Saint Thomas More: His Times and Ours

No layman of equal status from Medieval Times until this very day presents such an epitome of tradition and progress with such sanity and balance as the sixteenth century saint and martyr, Thomas More. Is this then to be another biographical essay on Thomas More? You may well ask!

Before answering that question let me assure our readers that it would be presumptuous, indeed, in view of the many excellent, and in many instances, scholarly lives of this fascinating figure to repeat in a magazine article what has been presented in hundreds of thousands of volumes. The biographical outline is well known. Every school boy from his history texts recognizes Sir Thomas More as Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. Many of us, too, have seen the play, Man For All Seasons and the movie. There are collegiate collections of his works, statewide forums, and national guilds and organizations devoted to research on this man who, says a Jesuit writer, Ft. Basset, would have been a saint even if he were not a martyr.

And on the other side of the fence, four hundred years after his execution a debunker or two have already gone off the deep end in trying to show that Thomas More was not a martyr at all but just a shrewd barrister and statesman, but who missed finding a technological flaw in the King’s divorce case and who wasn’t shrewd enough to save his own neck. Nevertheless such endeavors do demonstrate quite clearly that saints cannot be fully understood by non-saints and not at all by those who are without the theological virtue of Faith.

The present writer makes no claims to a FULL understanding of the saint but since Rome has proclaimed him “martyr” in modern parlance, THAT is the bottom line. Roma locuta est.

And the wise chancellor, the astute attorney, the courageous martyr, witty to the last step, is like a magnet attracting all and sundry to plumb the depths of his magnetic personality, his clear vision, his deep Faith, his active yet prayerful life.

Theodore Maynard, a modern writer, now deceased, poses the question: “But one may wonder why it took exactly four hundred years for More and Fisher (the one bishop at the time who did not defect of the 72 who did) to be canonized?” Our answer must be another question: Do we not minimize the part of the Holy Spirit in His “breathing where (and when) He wills”? Nothing in God’s plan is accidental and in His mercy and concern surely raises up to the status of canonized saints those figures who are most significant for the particular age.

There certainly is a crying need for such a layman today; so ideal, so disarming, so strong on all those issues so weakly and erroneously regarded in our age. This is, indeed, an age in which the layman in reality is abandoned (and the word is used advisedly) to his own decisions… in some instances by the silence of the magisterium and in others by the chaos and confusion caused by the “experts.” Our Holy Father seems to stand alone in his insistence on traditional hard line morality while before his very eyes as well as behind his back are the innovators, the nationalists (some speak now of the American Catholic Church!) the rebels, and the computer fiends spewing off their heresies of numbers…as if the Catholic Church were a democracy depending for its authority from below instead of , like all authority, from Above – a divinely protected plan.

And the rebels today are evident in every walk of life. They come from our monasteries and convents; many leave, but some remain to stir up from within. These are the disloyal who rationalize in the breaking of their vows, both lay and monastic, including the unfaithful breakers of marriage vows on “psychological” grounds, interchangeably using two contradictory terms, “divorce” and annulment” to appease an undisciplined and indifferent conscience. And as if that weren’t a long enough list there are the destructionists of the family, the chief unit of society; secularizers of education; degenerators of the Liturgy but, most important, scorners of defined doctrine.

A Scholar and a Wit

More’s life was not a long one. He was born February 7, 1478 and died July 6, 1535. He was fifty-seven years old. His family was “honorable not illustrious.” His father, John More, became an eminent judge. As a boy Thomas went to St. Anthony’s School in London and then was taken to serve as a page in the household of the famous Cardinal Morton, then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord High Chancellor of England; the statesman who advised the best measures of Henry VII, who began to reform the monasteries, who heavily taxed the rich and took care of the poor. In this household Thomas was known as a bright lad who would often “speak a piece” in Christmas skits or take part in the frequent plays put on for the guests’ entertainment with a wit and sparkling readiness that made the Archbishop predict for Thomas a great career. But even he did not suspect that the young student would also eventually become the High Lord Chancellor of England….The Archbishop suggested that the young More go to Oxford. Thomas studied at New Inn. And then at Lincoln’s Inn, he studied law because his father was insistent, especially when More preferred less practical scholarly pursuits in another direction and intimated to his father that he would have preferred to be a university professor…for he was widely known in academic circles as a scholar and a wit.

Like so many Catholic youths when the Faith flourishes (both as cause and effect) Thomas thought of and prayed about a vocation. Was it to be a Religious in a Monastery, a secular priest or a husband and father of a family? To him each was a sacred vocation and required his studied thoughts and almost detached prayer. “Voluntate Dei”…..He spent much time at the Charterhouse, a monastery of Carthusians in London and actually lived there on a monk’s schedule for several years while studying law during the day hours. But by 1504 when he was twenty-seven years old he decided on marriage. Some of his biographers make a point of mentioning that Thomas came to the Colt home to court the youngest daughter but that he felt it would be odious to seek the hand of the youngest when the eldest was still unmarried. This is ascribing a motive to Thomas that would be difficult to prove.

