St Thomas More: A Man for This Season
Deacon Keith Fournier
On Oct 31, 2000, Saint John Paul II, responded to petitions from the faithful across the world and issued an apostolic letter, on his own authority. In it he proclaimed Thomas More the Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.
The letter was addressed to "the Bishops of the Catholic Church and, in a particular way, to Catholic politicians and all lay members of the faithful called to participate in the political life of democratic societies."
On the Feast of Christ, the King in 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church issued an instruction entitled a "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life".
Sadly, I doubt many Catholics in political life or public service have ever read this tremendous teaching document. Even more regrettably, it is rarely if ever used by Bishops, priests or deacons in their teaching and preaching, to confront the utter lack of moral coherence demonstrated by too many Catholics in public service and help to catechize them.
The instruction in the Doctrinal Note is reflected in the teaching of the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" sections pertaining to the political participation of Catholics. (See, e.g. #565-574) Here is an excerpt:
"The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic's duty to be morally coherent, found within one's conscience, which is one and indivisible.
'There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called 'spiritual life', with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called 'secular' life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity."
Saint John Paul II held Thomas More up as a model, "Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity. And even outside the Church, particularly among those with responsibility for the destinies of peoples, he is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal the service of the human person.
"Whenever men or women heed the call of truth, their conscience then guides their actions reliably towards good. Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity. And even outside the Church, particularly among those with responsibility for the destinies of peoples, he is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal, the service of the human person."
The England of the sixteenth century was in a serious crisis of politics, culture and faith, much like the times in which we now live in the United States of America. In 1534, all citizens who were of age were required to take an oath called "The Act of Succession".
It acknowledged that King Henry VIII was married to Anne Boleyn, even though he was not married to Anne Boleyn. His desire to divorce Catherine was not sufficient to make that marriage null and his attempt to use his political power to change the objective truth of that fact proved unsuccessful.
So, the King used the power of his office to promulgate an unjust civil Law by which he simply proclaimed, in a sense by his version of our modern "executive order" that he and Anne were lawfully married. He also declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus abrogating to himself the authority to determine that his lawful marital bond was dissolved. In doing so he denied the authority of the Bible, the Christian Tradition, the Natural Law, and the correct position taken by the successor of the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
The Pope refused to succumb to Henry's demand to grant him an annulment from his lawful marriage so that he could pursue a different woman as his wife. He would not affirm Henry's decision to place his disordered sexual desires for a woman who was not his wife, over the objective truth of the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
Thomas More knew the order of truth. He applied a hierarchy of values in both his personal life and his public life. He lived as a faithful Catholic Christian, demonstrating a unity of life by his moral coherence. He stayed faithful to the Truth and did not separate out his call to live as a Christian from any sphere of his daily life.
In 1532, knowing that he could not enforce the declaration of his temporal King to usurp the authority of the Church which had been granted to it by the King of Kings, he resigned his political position. He tried to do so with the kind of integrity that had characterized his entire life. He withdrew from public life and bore the ridicule and taunts of those who once praised him.
He offered the suffering to the Lord by joining it to the Cross of the Savior. He then tried to continue to care for his beloved family, the domestic church of the home, by teaching them how to live lives of virtue and simplicity. He had lost his prestige and his considerable financial resources, but he gained the peace which always comes through fidelity to the Lord.
His hopes for a life with his family, lived in simplicity and fidelity to the Church, were short lived. The King, by now drunk on his own power, insisted that Thomas take the oath under the Act of Succession, thereby acknowledging the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne and his authority over the Church.
Thomas would not do so because he refused to violate his truly informed conscience. So, the King had his former counselor imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he underwent intense tortures of both body and soul. These came not only from the henchmen of the State but even from some within his own family and circle of friends who failed to understand his actions because their minds had been dulled by compromise.
At the time, few would have even noticed if Thomas had succumbed to the Royal request. He could have even tried to justify the action through using his well-honed rhetorical and logical skills and calling it a merely perfunctory action, deluding many.
He could have thereby restored his political position, some would have argued, in order to try to influence the King for the good over the long haul. He could have had his substantial properties restored if he had just sworn that oath, others would say, in order to provide material safety for his beloved family.
Instead, this man who loved life, loved his family, loved his career, and properly loved the created world and all of its true goods, loved the Lord first and would not compromise the Truth. It is that courage which cries out to us from his grave.
He was an ordinary Christian who shows the rest of us ordinary Christians the way to living a unity of life in the midst of the creeping darkness and distractions of our own age. He held in harmony his vocation as the father of a family with his profession as a lawyer and his service in the highest of Political offices.
