With the presidential election fast approaching and a Roman Catholic candidate in a near dead heat with the incumbent, it's a good time to remember the man Catholics honor as politics' patron saint. In the year Thomas More's patronage was declared, former Christian History editor Elesha Coffman provided readers of this newsletter with some thoughts on that fiercely principled man's career and character. They are worth revisiting:
On November 5, just in time for our presidential election, Pope John Paul II is set to propose Thomas More (1477-1535) as the patron saint for politicians, making him "a model and intercessor for all those who consider their political commitment as a choice of life." While exemplary in many respects, More is not quite a model for all seasons.
Aside from being the author of the satire Utopia, More is best known for opposing King Henry VIII's demand to be recognized as head of the English church. But that decision came at the end of a long and brilliant career. In his youth he was a bright student at Oxford, then a promising lawyer at Furnival's Inn, and almost a candidate for the priesthood; his good friend Erasmus wrote that "the one thing that prevented him from giving himself to that kind of life was that he could not shake off the desire of the married state." More did marry (twice; his first wife died), and he pursued his legal career zealously, gaining royal favor along the way. He hit the top in 1529 when Henry named him chancellor, a position no layman had ever held.
The king greatly enjoyed More's company, often inviting himself over for dinner and taking long walks through More's gardens. He also liked More's theologyinitially. When Henry was working on his defense of the seven sacraments, a refutation of Martin Luther, More assisted him as "a sorter-out and placer of the principle matters therein." Later More was commissioned to respond to Luther's attack on Henry, publishing what one eighteenth-century divine called "the greatest heap of nasty language that perhaps was ever put together." (The Catholic Encyclopedia notes only "a certain amount that tastes unpleasant to the modern reader.") More called Luther an ape, an arse, a drunkard, a lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon, and several other names I can't repeat for fear of tripping your Internet filter. For a time, both king and chancellor were equally alarmed by the encroachment of "evangelycalls" in England.
As chancellor More was charged with upholding religious order through the court system, a job he performed with relish. He gained a reputation for judging fairly and swiftly; in fact, he dispatched cases so quickly that on some days he ran out of work. Also, contrary to Protestant rhetoric of the time, he was not fond of torture and much preferred recantation to execution. Even so, he ardently enforced heresy laws, often employing a network of spies and informants to track the activities of suspected Protestants. Further, he felt that those he executed were "well and worthily burned," proceeding straight from the pyre to eternal damnation. In his biography The Life of Thomas More Peter Ackroyd writes, "He epitomized, in modern terms, the apparatus of the state using its power to crush those attempting to subvert it. His opponents were genuinely following their consciences, while More considered them the harbinger of the devil's reign on earth."
The irony, of course, is that More was soon crushed as a subversive himself. For while More held a hard line on Protestants and radical reformers, King Henry began to like some of their ideas, especially the righteven the God-given responsibilityof a ruler to supervise the Christians in his realm. (At this point, only a tiny minority of Protestants advocated separation of church and state; most generally agreed with Luther's sentiments as expressed in "To the Christian Nobility.") With the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry broke with Rome and with More, who immediately resigned as chancellor. More tried to avoid the inevitable, dodging questions about his stance by simply declaring loyalty to the king, but he couldn't escape the charge of treason. Henry's last nod to their friendship was commuting More's sentence from hanging to beheading.
More's associates made much of his fortitude and grace at the end, noting that "his death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind." Earlier Erasmus had written of More that "none are so free of vice," "he seems born and made for friendship," and, "No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense."
Current politicians and observers give only slightly more qualified respect. As Clifford Davies, history fellow at Oxford's Wadham College, said, "In standing up for his principles he did quite a lot of nasty things including torturing heretics. He was a lawyer and he did use every trick in the book to try to avoid the consequences. Actually, he was quite an adept politician. But the fact is, he was executed for his principles, so why not make him a patron saint?"
Elesha Coffman was managing editor of Christian History & Biography. She is now working on a Ph.D in church history from Duke University. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
- For more on More, see The Catholic Encyclopediaonline article dedicated to him.
- To see a dramatic portrayal of the man himself in action, view the classic movie A Man for All Seasons.
- Christian History explored the English Reformation in our issue 48: Thomas Cranmer.
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