If need be it could well be “explained” by the simple fact that he was very much in love with Jane, the eldest – (and Thomas had a tremendous capacity for love). At any rate all agree that Thomas and Jane were very happily married for more than five years ’till her death in 1511, leaving four children: Margaret (Meg) born in 1505, Elizabeth (Beth)1506, Cicily (Cecy) 1507, and John (Jack ) in 1509.

Shortly after his first wife’s death he married a still older woman, a widow, Alice Middleton, who brought to his household her daughter, Alice. One of More’s better biographers, E.E. Reynolds remarks that a very deep affection developed between Thomas More and Alice Middleton and between More’s children and herself who “times spoke her mind brusquely,” which seemed to delight Thomas for he appreciated her kind of humor and salty tongue.

One of the tragedies of our times is the breakdown of family life and there are, of course, many causes. One, but only one, seems to be that the art of conversation has reached a new low. The TV has been blamed for this. Another cause for lack of communication is called the “generation gap.” That remains an unexplained phenomenon, for it hardly suggests a situation unique for modern times: Wasn’t there always a “gap,” timewise, at least, between generations?

Yet in homes where the Faith is the center, there is true joy and a sense of security that doesn’t require false props, such as narcotics and the like. At Fatima Our Lady asked for a daily FAMILY Rosary and promised peace to those who complied. Is this too simplistic for modern sophisticates?

Thomas More’s household was delightful. His family was always his first concern. He believed in developing the minds of his children, his daughters’ as well as his son’s. His eldest, Meg, was an enthusiastic student and her father’s pride and joy. She was an excellent Latin student and on one occasion when the King arrived unexpectedly at their home in Chelsea by barge down the Thames River, Meg held conversation with him in that language, much to the expressed pleasure of Henry VIII who in his better youthful days was interested in such scholarly attainments.

Erasmus Paints a Verbal Picture

What was Thomas More really like to his friends and who would be more capable of discernment of spirit than his close and intimate friend, Erasmus?

Margaret Mann Phillips, author of Erasmus and Biography , says of his “Portrait of More in Words,” “No classical writer ever produced a sketch like that of More…Erasmus was not writing history…he was creating a living being…the object was to put before (the reader) the picture of a model life, statesmanship rather than war, simplicity of life rather than ceremony and luxury, a chaste devotion to home and fatherhood rather than loose living.” What an example for the society of today!

In describing his beloved friend, Erasmus, in each point of description that he suspects might be taken negatively, counterpoints it with something complimentary so that the reader is given the best possible impression of More.

“In shape and stature,” he says, “More is not a tall man BUT not remarkable short, all his limbs being so symmetrical that no deficiency is observed in this respect….His complexion is fair, his hair is auburn, inclining to black or, if you like it better, black inclining to auburn.”

He goes on to point out that his countenance is more expressive of pleasantry than of gravity or dignity “though very far removed from folly or buffoonery.” As a matter of fact, Erasmus writes that he knew More when he was only twenty-three and says that there was a charm in his looks when he was young that may even be inferred from what remains.(More was no more than forty when Erasmus wrote this!)

He notes that More was anything but fastidious in his choice of food and, like his father, was a water drinker but he concealed this habit from his friends by drinking from a pewter goblet, either a small amount of beer almost as weak as water, or plain water…and when the company indulged in the custom of passing a goblet of wine for each to drink out of the same cup, he used to sip a little of it so as not to refuse it altogether and to habituate himself to the common practice….It wasn’t beneath him to emulate other saints in this respect….Saint Francis for instance, who accepted, when a guest, whatever was placed before him.

Erasmus continues to describe More’s appearance by pointing out his preference for simplicity in clothes remarking that he does not wear silk or purple or gold chains “except when it is not allowable to dispense with them. He cares little for formalities though he certainly understands them himself but he believed it to be effeminate and unworthy of a man to waste much of his time on such trifles.”

The phrase that Erasmus uses in regard to More’s social life has been employed by one biographer as the title of a book, “Born and Made for Friendship.” He had so many friends…of all types. With the learned and intelligent he was delighted with their cleverness; if with unlearned or stupid people he finds amusement in their folly; he adapts himself to the tastes of all, while with ladies generally and even with his wife, Alice, his conversation is made up of humor and playfulness. “There is no one less guided, however, by the opinion of the multitude but on the other hand no one sticks more closely to common sense.”

