The US bishops present More as a martyr of conscience. But it was a Catholic conscience before all else
I’m proud to call St Thomas More my patron, my hero, and my friend. Every night I ask the same thing of him: that he help me become half the man he was.
There are few more extraordinary figures in history. More was the most learned man in Europe, the greatest wit of his age, and an exquisite prose stylist. He was England’s ablest lawyer and politician. He was a faithful husband and a devoted father. Above all, he was a true and pious Catholic.
“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning,” his contemporary Robert Whittington wrote. “I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.” So he was.
Now, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty has chosen St Thomas as one of the patrons for their Religious Freedom Week celebrations, which begin tomorrow. “The U.S. Catholic Church’s 2018 religious freedom observance begins June 22, the feast of two English martyrs who fought religious persecution – St John Fisher and St Thomas More,” Catholic News Service reports.
Let’s be clear: of the many exemplary qualities More possessed, “tolerance”, in its current sense, was not among them.
Every schoolboy knows why St Thomas was executed. Henry VIII divorced his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and sought to marry Anne Boleyn. When the Vatican refused to grant him an annulment, he declared himself Supreme Governor of the Church in England (later the Church of England). The bishops, with the exception of John Fisher, consented both to the schism and his remarriage, and so Henry had his way. Still, he wished to have More’s approval, since his Chancellor was regarded as one of the wisest men in all of Europe. More refused, and was beheaded for his insolence.
But why did St Thomas go so willingly to the scaffold? The American bishops seem to hold that More was a “martyr of conscience”. This motif was popularised shortly after More’s death by men who admired his character but followed Henry into schism. It found new currency after the film A Man for All Seasons was released in 1966. Both readings, however, were intended to sanitise More for non-Catholic audiences – one Protestant, the other secular. He was a good and wise man of unflagging principles; that those principles were Catholic is purely incidental.
Yet More vigorously defended the burning of heretics. He called it “lawful, necessary, and well done” – a “good and politic provision of the temporalty.” It’s commonly (though not reliably) claimed that he ordered burnings himself. Even if that’s true, of course, he was not nearly as prolific as the governments which followed his own. Over a thousand Catholics were killed by Henry VIII, including More; Elizabeth I’s record is slightly less impressive. Still, More certainly believed – as did all his contemporaries – that heretics posed a grave threat to the Realm and must, in some circumstances, be executed. As John Paul II noted, More’s attitudes “reflected the limits of the culture of his time”.
We may well recoil from the brutality of that era. But we can still admire More’s dedication to Catholic truth, and we can’t pretend he died for an abstract principle like “religious liberty”. He would have considered the very concept dangerous to the political and spiritual health of his country. In his own dealings with heretics, he made no allowances for the firmness of their convictions.
Aside from being historically specious, the “martyr of conscience” reading also cheapens his death. More knew that divorce is impossible and remarriage is a great sin. To tear the English Church from communion with Rome in order to procure that divorce and remarriage – why, that is one of the gravest sins imaginable. St Thomas refused to condone Henry’s trespasses, even if it cost him his life.
Remember his last words: “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” St Thomas was very clear about the cause for which he gave his life, and it wasn’t his own peace of mind. No: it was God. He died as a witness to the inviolability of the Sacraments and the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff.
Why would the American bishops, of all people, downplay his heroic service to the Faith? I worry this is part of a larger trend. In an age where Christians are persecuted around the world – by Islamists in the Middle East, Hindu nationalists in India, and radical secularists in the West, to give just three examples – we can become lost in libertarian rhetoric. We appear less threatening to the progressive establishment by embracing a kind of soft relativism.
St Peter warned against this exact scenario. “Live as free people,” he wrote to Christians facing persecution, “but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. Live as God’s slaves.” We fight for the freedom to obey Christ’s will, not our own. And we can’t serve Christ by casting truth and error, good and evil, as matters of private conscience.
The witness of martyrs like St Thomas is a greater testament to authentic freedom – the freedom of God’s faithful servants and willing slaves – than the First Amendment. The Church in America and around the world must have the courage to say so, not despite persecution, but because of it. Our surest weapons against persecution is truth and goodness, not relativism or “tolerance”.
St Thomas devoted his life to Christ, and his death belongs to Christ forever. The USCCB has no right to re-appropriate his cause – not even for the sake of good PR.