. Thomas More. Doubleday Image Books, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 1958, Page, 7.

2) See Chambers, Note 1, above, Page 246.

3) Ibid., Page 349.

4) See Reynolds, Note 1 above, Page 308.

5) Macklem, Michael. God Have Mercy: The Life of John Fisher of Rochester. Oberon Press, Ottawa, 1968. Page 178.

6) Cited in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 277.

7) Epigraph quoted in the frontispiece of Bolt, Robert. AMan For All Seasons. A Play in Two Acts. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1962.

8) Cited by Newman, John Henry, Cardinal. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by A. Dwight Culler. Houghton, Mifflin Company, Boston, 1956. Page 228.

9) Both Kautsky's and Chesterton's opinions are quoted in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 373.

10) See note 7 above.

11) From "Letter of Erasmus to Ulrich von Hutten," Appendix II, Greene, James J. and Dolan, John P. The Essential Thomas More,a Mentor-Omega Book, New American Library, New York and Toronto, 1967. Pages 293, 86.

12) See Chambers, Note 1 above, Pages 29 and 77.

13) Ibid.,Page 312.

14) Quoted Ibid., Page 195.

15) Quoted Ibid.,Page 196.

16) Quoted in Sargent, Daniel. ThomasMore.Sheed and Ward, New York, 1933. Page 135.

17) Quoted in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 361.

18) Pollard, A.F. Henry VIII. Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row.

19) Quoted in Macklem, Note 5 above, Page 117.

20) Quoted in Reynolds, Note 1 above, Page 164.

21) Quoted in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 213,

22) See Reynolds, Note 1 above, Pages 160-161.

23) Quoted in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 324.

24) Letter to his daughter Margaret in Greene and Dolan, Note 11 above, Page 279.

25) Quoted in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 307.

26) Quoted in Sargent, Note 16 above, Page 265.

27) Quoted in Chambers, Note 1 above, Page 340.

28) Quoted in Sargent, Note 16 above, Page 290.

29) Quoted in Greene and Dolan, Note 11 above, Page 280.

30) Ibid.,Page 298.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 February 1978, page 6
9 February 1978, page 9

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