Even from his youth More was so pleased with joking that it might seem to some that it was the main interest of his life but never as far as buffoonery and never towards bitterness. He was delighted apparently when the jests were aimed at himself, especially if the wit employed had subtlety to it. Erasmus believed that there was nothing that occurred in this life from which he could not or did not extract some humor.

A Scholarly Writer and Lecturer

More’s intellect was not only quick and witty but profound and erudite. He studied the Fathers of the Church and lectured on The City of God by St. Augustine when scarcely more than a youth. His friend declares that old men and priests were not ashamed to take a lesson in divinity from a young layman and not at all sorry to have done so.

As early as 1503 he wrote a number of poems and verses, some in Chaucerian format; some witty, some sentimental, all philosophical and one, especially, historical… “Lamentation at the Death of Queen Elizabeth” the widow of Henry VII whose marriage joined the White Rose to the Red after the Wars that lasted years. Thomas wrote the life of John Pico, Earl of Mirandola whose life pattern he wished to emulate. Pico had thought of becoming a Religious but like More he decided to remain a layman but to give his life to Christ’s teachings.

Thomas was of a different mind. He translated the Latin biography of Pico and adds to it paraphrases in verse of Pico’s Rules for a Christian Life, Weapons of Spiritual Warfare and Properties of a Lover . Thomas believed strongly as could be seen by the repetition of the thought in various ways: that although (he) knew the life of a religious is a higher form, he points out that as far as individual sanctity is concerned it is far better, though probably more difficult to be a saint as a layman instead of a mediocre monk. For “There are monks who hardly belong to the outer circle (of Christians) while there are twice married men whom Christ admits into the inner circle of his friends.”

By 1513 More was at work on the History of Richard III and the next year this scholar and wit was appointed Commissioner of Sewers for River Thames! This indeed must have tickled his sense of humor!

In 1515 he wrote his famous Utopia …Book II that is, and Book I the following year. Utopia means “nowhere ” as we all know but there are almost as many opinions as to the meaning of the book itself as the number of readers. There were excellent ideas on the reforms both of State and Church but it is important for us to remember that More wrote it more or less with tongue in cheek and based entirely on the premise that the society described was one based on Reason alone.

By this time, 1517, More had undertaken at least two trips for London merchants and the King and High Lord Chancellor (Cardinal Wolsey) were so impressed with his handling of these matters that they persuaded him by Christmas to enter the King’s service as Privy Counselor and the following year as a Judge to hear the complaints of poor people.

In addition to approximately 200 letters both in English and Latin (he wrote more than a dozen letters to his friends while a prisoner in the Tower and More had no idea that they would be read except by the intimate friends to whom they were addressed). His nephew, William Rastell, preserved the books and the letters and it was, indeed, a dangerous matter to be caught with any published or unpublished writings of More’s especially if they touched on “the King’s matter” which most of them did…those at least which were written during the last seven years of More’s life.

In 1528 he received permission from Bishop Tunstal to read and refute heretical books and for the next six years he enters a literary crusade against the heresies of Luther, Frith and Tyndale. As a matter of fact, there are more than 600 quotes from Holy Scripture two thirds for the New Testament and one third from the Old….and this does not include his account of the Passion of Our Lord.

A Delightful Household

But let us return for a few moments to More’s delightful home. What was the household of Thomas More really like? Well, no one gives us a truer picture than his darling favorite Meg. She tells us that her tutor, Mr. Gunnell, suggested that she write a sort of family register or journal and note the domestic events whether of joy or grief. He recommends that Meg write it in English for he thinks it expedient for her not “altogether to neglect English even for the more honorable Latin.”

With much affection and graciousness Meg descries one of the first prolonged visits of the great scholar, Erasmus (this particular visitor did not give her step-mother equal pleasure especially when he wouldn’t hesitate to waken loudly the whole household seeking candles to replace those that had burned down by the wee hours while he was writing)! Erasmus made lengthy visits to the More residence at Chelsea, and frequently.

“After supper” Meg says of his first visit, “they took dear Erasmus over the house in a sort of family procession from the Buttery to the Scalding House and to our dear Academia…this was the tutoring area. In addition to More’s children who even after their marriage remained at Chelsea with their spouses and children and continued their studies, there was his stepdaughter, Alice, who became Lady Alington and there was Giles Heron, More’s ward, who married his daughter Cicily; while his daughter, Elizabeth, became the wife of Dancey, one of the tutors. His adopted daughter, Margaret Giggs, wedded their sometime fellow scholar, young Clement and, of course Meg marred William Roper who; many years later wrote the life of his illustrious Father-in-Law. All were instructed in humane letters. In all, including More’s aged Father and his father’s third wife, forty-one people lived under this expansive and hospitable roof.

