This month, I’m going to do something a little different and discuss the life of one of the great saints of the Church. The saint who will serve as the topic of this month’s discussion is Saint Thomas More of England. Thomas More is one of my favorite saints and is the name sake of my youngest child. As we will see, More exhibited heroic virtue and ultimately died a martyr for his faith.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
A Man For All Seasons
An FGO from Bro. Jason Rhoad's personal archive:
Thomas More is perhaps the most well-known of the English martyrs (of which there were quite a few). First, let’s get a little background on the English Reformation. The English Reformation was altogether different than what was going on around the same time on continental Europe, what we commonly refer to as the Protestant Reformation. On the continent, men like Marin Luther were launching a protest against the Church based on perceived abuses and corruption within the Church, as well as doctrinal differences they had with various teachings of the Church. When the King of England first got word of this, he was furious. Henry VIII was a proud Catholic and was greatly dismayed at the thought of heretics dividing the Church. In fact, he was so disturbed, he wrote an apologetic titled “In Defense of the Seven Sacraments” in direct opposition to what the Reformers were doing. It was so well done (Thomas More himself had much influence on this work), that the Pope at the time gave Henry the title “Defender of the Faith”.
So how then, did the English Reformation come about? Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon. She was Henry’s older brother’s widow. They were married for several years, but were never able to produce a male heir. This was near and dear to Henry, who desperately wanted a son to succeed him. Eventually Henry grew impatient and began to believe that God was punishing him for having taken his brother’s wife. In his mind, he rationalized that this was grounds for an annulment. This desire for an annulment was fueled by his taking to a lady in waiting, Ann Boleyn. As Henry grew more and more infatuated with Ann Boleyn, his desire to have his marriage annulled so that he could marry Ann became stronger and stronger. He petitioned Rome to have his marriage annulled. But Clement VII ruled that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was indeed valid and could not therefore grant a decree of nullity. This enraged Henry and he eventually declared that the Pope had no authority in the matter. He declared that he was the head of the Church in England, something that was his divine right as King, and that the Pope had no jurisdiction. In order to solidify his claim as head of the Church in England, he had Parliament pass a law that everyone in the Kingdom must take an oath that they acknowledged Henry the VIII as the supreme head of the Church in England. Here is where our hero comes in.
Thomas More was a great friend of the King. He served at court as the Lord Chancellor from 1529-1532. But as the King went down this road of rejecting papal authority, it was a place that More just couldn’t go. Initially More tried to quietly remove himself from the situation. He never publicly spoke against the King or his situation and wished to quietly disappear. He eventually was allowed to resign as Lord Chancellor, but Henry would not be satisfied until More took the oath. He believed that if others saw More, who was as important a figure in England as anyone, refuse to take the oath, that others may be emboldened to refuse also. More was eventually arrested for his lack of cooperation and placed in the famed tower of London to await trail. While in the tower, one of the King’s chief ministers, Thomas Cromwell, visited More many times, trying to convince him to take the oath. A scene from the Showtime series “The Tudors” depicted one of these visits. Seeing clearly that Cromwell was only serving his own interests, More reportedly told him, “The only difference between you and I is that I’ll die today, and you tomorrow.” While that may well be dramatic license on the part of the creators of the series, it speaks to what Thomas was about. He recognized that we would all meet our maker one day. Cromwell may indeed enjoy a few more years of worldly pleasure by being a scoundrel, but he too would ultimately have to answer to God. Thomas was reminding him that he would do so with a clear conscience.
More was eventually brought to trial. He valiantly defended himself, but as were many trials of the sort, the outcome was pre-determined. More was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Because of More’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge anyone other than the Pope as the supreme head of the Church, he wound up paying the ultimate price. The King ended up commuting More’s sentence to beheading. On the morning of his execution, it was reported that as he ascended the scaffold, the executioner was visibly upset. More was said to have comforted him and assured him of his and of God’s forgiveness. As was custom, the condemned was given the opportunity to offer a few last words. Thomas More spoke to the crowd saying, “Tell the King I died his good servant, but God’s first”.
The Church teaches, as did Jesus, that we are to be subject to lawful authority. We are to obey the laws by which we are governed. Thomas More reminds us though, that this principle does have limits. Whenever we are asked by our government to violate our conscience, we cannot comply. To do so would be a violation of God’s law, which always reigns supreme over man’s law. Whenever the two conflict, we must obey God, not man. This lesson that Thomas More teaches from 500 years ago proves to be timeless as it is applicable even in our own time with the recent attacks on religious liberty. “I died the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” May we all be able to say the same. St. Thomas More, martyr and patron of lawyers, civil servants, politicians, statesmen, and difficult marriages, pray for us.
To learn more, read Supremacy and Survival, How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, by Stephanie Mann.