‘Living Well in Evil Times’ from The Catholic Thing is about the Thomas More Exhibition in Washington:.
A Christian Heritage Centre Exhibition on the life and times of St.Thomas More (Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Chancellor, Patron of Lawyers, Statesmen and Politicians) and the Carrolls (the Foremost British-American Catholic Family – founders of Georgetown, Signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, first Bishop of Baltimore ) runs until March 2017 in Washington at the St.John Paul II Centre
In the year 2000 – the millennium year – I was privileged to be present in St.Peter’s Square in Rome when St.John Paul II declared an Englishman, St.Thomas More, to be the patron saint of politicians and statesmen. I had been among those who had written to the Pope asking him to consider such a declaration.
John Paul told us, in his Apostolic Letter that the life and martyrdom of Thomas More “spans the centuries and speaks to people everywhere of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience, which, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, is “the most intimate centre and sanctuary of a person, in which he or she is alone with God, whose voice echoes within them” (Gaudium et Spes, 16).”
He said that “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.”
In St.Peter’s Square Pope John Paul reminded us of the outline of More’s life; that he had been born in London in 1478 of a respectable family; that as a young boy he was placed in the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, Lord Chancellor of the Realm; that he then studied law at Oxford and London; that he broadened his interests beyond law to understand culture, theology and classical literature. He mastered Greek and enjoyed the company and friendship of important figures of Renaissance culture, including Erasmus.
More also became known for his religious asceticism, attending daily Mass; for his cultivation of regular family prayer and as a devoted husband of Jane Colt and, after her death, of Alice Middleton and as father of his five children.
He was deeply involved in his children’s religious, moral and intellectual education and his welcoming home was open house to his children’s spouses and his grandchildren. His contemporaries described More’s family as a “Christian academy” – in which the cultivation of learning and the consideration of morality and ethics were daily fare. He was a much imitated educator and a champion of women’s education. Despite holding high office he maintained a simplicity of life in his own household and insisted to those closest to him that they must not become infatuated with the baubles of office and the trappings of power.
Elected to the House of Commons in 1504 during the reign of King Henry VII, he rose through the ranks, becoming Speaker in 1523. In 1529, at a time of economic and political crisis, Henry VIII appointed him to the Lords as Lord Chancellor.
The first layman to occupy this position, he sought to promote justice and to restrain those seeking to advance their own interests at the expense of the weak – placing service to his country before the pursuit of power.
In 1532, he resigned on principle, unable to support Henry’s decision to take control of the Church in England. Many of his associates proved to be fair-weather friends and deserted him.
In 1534 the King responded by imprisoning him in the Tower of London.At More’s trial at Westminster he gave an impassioned defence 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. Condemned by the Court, he was beheaded.
Thomas More, together with 53 other martyrs, including Bishop John Fisher, was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. And with John Fisher, he was canonized by Pius XI in 1935, on the fourth centenary of his martyrdom.
In 2000 Pope John Paul said:
“There are many reasons for proclaiming Thomas More Patron of statesmen and people in public life. Among these is the need felt by the world of politics and public administration for credible role models able to indicate the path of truth at a time in history when difficult challenges and crucial responsibilities are increasing.
Today in fact strongly innovative economic forces are reshaping social structures; on the other hand, scientific achievements in the area of biotechnology underline the need to defend human life at all its different stages, while the promises of a new society — successfully presented to a bewildered public opinion — urgently demand clear political decisions in favour of the family, young people, the elderly and the marginalized.”
John Paul insisted that public service, not power is what must motivate politicians; that the weak and powerless must be the politician’s first concern; that politicians must act with a sense of fairness and cultivate an inner strength, rooted in faith, to resist the pressured of the world. He singled out More’s courage, his humility and his humour.
Elsewhere, in Christifideles Laici john Paul expanded on this them, stating:
“The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfil his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ” (No. 17).
Elsewhere John Paul reminded us that “man is created by God, and therefore human rights have their origin in God, are based upon the design of creation and form part of the plan of redemption. One might even dare to say that the rights of man are also the rights of God” (Speech, 7 April 1998).
And, he remarked, “it was precisely in defence of the rights of conscience that the example of Thomas More shone brightly” that “The life of Saint Thomas More clearly illustrates a fundamental truth of political ethics. The defence of the Church’s freedom from unwarranted interference by the State is at the same time a defence, in the name of the primacy of conscience, of the individual’s freedom vis-à-vis political power. Here we find the basic principle of every civil order consonant with human nature.
For me personally, St.John Paul’s words struck a particular chord.
During parliamentary “term time” hardly a day has passed over nearly 40 years without my passing the spot where Saint Thomas More stood trial. I once took St.Mother Teresa of Calcutta to that spot and as I explained how More, Edmund Campion and others had been tried in that place, Mother Teresa knelt down and kissed the ground where they had stood. It reminded me of how easy it is to lose the essence of what has become too familiar.
Most of us have a picture of More based on Fred Zinnemann’s celebrated movie, made in 1966, A Man For All Seasons. Paul Scofield, as More, and Robert Shaw, as Henry VIII, graphically bring to life the high drama of More’s dilemma and his trial. He wanted to be “the king’s good servant, but God’s first” – echoing, in this famous dictum, Our Lord’s challenge to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but unto God the things that are God’s.” But More’s stand for conscience also created a new standard for believers.