Erasmus said, “The household was a very platonic Academy….Were it not an injustice,” he added, “to compare it with an academy where disputations concerning numbers and figures were only occasionally mingled with discussions on moral virtues, and so I should rather call his house a School of Christianity for while there is no one in it who does not study the liberal sciences, the special care of all is piety and virtue. No quarreling or ill-tempered words are even heard and idleness is never seen.” Reverence toward one another seemed to be the keyword – More belonged to the old and the new. He believed that his daughters as well as his sons should be educated, since he himself was a scholar and a bitter foe of all obscurantism. While he loved the new learning and adopted the new methods he saw that there remained something of the old things that were priceless and imperishable. In his final choice he seemed to belong rather to the old world than to the new, for, as a Catholic strong in the one true Faith, he knew by the grace of Faith that true doctrines are unchangeable and though they be strangely or pragmatically interpreted for any reason whatever, the contradiction of a true doctrine is never acceptable.

In contrast with such dogmatic matter let us return again to his beloved Meg’s account of the household and the story of her father’s tenderness and gentleness with his children. In speaking of the two younger children she says, “How singular is the love Cecy and Jock have for each other…like that of twins. Jack was slower at his lessons but had a resolution of character which Cecy altogether lacks! Last night,” she writes, “when Erasmus spoke of children’s sins, I observed her squeeze Jack’s hand with all her might. I know what she was thinking of .”

It seems that all the children were forbidden to go near a favorite part of the river bank which had given way from too much use but there were small foot prints in the mud as well as a small bunch of flowers the like of which grew only by the river. Neither Cecy nor Jack would admit they transgressed, so Jack was “sentenced” to be whipped. As he walked off with his tutor, Meg noticed that Cecy turned very pale and Meg told her father that she was sure her sister was guilty. More said “Never mind, we cannot beat a girl and ’twill answer the same purpose; in flogging him we will flog both.” Meg thought that Cecy would own up but she apparently hadn’t the courage for that. When Jack came back smirched with tears, she put her arm about his neck and they walked off together into the Nuttery. Since then, Meg said she has been more devoted to him than ever, if possible, and he boy-like finds satisfaction in making her his little slave…”

“But the beauty,” said Meg, “lay in my father’s improvement of the circumstances. Taking Cecy on his knee that evening (for she was not ostensibly in disgrace) he began to talk of atonement and mediation for sin and who it was that bore our sins for us on the tree. Tis thus he turns the daily accidents of our quiet lives into lessons of deep import not pedantically delivered, ex cathedra, but dwelling forth from a full and fresh mind.” How many of us know fathers like that?

The More household had many pets of great variety. More explained to Erasmus the philosophy behind it. There was hardly a member of the household who had not a dumb pet of some sort. “I encourage the taste in them not only because it fosters humanity and affords harmless recreation but because it promotes habits of forethought, and regularity. No child or servant of mine has liberty to adopt a pet which he is too lazy or ‘nice’ to attend to himself. A little management may enable even a young gentlewoman to do this without soiling her hands. And to neglect giving them proper food at proper times entails a disgrace of which everyone of them would be ashamed.”

After a ramble in the meadows one day when Erasmus was holding forth on the herbs used for food and in Europe for medicine, More pointed out some of the flowers and weeds that grow in the fields and hedges of the estate.

“There is many a plant that I entertain in my garden that the fastidious would cast forth. I like to teach my children the use of common things…to know for instance the use of flowers and weeds that grow here,” and he goes on to enumerate them: “Camomile to lull a raging toothache; juice of buttercup to clear his head by sneezing; Vervain for ague; crowfoot for blisters; Woodruff, he said, for the liver and pimpernel promoted laughter and poppy, sleep. Thyme giveth pleasant dreams and as for Rosemary I let it run all over my garden walls not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and therefore to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem at our funeral wakes and in the burial grounds…” and then he breaks off with a remark about his son in law…. “Here I am prating like a school boy before his master, for here sits John Clement who is the best botanist and herbalist of us all.” A very neat touch of recognition.

Two Dear Friends

Meg records a most interesting conversation between Erasmus and her father. “Says Erasmus to Father, ‘I marvel you have never entered into the King’s service in some public capacity, wherein your learning both of men and things would not only serve your own interest but that of your friends and the public.’ Father smiled and made answer: ‘I am better and happier as I am. As for my friends, I already do for them all I can, so they can hardly consider me in their debt. As for myself the yielding to their solicitations that I would put myself forward, for the benefit of the world in general, would be like printing a book at the request of friends that the public may be charmed with what in fact it values as little as a Doit (a small copper coin formerly in use in the Netherlands, Erasmus’ country.) The Cardinal offered me a pension a retaining fee to the King but I told him I did not care to be a mathematical point, to have position without substance.’

‘I would not have you slave to the King” said Erasmus, howbeit you might assist him and be useful to him.’

