Saint Thomas More
Imagine facing death and being able to escape it by signing your name to a bit of parchment. By your signature you would also be released from jail, the fortune of your family restored and you restored to your family. Now imagine that all your friends and family are begging your to sign your name. Such was the dilemma confronting Saint Thomas More. It took clearly superhuman courage for him to go to his death in spite of all of this, and in spite of all evidence that his act was simply an act of futility that would not stop Henry from building his new church.
I have always thought that martyrdom, never easy, is simpler when it comes suddenly and one’s blood is hot with adrenaline pounding through your veins. Then heroism can stand out as the sudden culmination of one’s life, with one passing swiftly to eternal reward. How much harder is the type of cold martyrdom suffered by Saint Thomas More, a gradual thing spanning over a year, with every second Saint Thomas More having to fight off the temptation to simply sign his name and save his life.
In his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, written while in the Tower, Saint Thomas explains the source from which he drew his strength:
When we feel us too bold, remember our own feebleness. When we feel us too faint, remember Christ’s strength. In our fear, let us remember Christ’s painful agony that himself would for our comfort suffer before his passion to the intent that no fear should make us despair. And ever call for his help such as himself wills to send us. And then need we never to doubt but that either he shall keep us from the painful death, or shall not fail so to strengthen us in it that he shall joyously bring us to heaven by it. And then doeth he much more for us than if he kept us from it. For as God did more for poor Lazarus in helping him patiently to die of hunger at the rich man’s door than if he had brought to him at the door all the rich glutton’s dinner, so, though he be gracious to a man whom he delivereth out of painful trouble, yet doeth he much more for a man if through right painful death he deliver him from this wretched world into eternal bliss.
Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint 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….
Saint Thomas More, 1535
It is glorious that two men who were friends in life, who died within weeks of each other, executed by the State for upholding the freedom of the Catholic Church, share the feast day of June 22. More and Fisher were martyrs for the freedom of the Catholic Church and also for the great truth that there are aspects of our lives that Caesar must no be allowed to control.
John Cardinal Fisher was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III in May of 1535, King Henry stopped the cardinal’s hat from being brought into England, bellowing that he would send Fisher’s head to the Pope. Tried by a kangaroo court and convicted, the only testimony brought against him was by Richard Rich, a specialist in lying men to the headman’s block. Fisher was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Continue reading
Hattip to Matt Archbold at Creative Minority Report. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
Sir Thomas More: You threaten like a dockside bully.
Cromwell: How should I threaten?
Sir Thomas More: Like a minister of state. With justice.
Cromwell: Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.
Sir Thomas More: Then I am not threatened.
Robert Bolt, A Man for all Seasons
Roger Kimball has a good piece of commentary at Pajamas Media citing Saint Thomas More in reference to the Zimmerman case:
That’s not stopping the race mongers, of course. For them, the death of Trayvon Martin is an allegory of how America is a racist society. If only they could take a break from their race baiting histrionics to watch an improving film, The Man for All Seasons (1966), for example. A friend, pondering the spectacle of race hatred on view in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, sent me these exchanges from the movie:
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have proclaimed a second Fortnight for Freedom from June 21-July 4th, and, as last year, The American Catholic will participate with special blog posts each day.
It almost seems trite to cite Saint Thomas More as standing for the liberty of the Catholic Church. The tale of his brave stand against Henry VIII is so familiar that we forget how remarkable it was. 57 years old at the time of his death, an old man by the standards of his time, Saint Thomas More was not a cleric or a soldier. He had no special reserves of training to call him to steel him to the sacrifice of his life over a matter of principle. He was a lawyer, a scholar and a writer. A former judge and government official he never sought such positions, preferring a quiet life. He was a man of the study rather than someone who was called upon by his profession to risk his life for what he believed in. He loved life and the family that was so dear to him.
He lived in a time of cowardice and betrayal when almost all his contemporaries in England bowed to Henry and acclaimed him Supreme Head of the Church in England. Fear was the main motive, followed by ambition, and indifference or hatred of Catholicism. Almost everyone was submitting except a few hardy souls like Bishop Fisher. More did not want to die and he was quite willing to be quiet, but he would not swear allegiance to what he knew to be false, and for this stance he died, and his beloved family reduced to poverty. One of the most important attributes of freedom is that it allows us to be true to our consciences, and not to be forced by violence to say what we know to be lies. Saint Thomas More was unwilling to surrender his freedom to follow the dictates of his conscience, even at the cost of his life. Continue reading
I Die the King’s Good Servant, but God’s First.