In coming to terms with the implications of trying to be dutiful to both the king and God , More’s struggle is synonymous with the struggle many people face today in reconciling their faith with the great contemporary battles of secular democracies – everything from health care provision to complicity in anti-life policies.
Thomas More stands at the head of the tradition of Catholic lay involvement in public and political life. His life and death also remind us of the risks involved in political service – and the price that may have to be paid.
It was England’s Solicitor General, Richard Rich who finally undoes More by perjuring himself during the trial. His pay off is a sinecure in Wales. The treachery is brought vividly to life in Zinnemann’s film with More asking Rich whether this was the best price he could extract: was his life to be paid for by a minor political post in the principality? Rich’s evidence was to lead directly to More’s conviction on the charge of treason.
But it reminds us, too, that many enter political life for reasons of naked political ambition and will lie and betray in order to advance themselves.
Of course, More was no insignificant rebellious nuisance. He was the king’s principal political advisor and had held the highest offices of State.
More resigned the Chancellorship in May 1532. Henry married Anne Boleyn in April 1533. More continued to wrestle with his conscience and although he was willing to swear political fidelity to Henry he could not take an oath which impugned the spiritual authority of the church and inevitably threatened the unity of the Universal Church.
In one last moment of humour – on Tower Green he reminded us how to approach death – even violent death – telling the Tower’s executioner: “Pluck up they spirits man. My neck is very short.”
More’s body was buried in a chapel at the Tower. His head was fixed to a spike on nearby London Bridge. Tradition has it that Margaret, his loving and devoted daughter, arranged for his head to be taken to Canterbury where it was buried.
Professor Jack Scarisbrick, one of the foremost historians of that period, and the founder of Britain’s leading pro-life charity, LIFE, has said of More: “More was, one might say, a man of his times as well as for all seasons. Not at all cuddly. Often enigmatic.”
Yet, by the end of his pilgrimage, More was a man ready to lay down his life for his beliefs – and his friends. He was a man whose powerful intellect continues to challenge us today.
Politics for Thomas More was never a matter of personal advantage or the accumulation of personal power. Instead it was rooted in the desire to serve. It was informed by the deepest impulses of citizenship: a sense of duty and an understanding of every person’s responsibility to strive for the common good. Any understanding of More’s rigorous intellectual approach to the study of law, history, theology, philosophy and the culture of his country reveals his abiding belief in the importance of formation: the formation of the mind and spirit as prerequisites for public service and high political office. The cultivation of virtue was, for More, an indispensable requirement for good governance.
Two centuries after his death, Jonathan Swift extolled More as “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced, while the poet, John Donne, said he was a “man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Augustine.”
What is especially appealing about More is that he is not an icon of pietism. His inner conflicts often loom darker than some of his modern admirers may care to admit. It was Erasmus who famously called him a man for all seasons; he was undoubtedly a man with flaws as well as virtues. His final jousts with his accusers and his determination to find some way out of the death he sees before him presents us with a man who knew all the ways of politics and law. What makes him a saint is that having seen all those doors close before him he embraced inevitable death with courage and acceptance. We often say there are beliefs for which we would be prepared to die but in our private moments many of us must wonder what would really happen if the question were ever to arise.
Politics, for More, had to be informed by knowledge and truth. The primacy of Truth over power and the supremacy of goodness over utility were More’s enduring tests for decision making. Decisions which might lead to short-term popularity or personal gain were merely expediency and More was not to be found standing on these shifting sands.
Thomas More is the greatest of the true freedom fighters. His struggle against those who sought to commandeer his conscience and to subvert his convictions was a remarkable stand against tyranny. The history of the twentieth century is a history of States subverting conscience and violently suppressing political and religious belief. It is a history indelibly marked by collaboration and acquiescence in ideologies based on racial purity, class warfare, eugenics and other evils. Through this din, More’s voice reminds us of the crucial role of conscience, the eternal quest for truth, our personal responsibility for our decisions, and our ultimate accountability for our actions.
In their petition which we sent to Pope John Paul we said that the fundamental lesson which Thomas More offers all statesmen is “the lesson of flight from success and easy compromises in the name of fidelity to irrevocable principles, upon which depend the dignity of man and the justice of civil society – a lesson truly inspiring for all who feel themselves called to expose and eradicate the snares laid by the new and hidden tyrannies.”
Politicians should be honoured and pleased to have had Thomas More assigned to their needs. He is the ideal patron. Quite what he makes of those us who have been charged to his care is an altogether different matter.
Some words of St.Thomas More.
If you love your health;
if you desire to be secure from the snares of the devil;
from the storms of this world;
from the hands of your enemies;
if you long to be acceptable to God;
if you covet everlasting happiness – then let no day pass without at least once presenting yourself to God in prayer…not merely from your lips, but from the innermost recess of your heart…
Give me the grace, good Lord, to set the world at naught;
To set my mind fast upon Thee
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.
To be content to be solitary.
Not to long for worldly company
But utterly to cast off the world
And rid my mind of the business thereof.