Thomas More: Saint in a Time of Political and Cultural Crisis

Saints are lights; lights flash and flare, sometimes in their own time, and sometimes later as what was hidden comes to the light. The acceptance of this light is no more automatic than the acceptance of the most effulgent light of all, the Light of light who came into the world and shone in the darkness. When John says in the fourth Gospel that “the world knew him not” (Jn 1:10), he doesn’t mean literally that the world didn’t know him; he means rather that the world did not judge him properly, place the value on him that it should have. He is in fact saying that the world chose something other than the light, chose the routine in which we remain comfortable, accepted the low ceiling for our individual and social behavior. This is what darkness is; this is what ‘world’ is in John, not the Kingdom in which we behold beauty bathed in the light of the One who makes all things beautiful. To read the Gospel of John is to come to appreciate that the world is really and truly beautiful.

The saints, then, are points of light, and because they are so, they are sources of provocation. Perhaps for every ten persons who admire Mother Teresa, there is but one that hates her, but often the hate is more vehement than the love. The new atheist Christopher Hitchens thinks of Mother Teresa as an abomination; poverty is systemic, it needs a systematic rational approach to alleviate it. She merely palliates and leaves social injustice intact. She is hateful because so self-serving in her extraordinary sanctity, which society—quite literally—cannot afford. Any number of other examples might be provided. But there is one saint most of us would almost bet on to escape this characterization from even Christianity’s most implacable foes: the ever-reliable, ever non-excessive and psychologically approachable St. Thomas More.

Canonized in 1935, 400 years after his execution by Henry VIII, More is truly a Renaissance figure: brilliant statesman, extraordinary writer, incisive wit, learned jurist, political reformer, one in whom great expectations were placed only for him to exceed them all, a glowing figure around whom others circle; a man who seems to manage self-love with as much tact as he can dispense altruism, accepting as his due the adoration of his children; a man who skillfully negotiates the narrow straits between his vexed enemies; a man who seems to be able to do the impossible in evoking warmth and respect from the large figure of Henry VIII who, when More becomes Chancellor, is beginning his audition to be a “monster.” In passing, it should be said that More was convinced that monsters would always be with us. There are the clever lines about monsters in his Utopia which hover between being literal and metaphors for corrupt and malicious human beings: “We did not ask (someone who had left the island) if he had seen any monsters, for monsters have ceased to be news.” More is a figure more rather than less rounded than we are; more an aesthete than an ascetic. Certainly a man who can take his pleasures where he finds them, who feels entitled to them in a world that is dangerous and often too short, but a world for all that so beautiful that it cannot but be missed and whose leaving is hard. Most definitely he is not a man afraid either to associate with or to wield power. He is enough like us to assure us of his humanity, and he works on a stage large enough for us to think of him as spectacle. His execution for refusing to sign the oath of supremacy of the King of England in 1534 is, after all, the stuff of great theatre. Although it should be said that as with everything else, this political Houdini cut it fine: he refused to sign, but also refused to speak out against it because of loyalty to his country and the vulnerability of his family.

Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, first a play and then a major movie, captures much if not all of this. More is, indeed, a man for all seasons. Bolt is influenced by the statements of one of More’s contemporaries, Robert Whittington, who marveled at More’s intellectual, moral, and emotional register. Qualities which are contraries in others are harmonized in him: sharp wit and deep learning; a sense of self and great gentleness; a marvelous sense of fun and gravity. Bolt translates Wittington’s famous phrase about More being a “man for all seasons” into the idiom of admirable personal integrity. He is a man reliably himself under all circumstances: the spring of his ascent to literary prominence with the writing of Utopia and History of Richard the Third, the summer of his eminence as Chancellor, the autumn of his dealings with the Reformation in England, and the winter of his betrayal with the perjury of those close to him in the show trial that leads to a conviction of treason and him losing his head. Bolt’s major play is not a construction out of the blue; he follows the historiography of the major writers in the twentieth century on the Tudor period. He simply takes the story of it out of its historical wrappings and—by dramatizing interactions that are either revealing of More’s character or definitive in terms of the plot—universalizes the man of conscience who stands up to overwhelming power and whose defeat is for us in the audience, the movie theatre, or our homes, a victory. This is the standard iconography, and in most respects it is compelling. More is a humane man of conscience, for whom the tension between loyalties to Church and State or faith and political expediency is the outer form for what essentially matters, which is the operation of conscience about what is right and wrong and one’s responsibilities to its deliverances. More, therefore, is not only one of the safer saints, since we can easily identify with him, he is also an individual with whom the modern person can identify without necessarily taking very seriously More’s particular religious commitments. I suppose the best way of lodging a criticism against a play I admire and a movie I like is to say that More is moralized: he is figured as a moral hero with all due rectitude. He is not figured really as a saint—which would make little sense to a humane agnostic like Bolt. Bolt cannot imagine a More who in his last days configures his life to the Passion of Christ, about which More wrote so eloquently in his Treatise on the Passion and in his salty exchanges with Protestant reformers. I will return to this last point as I conclude this reflection.

