Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. It is also the start of the Fortnight for Freedom.
A MODEL FOR OUR SEASON
St. Thomas More, God’s Servant First
by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
St. Thomas More, patron of statesmen and politicians, serves as a model of charity, courage, and fidelity for all seasons. Like Americans today, he was challenged in 16th century England to rise to the defense of his faith and the liberty of the Church. We celebrate his feast on June 22.
In the superb play and film, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, Thomas More is deftly portrayed as a martyr of conscience. He is unyielding in his stance against King Henry VIII’s move to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Ours is a season in which Christians face the challenge of remaining true to the faith despite political pressure, the threat of sanctions, and the stigma of social ostracism. The HHS mandate is but one example. Secularism is rampant.
Henry VIII weakens
The reign of King Henry VIII began with much hope for England. In fact More had called Henry “the everlasting glory of our time.” But gradually the situation deteriorated, and after 17 years on the throne and 17 years of marriage to Catherine, Henry began an affair with Anne. Nor was it his first affair. Determined to put Catherine aside and marry Anne, he asked the pope to declare his marriage invalid.
The 16th century was a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church in Europe. England had experienced occasional conflicts between the Church and the crown, but now the Reformation was in full swing. Martin Luther had already separated much of Germany from Rome. A faction in England with a political and religious agenda saw an opportunity to sabotage the Church’s authority and encouraged Henry in that direction. But Henry needed little encouragement and was already moving to assert royal control over the Church and bypass Rome in his plan to marry Anne. Gradually a strategy unfolded to undermine the authority of the hierarchy by advocating parliamentary “reform” of clerical “abuses.”
The king tried to enlist the keen legal mind and impeccable reputation of Thomas More to support his divorce effort. But More declined and carefully presented his reasons. The unsatisfied Henry ordered More to re-examine the king’s position with advisors who sided with the king. More did so, and pointed out that the key question was not in the details of the marriage law, but in the king’s desire to dictate Church teaching and discipline, to define what it meant to be Catholic in England. That authority belonged to the bishops in union with the pope.
The disappointed Henry still believed he could sway More to his side by appointing him lord chancellor. More did not want the position, but saw it as an opportunity to defend the Church’s liberty and possibly steer Henry away from a break with Rome. Besides, refusal was hardly an option.
Without ever speaking ill of Henry, More worked diligently to defend the Church’s liberty, and lobbied members of Parliament to reject unjust bills. He was loyal to the monarch, but God’s servant first.
As the situation deteriorated Henry pressured the English bishops and levied enormous fines on them. In the name of correcting clerical “abuses” he asked the bishops to grant him authority to make rules concerning the Church. The bishops refused and issued a stern statement of refusal. Henry responded with open threats of imprisonment and veiled threats of death unless he be given full power of Church governance. When the bishops met again to formulate their reply, he gave them an ultimatum to capitulate to him that very day or suffer the consequence. In a close vote, the bishops succumbed.
Thomas More resigned the next day. Though he never criticized the king, all of England and other countries understood why he removed himself as chancellor. And the king’s ire was obvious.
Thomas More insisted that the spiritual authority and rightful liberty of the Church were given by God to be exercised by the bishops in union with the pope. No secular power, no king, no parliament, nor any civil law has jurisdiction over one’s soul or the Church’s beliefs. No ruler has the right to determine Church teaching or to direct the bishops in governing Church life.
More’s resignation stung. It would have been easier for him to give in to the king, as many did, even priests and bishops. But his well formed conscience dictated otherwise. He obeyed every lawful directive of the king, but he was God’s servant first. He knew only too well that no human law contrary to God’s law was binding.
Parliament passed that Act of Supremacy, which declared Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church in England. To deny that title became a capital crime. Each subject was required to swear an oath affirming it, or face imprisonment.
Silence speaks louder
Henry very much wanted the agreement and support of Thomas More, so stellar was his reputation as a statesman. But More, an astute lawyer, knew he could not be executed for a simple refusal to swear an oath. He sought strength in silence and in prayer.
Soon Sir Thomas More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His property was confiscated, and that impoverished his family. Repeatedly he was asked if he denied the King Henry VIII’s new title. To reply honestly meant death, so More remained silent. After a year of imprisonment the crown charged him with treason for allegedly denying the king’s new title in a conversation with one of the king’s agents. More unequivocally denied the charge.
The trial of Thomas More is one of the most celebrated in English history. His masterful defense practically upset the carefully laid plot to condemn him. One account reports More arguing that just as the city of London lacked authority to annul an act of Parliament for the whole of England, so Parliament lacked authority to transfer governance of the Church to the monarch because the Church was entrusted by God to the bishops and the pope. He explained that this was embodied in the Magna Carta two centuries earlier and was recognized by all Christendom. The chief judge was stymied and hesitated, “loath to have the burden of that judgment wholly to depend on him.” After consulting with his colleagues he finally condemned More without ruling on his objection.
Hero, model, martyr
St. Thomas More’s defense of the faith and his exceptional fidelity and courage were not the only lessons he leaves us. During his last days he radiated the transforming power of God’s grace, the divine gifts of faith and charity. He was never bitter. Daily he prayed for Henry and gave thanks for the spiritual gain he obtained from his imprisonment – “the very greatest” of “all the great benefits” the king “has heaped so thickly upon me.”
He wrote to his daughter that God would bring good from his death: “no matter how bad it seems, it will be the best.”
The king’s messenger wept when he brought the news to More that he would die that day, but the martyr-to-be encouraged him with these words: “Be not discomforted, for I trust that we shall, once in heaven, see each other full merrily, where we shall be sure to live and love together in joyful bliss eternally.”
His final words
When Thomas More mounted a scaffold on Tower Hill and his masked executioner stood at the ready with axe in hand, a crowd waited to hear his final statement. Contrary to custom, Henry ordered that he “not use many words,” because More was a formidable advocate, and Henry’s assumption of supremacy over the Church was politically unpopular. The king had strongly pressured Parliament with unprecedented bribes and threats. He would take no chances now.
More’s case was already widely known. Only three years earlier Sir Thomas was lord chancellor, second only to the king himself in the entire realm. His integrity was impeccable. He had an international reputation as a humanist, scholar, writer, and jurist. He had been among Henry’s most loyal advisors. Now he stood alone at the executioner’s block.
Actually the king had nothing to fear from More’s last words from the scaffold, for an eyewitness account records that, “He spoke little before his execution. He asked only that those looking on would pray to God for him on this side, and he would pray for them on the other side. Then he begged them earnestly to pray to God for the king, that God would give him good counsel, protesting that he died the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
For all seasons and for all peoples St. Thomas More is a model of patriotism, citizenship, and faith in action. God’s servant first.