Saint Thomas More
Perhaps the finest lawyer, certainly the holiest, that England ever produced. After his trial, knowing he was a dead man, Saint Thomas More made an eloquent speech and uttered words that have a renewed meaning for us today in a time and place that is becoming ever more hostile to the Truth of Christ:
Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint 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.
Evil frequently gains power in this Fallen World, but it never becomes right no matter how much power it gains. Continue reading
The sixteenth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here and here.
One of the great passions in the life of Kipling was English history. Runnymede was one of several poems on English history he wrote for A School History of England (1911). Another great passion of his was liberty, and in the poem Runnymede, Kipling combined both of these passions. Whenever in English history some great struggle has arisen since 1215 the cry of Magna Carta has usually been raised. The basis of English liberty, the Great Charter has an honored place both in English and American history. To look at Magna Carta with a modern eye is initially to be disappointed, since much of it deals with disputes between his barons and King John which, at first glance, lacks any contemporary relevance. However, the binding of the power of the government, and the restriction of the scope and power of the State, is of crucial importance today, as it is in all times and places. There are passages additionally that do have a contemporary resonance:
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
It is no accident that Saint Thomas More referred to the passage in Magna Carta that guarantees the liberty of the Church in his speech after his trial:
That Law was even contrary to the Laws and Statutes of the Kingdom yet unrepealed, as might evidently be seen by Magna Charta, wherein are these Words; Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit, & habet omnia jura integra, & libertates suas illcesas: And it is contrary also to that sacred Oath which the King’s Majesty himself, and every other Christian Prince, always take with great Solemnity, at their Coronations. Continue reading
The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter. More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”
Sir Winston Churchill
Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:
On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.
Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to defend our most cherished freedom.
The fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.
We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day. This is the second of these blog posts.
June 22, is the feast day of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, the two great martyrs of the Church who died for the liberty of the Church when King Henry VIII, in order to secure a divorce, sundered the Catholic Church in England from the Catholic Church and placed this new Anglican Church under his control. Throughout her history the Church has stood foursquare against the attempts by governments to exercised domination over her, and More and Fisher were two in a very long line of martyrs who have died fighting against such attempts.
The figure of Saint Thomas More intrigues Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and has ever since his death. Why is that?
1. A Man for All Seasons-Saint Thomas More was all of these things: a saint, a politician, historian, a lawyer, a judge, one of the leading intellectuals of his day, a witty jokester, a good family man, Chancellor of England, one of the most gifted writers of Latin or English, political theorist, inventor of a literary genre (utopias), dissident, martyr. He crammed many lives into one life, and we continue to marvel at this.
2. Nice guy-So many great figures in history are completely unapproachable, evil or downright weird. More on the other hand is the type of boon companion we would wish for, and a dinner guest to be dreamed of.
3. Drama-More’s life, and his death, are full of endless drama, and would have made a great Shakespeare play. Shakespeare may actually have had a hand in the play Thomas More, which, mirabile dictu considering it was written under Bad Queen Bess, treats Saint Thomas More with great respect.
4. Contrast-King Henry VIII has come down in English history as a crowned monster, which is unusual since he initiated the Reformation in England which ultimately triumphed. As a result of the negative attitude towards Henry, his victims have been generally treated generously by English historians and chief among these is Saint Thomas More. Here are the words of Sir Winston Churchill on More:
“The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter. More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.” Continue reading
In good faith, Mr. Rich, I am more sorry for your perjury than mine own peril; and know you that neither I nor any one else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such credit as either I or any other could vouchsafe to communicate with you in any matter of importance.
Saint Thomas More
Two arresting scenes from A Man For All Seasons, (1966). Usually the second scene in the video clip is remembered for the statement by Sir Thomas More that he would give even the devil benefit of the law. I have written about that statement here. However there is another interesting facet to the pairing of these two scenes: a comparison of William Roper and Richard Rich.
Sir Thomas is fond of Roper the suitor of his daughter, and the fondness is obvious in the scene. However, he will not allow him to marry his daughter because he is a heretic. More notes that at one time Roper was a passionate churchman and now he is a passionate Lutheran and hopes that when his head stops spinning it will be to the front again. (Roper did become an orthodox Catholic again and remained one till his death, even under the reign of Bad Queen Bess.) In spite of Roper being something that Sir Thomas detests, that does not alter either his liking or his high regard for the young man. Why is this? Because Roper is obviously seeking after the truth and attempting to do what he thinks is right. Such good motivation is to be respected even when it reaches erroneous conclusions.