‘The change of the word doth not alter the matter’ said Father. ‘I should be a slave as completely as if I had a collar around my neck.’

Then More gives a picture of his life to Erasmus which Meg records in these words: “How could that be compassed in a way so abhorrent to my nature. At present I live as I will, to which very few Courtiers could pretend. Half a dozen blue-coated serving men answer my turn in the house, garden, field and on the river; I have a few strong horses for work, none for show; plenty of plain food for a healthy family and enough, with a hearty welcome for a score of guests that are not dainty. The length of my wife’s train infringeth not the statute, and, for myself, I so hate bravery that my motto is ‘Of those that you see in scarlet not one is happy.’ I have a regular profession, which supports my house and enables me to promote peace and justice. I have a leisure to chat with my wife and sport with my children. I have hours for devotion and hours for philosophy and the liberal arts which are absolutely medicinal to me as antidotes to the sharp but contradicted habits engendered by the Law. If there is anything in a court life which can compensate for the loss of any of these blessings, pray tell me what it is, for, I confess, I know not.”

But More did enter into the King’s service and while he needed neither the prestige nor the increase in income, he began by complying with the request of Cardinal Wolsey who was High Chancellor at the time. More was sent on various diplomatic missions in behalf of the merchants of England, one to France in 1528. So successful was he that in the same year he was appointed Chancellor of Lancaster and High Steward of Cambridge University. He had been made High Steward of Oxford the year before. Mention is made of it here because the suggestion was made several years later by the forty year old Dr. Thomas Cranmer that the opinion of the University students should be polled regarding the validity of the dispensation by the Pope given Henry to marry his brother’s widow. It was like suggesting that the opinion of the students taught by Hans Kung at Tubingen should be sought on his denial of the Pope’s infallibility. To Thomas More heresy was not merely a matter of semantics. “Heretics,” he wrote, “be all that obstinately hold any self minded opinion contrary to the doctrine that the common known Catholic Church teacheth and holdeth as necessary to salvation.”

The story of Henry VIII’s divorce is admittedly sordid, as is the case of most broken vows of the Sacrament of marriage. Henry had been given a dispensation to marry his sister-in-law when widowed. It was a legitimate decision, as the Church can make any regulation concerning marriage and any changes with the exception, of course, of changing the essence or substance of the Sacrament itself which Christ instituted. In simple terms a valid marriage holds until death parts the spouses. And it is the teaching of the Church that sufficient grace is contained in that Sacrament to solve any problems arising throughout its existence. But like all grace it must be accepted by the individuals concerned. The prohibition concerning the brother or sister-in-law of the spouses was a wise regulation to protect a family relationship while the parties were alive. However the Church, being a wise and loving mother, has given through the centuries, a dispensation after the death of one of the spouses not only to royalty but in any particular case for which there was a justifiable reason and no impediments. Henry’s frail and sickly brother, Edward, was married to Catherine of Aragon when she was not quite 16 years old and Edward died when he was fifteen. Their marriage was never consummated. Henry VIII petitioned Rome for a dispensation to marry Catherine after his brother’s death as he, then, was successor to the throne.

Sir Thomas More was in his forty-seventh year when he was given the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. Wolsey, the high Chancellor of England was fifty-two (and the last Cleric to hold that position). Henry was thirty-four and his Queen was forty-one – Anne Boleyn was between twenty and twenty-three years of age.

Henry in his earlier years had been greatly interested in matters of the Faith. Alarming to him was the progress the apostate monk, Martin Luther, was making in Germany with his writings and lectures after he left the Catholic priesthood and the Church and married a nun. Cardinal Wolsey ordered all of Luther’s books to be burned in St. Paul’s Church yard, never suspecting that he, the cardinal, would be blamed for the terrible schism in his own country with its anti-papal feeling that persists in England even today.

Anglicans today both in England and in this country with their customary bow to superficial tradition or the external show of it seen ready now to “Partake of the Eucharist” with Catholics without the conversion that alone would make them members of the One True Catholic Church. They are unfortunately aided and abetted in this loss of divine integrity by the falsely Ecumenical Catholics, both cleric and lay, despite the teachings of the Church and the warnings and prohibitions of Our Holy Father. The words describing a national trait of the British people, their love for tradition, is less emotionally perceived but similar in attitude in lighter matters. For instance the origin of the salute given by all naval officers as they left their ship, turned to the bow, and formally saluted was not then an empty gesture. Near the bow was a niche on every ship that held a statue of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven and Earth. So in deep reverence each officer and seaman saluted, boarding and leaving. But even now while the statue and meaning have long since been removed, the empty place receives the salute.