Bolt (who depends on older estimates of More) gets More wrong and wrong badly, however.[1] More is through and through not only a religious man but a staunch Catholic, who, on the one hand, believes it is possible for a Catholic to align faith and reason and religious belief with not only loyalty to but also love of the social world and, on the other hand, is prepared for and knows the hour when the alignment or compromise is no longer possible. More is neither a radical nor a fanatic: he believes in alignment; he believes in compromises. Looking on at the reality and tone of the Reformation with horror, he believes in the Catholicism of Erasmus. Life is a muddle, and so also to a certain extent is the Church, but we live towards God in and through its imperfection, for this is the only craft that will take us home. He is resolutely Augustinian in this respect, and open like Augustine also to dealing with the State, which can be reformed only by working through the power structures rather than having a fascination with having “clean hands.”

Back to the Beginning

Born in 1478, More was almost from the beginning a chosen one. He studied in the preparatory School of St. Anthony’s, eventually went to Oxford when he was fourteen, and there studied Latin and Greek literature. He became proficient and wrote plays—comedies rather than tragedies, which it turns out was actually more indicative of his character. He left after two years at his father’s insistence to study law in London. He succeeded at this as with everything else, although, very soon after he became a lawyer, he pondered for a while becoming a monk. A year of experiment later, he realized that the solitary life was not for him. He married and started practicing law, although he always maintained a profound respect for monasticism, and judged himself rather than its celibacy and its ascetic rigor for his leaving. Perhaps the earliest sign of his election was his apprenticeship with Archbishop Morton, Renaissance lover, Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of England, and later cardinal, whose idea it was to send a precocious More to Oxford. More, then, was associated with the powerful almost from the beginning.

The gifted and energetic More made a name for himself almost immediately, translating a work about the even more gifted Italian humanist, Pico della Mirandola, and exercising friendship with Erasmus through personal meetings and by letter. He became a cause célèbre with the publication of Utopia (1516), published initially with an ingloriously long Latin title, and translated into English over forty years later. This book was the first imaginative construction in the modern period of the perfect society that we could hold before us as a mirror, in and through which we can see the imperfections of our actual society. It was extraordinarily well-received and in fact created a literary genre in that it was quickly followed by other such constructions.[2] Even if the genre was popular for a considerable time, it did have something of an expiration date. Still utopias in general and More’s Utopia in particular continued to inspire even as the interest turned away from what a good society might look like towards practical questions of how concretely to execute reform. Of course, the ultimate template for More’s utopian construction was Plato’s Republic, even if the utopia constructed was significantly more democratic than Plato’s ideal State ruled by the philosopher-king. The details of the construction are not relevant here. What is important are the virtues displayed, the antitheses of the vices displayed in contemporary societies and perhaps all societies thereafter: peace not war, health not disease, justice not power, sharing of material goods not private property (as motivated by greed), religious tolerance rather than persecution, a humane criminal system not a punitive one, plain speaking not flattery, humility not pride, self-respect not vanity. Important also was the conviction that utopia cannot be actualized as a historical reality. In Utopia we find More expressing his real views in a brilliant piece of understatement. He writes: “For things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect . . .” and then adds wryly, “which I don’t expect for a number of years.”