He knew that there is a hierarchy of values which bring with them a hierarchy of duties and loyalties. His witness in life and in death challenges us to examine whether we do. How did he do it? Quite simply, he prayed. He lived in a communion with the Risen Lord as a faithful son of the Church which is His Body.
He was truly in love with the Lord and chose to live in the Heart of the Church - for the sake of the world. He teaches us, that the Christian vocation requires our constant response to the Lord's invitation to follow him and that we cannot get by on yesterdays' decisions.
During that brief time which he had with his family, after attempting to quietly resign rather than violate his formed conscience and before he was imprisoned, when his wife or children complained about their lack he would tell them that they could not expect to "go to heaven in featherbeds".
He taught them regularly to reflect upon the privation and sufferings of Jesus on our behalf and he prayed with them for the grace to join their own to Him on the Cross. He would not compromise the truth.
Thomas More was a morally coherent Christian. That is the lesson of his life - and of his Martyrs death. He beckons millions, across the expanse of time unto today, to follow his example as he followed the example of the Lord.
This champion of heroic courage, living in the midst of a State which had lost its soul, never wavered in his fidelity to the Truth. He would not betray the truth. He would not compromise it on the altar of public opinion or for political opportunism. He knew that to do so would not only have dishonored God and led his family and so many others astray, but that it would have given tacit assent to the emerging despotism of his age.
He was brought to trial for his fidelity to the Truth. As is always the case with persecution against Christians, it was framed as a charge against the positive or civil law. Even though that law was unjust and contradicted the Natural Moral Law. There, this outstanding lawyer defended the Truth for which he would later give his life.
Thomas used the occasion of the Courtroom, where he had practiced his trade, to defend the Truth and its obligations in the temporal order. In the eloquent words of Saint John Paul II, who proclaimed him not only the Patron of all lawyers but the Patron of all politicians, "he made an impassioned defense of his own convictions on the indissolubility of marriage, the respect due to the juridical patrimony of Christian civilization, and the freedom of the Church in her relations with the State."
He was found guilty, even though he was a guardian of true innocence. That unjust verdict brings shame upon every unjust tribunal and misuse of governmental power. Thomas More was martyred for his moral coherence, his fidelity to the Christian faith.
He was beheaded by the minions of a temporal leader who had abused his office and wielded the awful sword, the power of the State (which has as its very source God Himself) to inflict evil against those who refused to bow down in idolatrous worship of the State
Thomas faced his executioners with the very same dignity he had shown in life, speaking with humor and affection to them even before they beheaded him. After his death it was found that he had left these words in the margin of his Book of the Liturgy of Hours which he prayed every day:
"Give me your grace, good Lord, to set the world at naught...to have my mind well united to you; to not depend on the changing opinions of others...so that I may think joyfully of the things of God and tenderly implore his help. So that I may lean on God's strength and make an effort to love him... So as to thank Him ceaselessly for his benefits; so as to redeem the time I have wasted..."
We need to reflect on how we are living our own Christian faith in the midst of an increasingly hostile age.
We face a similar challenge to that which faced St. Thomas More. In our day. The attacks on true marriage are increasing in their severity. We are being compelled by the police power of the State to compromise for our own convenience and tempted to accept the rulings of Judicial Oligarchs and Alchemists who think that they can change the nature of this institution by the stroke of a pen. Their collaborators in political office, some of whom are apostate Christians, are now beginning to wield the figurative sword of temporal power against us.
The truths taught by the Church, based in the Bible, confirmed in the sacred tradition, and revealed within the common patrimony of the Natural Moral Law, are being rejected in an age struggling under what was called by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI a "Dictatorship of Relativism."
The most egregious example is the rejection of the truth concerning the dignity and inviolability of ever human life, from conception to natural death. This fundamental Right to Life is taught by the Natural Law and confirmed by medical science. Yet it is denied by those in control of the power of the State, and the blood of the innocent flows.
Thomas More is called a Man for all Seasons. He is certainly a man for this season.
He calls us to a unity of life, to moral coherence and integrity in our exercise of our civic duty. The Life, death, and eternal witness of St. Thomas More is a model for us. Let us reflect on this patron assigned to a special role in political affairs and ask for his intercession.
Let us light the light and dispel the darkness. Let us hold high the hope which this current age so desperately needs. Let us hold back the collapse, defend religious freedom, restore to the civil law the Natural Law recognition of the Right to Life, and allow the Christian community, in all of its confessional diversity, truly free - to do what she alone can do, bring authentic conversion to the Nation.
Let us turn to the Lord whom Thomas More followed with heroic virtue and choose, with the help of God’s grace, to become the men and women the Lord can use in this hour. These may be difficult times, but they are our times. We were born, and born again, for these times.
Let us fall to our knees in prayer and adoration and then rise and get to work!