Going back in our thoughts now to 1521, Henry, while philandering with several of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting (and others), fancied himself quite a theologian. He, with the help of some others had prepared a document on The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments written in Latin and assisted by Bishop Fisher and More. (No Protestant today believes in Seven Sacraments.) The latter found the language “extravagant” and pointed out to Henry:

“When I found the Pope’s authority highly advanced and with strong arguments mightily defended,” said More, “I said unto his Grace: ‘I must put your Highness in remembrance of one thing, and that is this. The Pope, as your Highness knoweth, is a prince as you are, and in the League with all other Christian princes. It may hereafter so fall out that your Grace and he may vary on some points of the League, whereupon may grow breach of amity and war between you both. I think it best that the place be amended and his authority more slenderly touched.’ ”

And it is that statement that some non-Catholic writers and a few others, base their opinion that More did not die for Papal Supremacy but for political considerations or for his conscience in the matter of Henry’s divorce and the succession of Elizabeth to the throne. More was only pointing out to his sovereign that at that time Leo X had secular powers as well as spiritual and it was these that the chancellor was being prudent about. It had always been taught and certainly accepted by Thomas More that the Pope was the supreme head of the Church and his decisions final in the matters of Faith and Morals. There are no new doctrines in the Church since the time of Christ and supremacy of the Pope goes back to the establishment of Peter by Our Lord Himself. No individual who is not a successor to Peter, even a king, can claim that authority for himself any more than could Luther or Calvin or Mary Baker Eddy, Brigham Young or you or I.

But Henry did not make any changes in his book on the sacraments and it was presented to the pontiff who soon expressed his gratitude by conferring on Henry the title, “Defender of the Faith”. The irony of the situation and part of the tragedy of its inconsistencies is that the title was handed down through Henry’s successors so that at the present time Queen Elizabeth II wears the medallion with the words engraved “Defender of the Faith”. What “Faith”? Great Britain’s Anglican, whatever that stands for today, and Presbyterian (with many completely contradictory beliefs) for the Queen is Head of the Church in Scotland also!

When the Faith goes, everything goes, even reason and sanity of language.

Henry Persists in Seeking a Divorce

In the meantime, King Henry decided to divorce his wife, Catherine. At Blackfriars convent in London, the Papal Court of Inquiry began hearing the testimony and less than six months later the Pope requested the case to be sent to Rome. Cardinal Wolsey had been carrying on, unsuccessfully, negotiations for the King’s divorce and because of his failure he was dismissed and Sir Thomas More became the first layman to become the High Lord Chancellor of England.

In November of 1534 he opened the Reformation Parliament called for by the King to reform “divers new enormities sprung up among the people” but More now is not speaking necessarily of the “reforms” Henry had in mind. It was also referred to as Henry’s Long Parliament. It left a permanent mark on England as no other parliament had done before or since.

The first attack was on the Clergy. When the House of Commons met the slogan at their meeting seemed to have been “Down with the Church,” according to Bishop John Fisher, who ascribed it to their lack of Faith only. This was resented in the House of Commons for they considered this equivalent to declaring they were as ill as Turks or Saracens. The next year More was asked to sign a new divorce plea to the Pope but he refused. Some biographers give as More’s reason that he was a friend of Queen Catherine and also a friend of the Emperor, and Catherine’s uncle Charles the Fifth. While these are facts, they by no means constitute the reasons for More’s opposition. As a matter of fact when Charles had been told of the many ways in which More spoke favorable in Catherine’s cause, he sent a letter to More through his ambassador. But More refused it. He explained to the delegate that while these things concerned him no less than his own life not only for the sake of Catherine and the Emperor but for Henry’s soul and the consequences to England. Therefore he could not accept a private letter officially. These are the words of Thomas. More on the sacredness of the marriage bond: “This Holy Sacrament was begun by God in Paradise and He there instituted it to signify the conjunction between Christ and His church. Yet in that coupling matrimony (if they couple in Him) He coupleth Himself also to their souls, with grave according to the sign that is to say which He hath set to signify that grace and with that grace if they apply to work therewith He helpeth them to make their marriage honourable and their bed undefiled. And with that grace also He helpeth them toward the good education and bringing up of such children as shall come between them.”

If asked, as had been said, most people would give as a reason for Thomas More’s execution his opposition to Henry’s divorce and his “marriage” to Anne Boleyn and the succession of her illegitimate child, Elizabeth, to the throne. This was not the case. It is true that Thomas believed in the indissolubility of marriage but the main issue was Henry’s claim to be head of the Church in England. The distinguished historian, Hilaire Belloc insists, however, that it is important to understand Anne Boleyn’s place in the whole scheme of the time.

From her time until as late as the first half of the 20th century, Belloc claims, it was taken for granted by all historians that she was part of the origins of the English “Reformation” but in the fifties this sound tradition was questioned and weakened to explain Henry’s quarrel with Rome. Belloc explains this change by pointing out that the general skepticism of our time is usually ready to accept anything new because new falsehoods sound more picturesque as a rule than well worn truths! But a more powerful motive, he believes, is to make the causes for the change of religion in England a little less ignoble than they really are.