Obviously, this is an expression of the political realism of Renaissance humanists who think it acceptable to sing the potential greatness of human beings, but not to insist on it as a practical matter: the overwhelming body of evidence suggests for the most part that human beings, while not vile, are ruled by folly and veniality. It is not difficult to think of More being a forerunner of the famous twentieth-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin whose anti-utopianism is summed up by an anthropological ruling of its impossibility, indicated in his favorite phrase: “the crooked timber of humanity.” Still, we should not take religious or Christian convictions out of More’s construction of “fallible man.” More is through and through Augustinian: we can and should make our societies better. Because of twist and torque, because of some part of us always having been eaten away, we cannot, however, make them perfect. The perfect society is the society of the blessed: that is elsewhere. Everywhere in our actual social worlds there are manifestations of sin, of our inability, we might say, not to leave our sweaty palm prints off anything we touch. Of these manifestations some are remediable, some are not. Working for those which are is our social and political duty.

More found himself engaged in disputes with Protestants in the latter part of his life, both before and during his days as Chancellor. His defense in 1521 on behalf of the Catholic view of the sacraments, and by implication the Catholic Church that dispensed them, gained Henry VIII the title of fidei defensor, since it was he on whose behalf More wrote. Another response to Luther followed in 1523. From 1528 on More was in a disputation with Tyndale over Tyndale’s translation of the NT with its heavily annotated anti-Catholic barbs. None of the polemics make for easy reading. More’s civility index when it comes to Protestants is roughly at the same level as Luther and Tyndale, which is to say usually bad, the tone vituperative, totally capable of denying the name of ‘Christianity’ to Protestant confessions and even the basic humanity of its members.[3]

Although the language is loathsome, it is not as if the issue or issues are trivial. The battle lines drawn between Catholicism and Protestantism are both wide and deep: they concern the number, nature, and definition of the sacraments; the status of papal authority; the nature of priesthood and celibacy; the understanding of marriage; whether we can assist in our salvation that comes through Christ or we are justified without having merits of our own; and the status of Scripture, the role—if any—vernacular translations can play, and who is the definitive interpreter, the individual or representatives of the Church. There is no yielding on either side, and the rhetoric is not short on demonizing. This comes through loudly also in More’s condemnation of Tyndale in the late 1520s and early 1530s. (For the record Tyndale is equally demonizing of the Catholic Church and More as its defender.) More does think that Luther and Tyndale sponsor the presumption that every unlearned person has equal capacity when it comes to making theological judgment. From his point of view, this is not only nonsensical, but socially irresponsible and puts any nation state in peril since it foments civil unrest. This is More’s reading of what had happened on the continent and which is being exported to England. The political dimension is important to More. Yet it is not only a matter of politics, it is also a matter of truth and how it could be accessed. He thought that Protestantism was contradictory in affirming the accessibility of scripture, while speaking of the total corruption of the intellect charged with reading it. The Catholic position was eminently more sensible: there was a Church and an authoritative tradition to supplement our flawed but not entirely opaque intellects. There were limits to the untutored intellect, and besides human beings are not unfettered reason; they are also creatures of will and desire. We have a will to believe what suits us; and our motivations—often bad—have to be taken into account.[4]

One cannot simply set aside More’s refutation of heretics, since it represents a sizable portion of his corpus and is somewhere in the vicinity of two thousand pages. Nor can we ignore the fact that More rounded up so-called “heretics” before he became Chancellor and interviewed them in his home. More admitted to interrogating Protestants, yet vociferously denied torturing them. There is no contemporary evidence that he did, although the accusation was recycled as a truth in Protestant polemics not long after his death. Unsubstantiated, they remain a centerpiece of the revisionist literature on More over the past decades.[5] The Anglican declaration of More as a saint in 1980 (prayer and liturgical cycle) is interesting in any number of respects, but perhaps mainly because it would have been impossible had the claim of torture been sustained. Still there remains the fact that Protestants were executed during the time of More’s chancellorship. Those who want to besmirch More’s legacy tend to either exaggerate the number or leave it unspecified. The best of modern scholarship is able to give the number at six, with about forty being held and interrogated over the four years of More being the second-most powerful man in England.

I think one can say that in the face of the threat of Protestantism in England, More hardly rose above what was worst in the back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism: he equivocated when he argued that the Church does not torture or execute, it is the State; and failed to exercise his intellectual and moral responsibility when he appealed to the extant laws for the prosecution of heretics, rather than to the justice he appealed to in Utopia.