Richard Rich on the other hand lacks such motivation. More likes him also, but recognizes that he has no character. Rich will do whatever it takes for him to rise in the world, and if that involves immoral actions, so be it. Unlike Roper he lacks any good motivation or honest intent. (The historical Rich was a complete scoundrel and recognized as such at the time. He specialized in betrayals and making himself useful to whoever was in power at the time. Under Henry and Edward he persecuted Catholics, under Mary he persecuted Protestants, and under Elizabeth he was whatever she was. It is a sad commentary on the human condition that such an open, time-serving villain prospered and died in his bed, the founder of an aristocratic dynasty.) Continue reading
A spot of blood and grease on the pages of English history.
Something for the Weekend. The song Henry VIII by the endlessly talented folks at history for music lovers to the tune of the song Money by Abba.
When he ascended to the throne of England Henry VIII was popularly known as the Golden Hope of England. His father Henry VII had never been loved by the people of England: a miser and a distinctly unheroic figure no matter what Shakespeare would write in Richard III. He had brought the end of the War of the Roses and peace to England, but that was about as much credit as his subjects would give the grasping, unlovable Henry Tudor. His son by contrast looked like an Adonis when young, strong and athletic. He had a sharp mind and had been well-educated, intended, ironically, for a career in the Church before the death of his elder brother Arthur. He was reputed, correctly, to be pious. He had considerable charism in his youth and knew how to make himself loved with a well timed laugh or smile, and loved he was, by the nobles, commons, his wife Katherine, and the Church. Few reigns started more auspiciously than that of Henry, eighth of that name.
By the end of his reign he was widely despised by most his subjects. Called a crowned monster behind his back, his reign had brought religious turmoil to England and domestic strife. The best known symbols of his reign were the headman’s axe, the stake and the boiling pot in which he had some of the luckless individuals who roused his fury boiled to death.
It of course is small wonder for a Catholic to have little love for Henry VIII and his reign, but the distaste for Henry extends well beyond members of the Church. Winston Churchill, the great English statesman and historian, in his magisterial History of the English Speaking Peoples has this to say about the executions of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher: Continue reading
She was very beautiful and enchanting and her role as Margaret More captured the essences of an integrated Catholic life that is an excellent example for laypeople everywhere today.
The following clip is that of the King paying his Lord Chancellor, Saint Thomas More, a visit on his estate. The King encounters More’s family and is introduced to More’s daughter, Margaret, at the :45 mark of the clip. They engage in conversation at the 1:32 mark of the clip. The entire 10 minutes should be viewed to really enjoy her performance and appreciate the film itself:
Here is the trailer to that magnificent Catholic film, A Man For All Seasons:
Post script: I was unable to find out if Susannah York was a Catholic or not, but her portrayal of Margaret More is a fine example of living a Catholic life.
Cross-posted at Gulf Coast Catholic.
In this political season I was curious as to which saint was the patron saint of politicians. Much to my shock I learned that on October 26, 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Thomas More as patron saint of politicians and statesman. It was an inspired choice, but I think the average politician might find Saint Thomas More difficult to emulate.
1. As far as I can tell, Saint Thomas More always told the truth. Most politicians seem to regard lying as a job requirement or a job perk.
2. Saint Thomas More was noted by contemporaries for not taking bribes. Such honesty was just as rare among politicians then as it is now.
3. As Cardinal Wolsey, unforgettably portrayed by Orson Welles, in the video clip above noted, Saint Thomas always viewed issues of public policy with a “moral squint”. Most politicians would view this as a severe handicap.
4. Saint Thomas gave up the highest office in England over a matter of principle. I am afraid the average politician’s reaction to this would be, “You have got to be kidding”.
5. Most politicians when viewing the movie “A Man for All Seasons” would probably think that Richard Rich is the hero of the film. Continue reading
Obviously, you read or watch the speech in its entirety, but I will present a few highlights for readers:
And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.
Many in the mainstream media have failed to see the obvious concerning Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United Kingdom, the truth of the Catholic Church has won out. The Pope of Christian Unity (as he is often called by the blogging Father Z) is reaching out to serious minded Christians. The Holy Father is asking them to unite as they once were under the leadership of the Successor of Saint Peter. Now I realize Pope John Paul II went to the UK, but the Anglican Church is in a far more dilapidated condition than it was then. In addition, I am aware that many in the United Kingdom, and Western Europe for that matter, have little to do with religious matters, but the same could be said in the early days of the Roman Empire. Against all odds, three centuries later Catholicism would be the dominant faith. It can happen again.
The Holy Father is about to beatify John Cardinal Henry Newman. He was a towering figure in the 19th century state run Anglican Church. He came to the Catholic Church and gave us this memorable quote; To go deep into history is to cease to be Protestant. I am not bringing this up in the spirit of triumphalism but in the spirit of truth. Christ promised us that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, and though it has been through many rough patches (we are currently in one) the truth is winning out. (Matthew 16:15-20.)