Belloc mentions Professor Pollard who was considered the chief authority on the details of this period in England maintaining the fantastic theory that Henry’s trying to get rid of his wife was not connected with “the other woman” but for the larger reasons of State and that he had the policy of getting rid of his wife, Catherine, for many years before his fascination with Anne.

Belloc refutes that with dispatch. “The idea is not only fantastic but desperate; it has no chance of being accepted out of England and I do not think it will be accepted even in England save by those who are very hard up for material in the whitewashing of Henry’s character.”

A rather recent convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism tells an amusing anecdote she heard before her conversion. She said it annoyed her enough to get her thinking. It seems a non-Anglican said to his Anglican female acquaintance, “How can you belong to a church whose founder married eight wives and murdered six?”

The Anglican woman drew herself up to her full height and answered, “That’s simply not true. Henry married only six wives and executed two.” (!)

Impossible to Avoid Divorce Issue

When the king continued to press More on the subject of his divorce, Thomas reminded him that when he first came into the Royal Service the most virtuous lesson that the King taught him – that he wished Thomas to look unto God and after God unto him. In good faith he said that he did or else might his Grace account him his most unworthy subject.

In the process of time the Lord High Chancellor found it more and more difficult to avoid the issue. Henry was a typical P.F. (pious fraud). He knew he couldn’t persuade his Chancellor to abandon his belief in the indissolubility of a valid marriage for the purpose of remarrying another woman so he approached the subject from another angle. His conscience, he declared solemnly, bothered him that he had lived as husband with Catherine for so many years although she was his brother’s widow. True he had received a dispensation from the Pope but his own conscience bothered him nevertheless (after these years and acutely when he had become so fascinated with Anne.)

Thomas More, who never wanted to be the Chancellor in the first place, begged to resign because of ill health. This was by no means only a pretense for he was troubled with a disease of the breast for many months and was told by his physicians that such long diseases were dangerous.

After his resignation he was called upon by several commissions and delivered messages from the King and was confronted with many false charges. However in Rome 1534, on March twenty-third, the validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage was confirmed. Shortly after, the Act of Succession, passed by Parliament declared Anne’s children the first in succession to the crown…and by law Catherine’s daughter, Mary, was deliberately made illegitimate. Anyone who would not accept the law was guilty of treason. More received the news on Easter Sunday when he had attended Mass with his son-in-law, William Roper and together they had visited More’s stepdaughter and her husband. It was at their home that Thomas was summoned to appear before the Royal Commission. He spent Sunday evening with his family and as was his custom he prepared to go to Mass and Holy Communion. Before he left the next morning he said the difficult good-byes to his wife and children but would not let them see him embark on the barge that was to take him down the Thames to the meeting with the Royal Commission.

The cliché that history repeats itself is true but unfortunately we learn little from that fact. It is my intention that throughout this brief view of St. Thomas More’s life there an be interlaced the comparison with our times and evils….sometimes unfortunately worse…and if there is not a radical change, they will get far worse before they get better. If this seems like a harbinger of doom let me hasten to remind our readers what they know from their earliest days: that the Church will never be destroyed wholly for Our Lord guaranteed that. His Church began with twelve bishops eleven of whom were faithful and all eleven of whom were martyrs. The first thirty-one popes were martyrs but we were never told how many members of the Church Our Lord will be with to the consummation of the world. In England the only loyal successor to the Apostles, John Fisher, remained true to the Faith and a month before Thomas, was executed by royal command, who likewise was executed and his head put on a spike on London Bridge.

While this one divorce was sufficient to tear apart Christendom in England and as Belloc claims made impossible the defense of Christendom in all Europe against Luther and Calvin, imagine the startling numbers of divorces among Catholics today – sometimes called “annulments” granted on “psychological grounds” by the many tribunals of clerics some of whose sessions are held scandalously on closed television! Father Mark A. Pilon in an introduction to Dr. Marchner’s brilliant critique of current tribunal practice and the proposed revision of Canon Law, points out that in 1976 alone, more than 15,000 annulments were declared in this country and that number can be expected to greatly increase (and has) in the years following, given the present orientation of growing numbers of our tribunal officials.