Imperfect Man and Saint

More’s dealings with the Protestant threat demonstrate that he is not a perfect man—indeed a sinner—although they do not prove that, as a whole, that he was not a very good man. This was a very good man who, hairshirt notwithstanding, did not much like suffering. This is a very good man much in love with life, which he found challenging but beautiful. Family life had the benefits of eros, respect, and gratitude; society its satisfactions, given the recognition of More’s great knowledge, quick wit, and power of judgment; and high office had its splendors and its solaces that by and large one is doing good and ameliorating and maybe at a limit preventing evils. More understood that death was woven into the pattern of life and wrote eloquently about it his Dialogues on Comfort in Time of Tribulation, written during the two years spent in the Tower of London. He accepted the death of his first wife in 1511, and remarried quickly enough to be the object of gossip. He had no taste for an untimely death, and even less interest in a martyr’s death. He generalizes that what nature insists on is our obligation: we should try to escape death if we can. We can call on everything at our disposal, our influence, our intellect, our ability to argue and persuade, our ability to continue to cut and splice and find a middle—in More’s case, that he could not take the oath of supremacy, yet not speak out against it. If we are to die a martyr’s death, this has to be God’s will, not ours. He grasps clearly that our lives are not our own possession. It is God who disposes, and his will is to be accepted. One of his more famous statements (among the many) is the following:

If he (God) suffers us to fall in such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand our tackles as best we can . . . but it is God’s part, not our own, to bring us to this extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping.

To feint, to splice, to attempt to reconcile the demands of divine and human law, and the laws of the Church (interpreted as the vehicle of divine law) and the laws of the State is regarded by More as justified. Indeed, it belongs to the genius of Catholicism—More thinks for better rather than worse—to attempt compromise, to try to see things as coming under a both-and. More thinks that there is a virtue in such attempted reconciliation that goes beyond the virtue of prudence. The physical and social worlds are in themselves good and beautiful. Despite human sinfulness they are bathed in the beauty granted them in creation and amplified in and through the Incarnation of Christ. Natural or theologically justified hatred of the world makes death and especially martyrdom easy. But we cannot hate the world or the structures that contingently make it up. It is not simply bad form; it is unchristian. The genius of compromise, however, is in the end relative rather than absolute. It did not take his own imminent death for More to realize that you have to be very lucky to be able at all times to reconcile duties to God and duties to man, and duties to the Church and duties to the State. It is not possible to rule out a moment at which the duties to God (and Church) and your duties to the State (and society) will reveal themselves as contraries. This is the point of decision: the Christian will have to make a choice. However reluctantly, you have to choose one or the other: the singular beauty of the Word of God, or the world with its beauties of the flesh and its beauties of speech and rhetoric and their power to persuade and influence. When choice became the only possibility and the only idiom, More chose the higher. “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Yet he did so hardly without nostalgia for a beauty that is divinely verified.

Of course, choice is a matter of conscience. But we are not talking about a free radical—for that for More would not be truly Catholic. Conscience is specifically tied to deciding—when evasion is no longer possible—between being a servant of God or the State, God or the power dynamics of society. More is not a moralist, more Stoic than Christian, who goes to his death with a stiff upper lip. The man who climbs the steps to meet the axe of his executioner is a luminous reader of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ (a book which, along with the Bible, everyone ought to own) and an even more luminous reader of the Gospel Passion narratives, as he demonstrates in the second of the two books written in the tower, The Sadness of Christ. The Passion narratives reveal all that is essential about death, the longing not to suffer and to surrender the cross that is inbuilt into us as bodily creatures who experience physical pain. It also discloses the pained affirmation of “thy will be done” and “into your hands I commend my spirit.”

More is a point of light, one attended to throughout Catholic history, granted official recognition by the Catholic Church in 1935, and pronounced saint of statesmen in 2000. He was a light that flashed and flared in his own time, yet also through the long history of his veneration continues to do so today. His light is not that of a plastic figure, but of a complex figure whose gifts for alignment set the table for the difficulty of making decisions for or against the Church in uncommonly difficult times. As a statesman he could bob and weave and defer difficult decisions with the very best. Yet he always knew that duties towards God and duties towards the State are different in kind and that eventually it may happen that we can only see them as contraries, and we will have to choose. More knew, with Augustine, that our duties towards God obviously outbid our duties towards society and the State. This is clear, and the choice should follow. But not with hate for the world, the State, or society, which are unobjectionably the objects of our love. More is the point of light which illumines our complex and ambiguous situation. He casts a loving shadow on our attempts to align our different loves—love of God and neighbor, love of God and love of knowledge, love of God and love of society and the State. He does this while throwing a brilliant light on the likelihood that at some time in our life we may have to choose.

