30 September 2021

St Thomas More: A Man For OUR Season

 We need more laymen like St Thomas More and more Prelates like St John Fisher to stand against the Cromwells and Cranmers of today.

From Catholic Stand

By Michael Sandifer

St. Thomas More is one of the most important figures of the tumultuous time of the Reformation in Europe.  There are few saints who could rival St. Thomas More in the sheer number of memorable quotes alone. Even so, this scholar, statesman, husband, and father is a model of virtue in his deeply faithful life as much as, if not more than, his letters.

St Thomas More Lived His Ideals

Born into an influential family, More’s own ability in his profession as a lawyer and strength of character elevated him above his peers to such a degree that he eventually rose to the position of High Chancellor of England.  Indefatigably Catholic in the face of an influential yet schismatic minority, More authored books, letters, and official tracts dealing in matters of both faith and state.  Famously, More is the author of Responsio ad Lutherum, the official reply of King Henry VIII to Martin Luther’s attack on the king in response to Henry’s earlier Defence of the Seven Sacraments.

In a tragic twist of fate, this close relationship with the crown would end in More’s martyrdom, but in those former days, More could see himself living out his ideals as a man of learning serving his Church and Nation in his work each day.  It’s so easy to forget in light of his later actions, but King Henry VIII was once celebrated as a popular, deeply religious monarch whose attachment to the Catholic Faith burned brightly in Defence, even earning from the Pope the title Defender of the Faith.

Henry VIII’s Schism

The sad tale, infamous even today, needs little introduction. Henry VIII wanted a divorce to guarantee that if he had a son from his current mistress, he would have a guaranteed heir.  Divorce, then just as now, was not permissible in light of the permanence of the Sacrament of Marriage

Ironically, Henry’s Defense devoted an entire chapter to the Sacramental quality of Marriage in light of Luther’s denial that it was a sacrament, so it came as no surprise to the monarch that his only recourse in such a grave matter would have been trusting the Pope’s wisdom in granting a dispensation of annulment for him.  The dispensation was denied, and the wheels of revolution in England were set in motion.

When it was clear that Henry VIII’s schism was to be absolute, More stepped down from his position as High Chancellor and hoped to quietly follow his conscience and, quite literally, keep his head.  It was not to be. Thomas More was at length arrested, placed on a rigged trial, and condemned to death for treason against his king and country.

Advice for Today: Do Not Compromise

Today, as we navigate an age of scandal, hypocrisy, and disappointment, I can think of few figures who better relate to our emotional and spiritual experience than Thomas More, memorialized with the popular title, “A Man for All Seasons.”  What would More do as a citizen in a nation so divided on issues of faith and conscience? What counsel would he give to us?

I think his example speaks for itself.  St Thomas More was convinced that a man must not, above all else, compromise on matters of conscience.  Certainly, he thought no one could do so without placing his soul in peril.  Today we are so accustomed to politicizing the most mundane of issues that we often fail to see the broader and more fundamental lapse in our societies’ trust in the timeless, common sense of the Cardinal Virtues. Despite this, we wonder at the dearth of any sign in our political landscape of the Theological Virtues.

Theological Virtues

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1803, neatly defines a virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the Good.”  The virtuous man, again according to the Catechism, is “one who freely practices the Good.”  The four Cardinal Virtues were known in antiquity, and are evidently good in the natural world. In other words, they are part of the natural order and do not require special grace to understand as a good in themselves, because God has created a world which, in reflection of himself, follows his true, good, and beautiful order.

Faith, hope, and charity are called Theological Virtues because they orient us toward God in deep and abiding cooperation with the Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  Today, few are prudent, little is known of true justice, the courage (fortitude) to stand in the face of real opposition is seen as backward, and we all see clearly the disdain our society holds for self-control.

It ought to come as no surprise that even in those who God has animated the Theological Virtues, a broken culture continues to decay.  The Theological Virtues work through and with the Cardinal. In our days of wanton indulgence and moral ennui, we crawl around like a society of spiritual infants.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul calls out his flock for demanding more robust spiritual goods when they were so apparently unprepared for the higher things – they were not ready for solid food, he says, but required, like the spiritual infants they were, only milk.

So it is in we adults who refuse to do the hard work of disposing ourselves, habitually, to grow in these tools which orient our lives to do the Good.  St. Thomas More understood this; he spent time with the Carthusians discerning a vocation which evidently shaped his robust spiritual life the remainder of his days. From works of mercy to small (and large!) acts of self-sacrifice, and even in the deep education he provided for his children, More illustrates a life welllived.

Yes to Truth

To understand the gravity of More’s ‘yes’ to truth, we need to step a bit deeper into his context.  Many if not most of More’s peers caved under the pressure of the state and compromised with varying degrees of reluctance on issues of theological weight. After all, they could reason, the king didn’t want (immediately) to change much in the way the Church lived its faith.  There was an issue of national security at stake. A stable monarchy and peaceful succession would mean stability and, Lord willing, consolidation and peace. With the uncertain divisions in Europe and the threat of the Ottomans, England needed to do something to secure her own sovereignty.

More was one of the most important people in his nation. His influential position meant he greeted foreign diplomats and helped shape the course of life and public policy in his country.  If he could but tacitly or even outwardly agree to the Oath of Supremacy which affirmed the king as “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” he could ensure at least one good and reasonable voice in a rapidly-growing, protestant government.

More saw, as we all should, that to compromise on his conviction that neither the government nor the king himself had the authority to place any man as the supreme or even titular head of a national Church, whatever theological precedent and background might be conjured up to justify it.  More was convinced that he could not in good conscience remain in his position of authority. He stepped down, recusing himself from a public stand of defiance as so many others would soon be forced to do as well.

His silence, and indeed the mere abstention of any recusant Catholic of England, would be taken as a provocation by the state.  As historian Eamon Duffy points out in his Stripping of the Altars, the reform required a fanatical implementation to enforce. Those who pulled the ecclesial strings in More’s day knew that if they were not effective in converting all of England to their cause, it would stand no chance of permanence.

I am certainly not suggesting that faithful Catholics should expect to give their lives in exchange for their clear and holy consciences, nor do I hope the days grow so wretchedly evil that such a stout heart is required of us. I wonder, though, if the mere willingness to die for the truth of our Faith sends waves of healing clarity in a time of deep confusion.

Revolutionary Disagreement

Our time, just as 16th century Europe, is rocked by revolutionary disagreements in the Church’s self-understanding.  We can seemingly go no more than a few hours without a new issue to disagree upon.  While I cannot say for certain, we might be even more internally divided as a Church than during the Reformation, because the lines drawn are more nebulous and yet fundamental to the nature of God, Man, and the Good Life.

And yet, we cling to the same divine truth that took More smiling and full of hope even to the headsman’s block.  Only a man with a serene conscience could walk lightly, joking as he ascended the scaffold, and still declare with a straight face that he died the King’s good servant, but God’s first.  May God Almighty grant that we, His pilgrim exiles, find the strength of heart, soul, and mind to be of the same heart in our day as St. Thomas More was in his.

May we also be united in Faith, Hope, and Charity, serenely placing all our days in the hands of a loving Father.  Above all, may we live with the single-minded, divine focus which transforms our families, homes, and Church for the Glory of God.  St. Thomas More, pray for us.

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