CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - “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.”
So wrote the late Servant of God John Paul II in a tribute, no much more, an apostolic letter issued “Motuu Propio” (on his own authority) concerning the man whose inspiring life, fidelity to his Catholic Christian faith, unjust persecution and Martyrs death we in the Western Catholic Church commemorate on this date.
The England of the sixteenth century was in the midst of a serious crisis of politics, culture and faith, not unlike the times in which we now live.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. His desire to divorce Catherine was not sufficient to make that marriage null and his attempt to use his political power to change the truth was objectively unsuccessful. So, the King went further, he used the power of his office to promulgate an unjust positive Law by which he proclaimed that he and Anne were lawfully married. It went further. 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 and denying the authority of the successor of the Apostle Peter.
The Holy Father had refused to collaborate with Henry’s demand that he 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 desires over the objective truth.The King knew Thomas More quite well. He admired his knowledge of the law, his studies and publications, and his demonstrated integrity which was so evident in his warm and faithful family life and accomplished career in public service. In addition to the Law which he had studied with excellence at New Inn, Thomas had studied literature, history, theology and philosophy at Oxford. He was elected to the Parliament of England in 1504 and held several other elective and appointed offices. They placed him in our equivalent of both legislative and judicial service.
In spite of Thomas having made known to the King that he could not agree with the dissolution of his lawful marriage to Catherine, the King appointed this man of law, learning and letters to be the Lord Chancellor of England in 1529. Thomas was the first layman to ever occupy such a high political position in the realm. His beloved England was in the midst of difficult economic problems and he had deep concerns for his countrymen, especially for the poor, the weak and vulnerable. He pursued justice through his political office and sought to serve the King while remaining faithful to the higher law. He knew the order of truth and he applied a hierarchy of values in both his personal life and his public life. In short, he lived as a faithful Catholic Christian, demonstrating a unity of life. He always stayed faithful to the Truth.
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 formed 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 probably could have even justified the action through the exercise of his well honed rhetorical and logical skills by calling it a merely perfunctory action. 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 world and all of its goods, loved the Lord first and would not compromise the Truth.
He was an ordinary Christian who shows 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 a man who loved the Lord in the Heart of the Catholic Church. His very real and sincerely lived piety has filled the books written about him and the writings he left for our own growth and edification. Perhaps a few of the many anecdotes can help to express the spirit of his true devotion. Thomas would meditate on the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ every Friday, the day on which Our Lord suffered and died. This was only a part of how he integrated the pattern of the Liturgical year of the Church and Catholic life and culture into his own lived faith. He also practiced regular ascetical disciplines which he always offered in love to the Lord. In fact, even while he suffered in that Tower, awaiting a Martyrs death, he continued the regimen.
He knew, and 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.
Thomas More was, in short, a Christian. That is the lesson of his life and of his Martyrs death. He became conformed to the Lord Jesus and, as a result, he still beckons millions, across the expanse of time unto today, to follow his example as he followed the example of the Lord. Our readings in the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, offer us a tender letter on his Feast, written by the Saint to his beloved daughter Margaret as he awaited his martyrdom. His only concern was for her to grow in her relationship with the Lord. He had loved her so in life that he wanted that love to continue in the life to come. This is the same daughter whose husband had succumbed to one of several heresies afflicting the Church in Thomas’ day. Thomas patiently won the young man back to the orthodox catholic faith and back to the Church through prayer and an apostolate of apologetics. The young man, who sought out the advice of his father in law, went on to live a life of virtue and fidelity in the heart of the Catholic Church.
This champion of heroic courage in the face of a State which has lost its soul never wavered in his fidelity to the Truth. He would not betray the truth or 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.
Thomas More was brought to trial for his fidelity to the Truth. Oh, as is always the case with persecution against Christians, it was framed as a charge against the “positive law”. There, this outstanding lawyer defended the Truth for which he would later give his life.
He 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 the Servant of God, 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”, this man of truth and he still brings shame upon every unjust tribunal and misuse of governmental power.
St. Thomas More was martyred for the Catholic 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 lies. 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 Hours: “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...”
On his day, we Catholics, indeed all faithful Christians who live in the contemporary West, face a similar challenge to that which faced St. Thomas More. The attacks on true marriage are well underway. We are being invited 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 Catholics, are now beginning to wield the figurative sword of temporal power against us.
The truths taught by the Church, and revealed within the common patrimony of the Natural Law which is knowable by all men and women, concerning the dignity and inviolability of ever human life at every age and stage, are now being denied by those in control of the power of the State. The blood of the unborn continues to flow. This man named Thomas More has been properly called a “Man for all Seasons". On his Feast day I propose he is certainly a man for this season.