The choice is no longer surely between the King and God but between Catholicism and the secular State, which is a much more amorphous reality. The secular State attempts to advance tolerance, insists on individual rights, and tends to be permissive regarding everything except religious convictions. It insists that religions will be respected, but only as policed by law (which necessarily is merely human), and with this law overriding religious judgments. The modern secular State is a gentle non-capricious Henry, owned by no one and by all. Its reason for existence is to restrain the religious believer from the ever-present temptation to superstition and fanaticism, and so we negotiate with it. We do so naturally, but also from religious motives. The best is not to be expected; compromise is not only inevitable but is also religiously sanctioned. This is an Augustinian point. We dodge and we weave until we find we cannot. The issue that is the breaking point may differ for each of us; but we lead a charmed life if at some point—as businessmen, as lawyers, as politicians, as teachers, as religious believers—we do not have to choose.

For More, alignment is horizontal, choice is vertical. The Christian is licensed to defer the choice in which we acknowledge that the God revealed by Christ and witnessed in the Scriptures is alone worthy of our adoration and our trust. As More mounted the steps towards his execution, he could not resist one last quip to his executioner: “You may help me on my way up, I will need no help on the way down.” Bravado from our jocular hero we regularly see in B-movies as a way to douse fear; the last echo of a Renaissance wit who must have the last word. Probably both. Probably also someone who accepted that, as with Christ, suffering is the way to glorification and that death opens a door to where all things are rectified—maybe even differences between Catholics and Protestants—and all things are bathed in the beauty of the Light of lights. This beauty is without fragility and does not answer to time. Nor does it need to be notarized by the State. On death’s door he discovered the deep reason why he preferred comedy to tragedy: perhaps this is what Christianity is. If the comedy of our life often gives way to tragedy, the Christian sees that tragedy itself gets taken up into the mercy of God and gets rewritten as a comedy.

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation in the “Saturdays with the Saints” series, hosted by the Institute for Church Life during the fall of 2015.

[1] Another recent onscreen portrayal that gets More wrong is the BBC television series “Wolf Hall,” based on the novels by Hilary Mantel. Both the books and the program deliberately intend to challenge the standard picture of More. In them, he is depicted as something of a sadist because of his torture of Protestants; but a masochist to boot, since he wears a hairshirt. (Even at this early point in modernity Mantel thinks asceticism has begun to be pathologized). Despite its own anti-Catholic bigotry—one part Reformation to ten parts Enlightenment stereotyping—perhaps “Wolf Hall” provides two major services to a picture of the real More: (a) it raises the question of whether More at least connived in the persecution of Protestants, and also whether More was sophistical when he claimed that the Church condemned wrong thinking and punished no one, and that the State punished heresy for reasons of the State (sedition); (b) more generally, it calls for a thicker description of the life of More, a highlighting of different sides of his character, the affable and not so affable, and those sides that were in tension with each other.

[2] The list is long, but the more famous of these include Thomas Campanella’s The City of the Sun, Johannes Andreas Valentinus’ Christianopolis, and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis.

[3] A student of Erasmus, More’s tone falls far short of his. Responding to Luther’s latrine oriented remarks about Church, its ministers and the Pope, More responded in kind calling Luther “potty mouth” and just in case we didn’t quite get the barb drawing out its implications. Doing so in Latin mind you. One might have thought that writing in Latin rather than the vernacular would have cut down on this sort of thing. It didn’t stop Luther; it didn’t stop More.

[4] This is More’s translation of Augustine’s anthropology which he thinks—like Erasmus—is the Church’s anthropology. If there is a fight over scripture, sacraments, grace, and the Church, there is also a fight over Augustine and who has him his corner. This is one of the marks of the battle between the humanist Erasmus and Luther; it also marks the battle between More and Tyndale. More cannot imagine a theological tradition without Augustine. More has read much of the available corpus including the Confessions and the City of God. While he had done considerable reading before his polemics, Augustine is a crucial ally in the refutation of the heretics.

[5] Of which Hilary Mantle makes copious use in the BBC television series “Wolf Hall.” [See note n. 1 for more on this depiction of More.]

Featured Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More (1527); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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