In discussion with priests in a diocese notorious for the ease and therefore the tremendous number of annulments granted, (many after years of marriage and many children) the psychological basis had been explained on the assumption that one or other of the spouses did not realize what their marriage vows entailed when they contracted their marriage. Does anyone have a clear picture of the future in any vocation? In marriage the vow is made “for better or worse in sickness or health till death do them part.” The primary ends of marriage are the procreation and education of children…in God’s plan and the secondary aim is for companionship and a barrier to concupiscence. Whether the marriage turns out for better or worse does not invalidate it, for on what psychological grounds can a person be declared by this free act of will for the marriage under investigation and for which the parties had no clairvoyant view of the future. How then can they contract another marriage with another act of free will. In other terms, no one has a chance to foresee the future of any marriage. We’ve gone a long way since the 16th century.

Thomas More was willing to sign a statement of succession for he believed parliament could make any individual a successor to the throne of England but he could never agree to parliament’s declaring Henry head of the Church as the Act of Succession did in the Preamble. In 1533 as Leland Miles put it, Henry married the pregnant Anne Boleyn and assigns the divorce issue to Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer invalidates Catherine’s marriage and validates Henry’s marriage to Anne. That same year More refuses to attend the Coronation of Anne at Westminster Abbey and three months later the Pope excommunicates Henry.


In the Spring of 1534 More is committed to the Tower of London where in addition to the many letters he wrote to his family and friends wrote his famous “A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation,” a Eucharist Treatise , History of the Passion and beautiful meditations, some of which are available in a little volume called The Heart of Thomas More and selected by E. E. Reynolds.

In June Cardinal John Fisher was executed and on July 6, Thomas More. His body was buried in St. Peter’s Chapel Tower. His head, like Fisher’s was posed on London Bridge but taken by Margaret and placed in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan’s, Canterbury.

“It is a great comfort,” said Father Mathew Russell, S.J. in The Faith of Sir Thomas More (1913) “to remember that, at that crisis in English history which is called the Reformation, the Catholic cause was represented by Sir Thomas More, one of the holiest and most delightful characters in all history; and the Protestant, by Henry VIII with his six wives, two of whom he got rid of by cutting off their heads. If God wanted to reform His Church, He could not use men like Luther and King Henry. The simple, earnest and vivid faith of such a man as Thomas More is a consoling confirmation of Catholic truth.”

But we must not allow ourselves to swallow the old bromide of excuse that only the leaders were responsible. Each Catholic is responsible for his own loyalty to the Faith. In some ages it is more difficult to maintain in its fullness than others but it has always been taught that God never tempts an individual beyond his strength; so that each Englishman was responsible to correspond with the grace God gives him. Faith is God’s gift – we do not lose it but by an act of our will we can give it up. Our Saint said, “It is no mastery for your children to go to Heaven for everybody gives you good example; you see virtue rewarded and vice punished so that you are carried up to Heaven even by the chins. But if you live in the time that no man will give you good counsel nor no man will give you good example when you shall see virtue punished and vice rewarded, if you will then stand fast and firmly stick to God upon pain of my life though but half good, God will allow you for the whole.” But sacrifices have to be made. Our salvation was not bought cheaply.

The great house at Chelsea was looted and confiscated. Immediately after the death of the Saint, Cromwell, the chancellor, came down to steal its library and other objects from More’s collection. More’s wife, Alice, was reduced to poverty having to sell everything of value that she could, including her gowns to pay for her husband’s maintenance in the Tower, – somewhat of a change in this day and age where criminals riot and vandalize to millions of dollars in the jails to protest certain conditions to which they object!

More’s little witticisms at the execution block are familiar. When he had difficulty mounting the stand he asked for assistance in going up and for the rest, “I’ll shift for myself!” He placed his head on the block telling the executioner to be careful of his beard for “it had never offended his Highness,” and gave an admonition to consider the shortness of his neck. But his most memorable of all: “I die, the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

How tragic that some of those of the Faith in this country who were called upon not to die for the Faith but only to live it when campaigning for public office and challenged by bigots would publicly declare that should the issue ever come up while in office they are Americans first and Catholics after that: and so-called Catholic members of our Senate and appointees to our Supreme Court while declaring their “personal” opposition to abortion can without a qualm vote it into the highest law in the land!

What about Thomas More’s family? Did they suffer? Of course they did. And today Catholic mothers and fathers suffer to the degree that their offspring reject the teachings of the Church in which they have been brought up or become victims of the courses given by a skeptical Catholic or by nonCatholics both in Catholic or secular schools and universities, doctrineless instruction in C.C.D. courses and the like.

Thomas More let nothing interfere with the home-taught truths to his children under his supervision and when he had to be away “on business” he and they corresponded. He checked their progress by the stream of letters that passed between them.

By our subtitle we have indicated that interlaced in this little account of St. Thomas More we would in a manner of speaking compare “His Times and Ours” not always as a contrast, for there are evils in all ages since the time of Adam…but we have tried briefly to touch upon a few that touched in some way on the life and ideals of Saint Thomas.

Let us repeat unequivocally that as far as the break in Christendom in England was concerned while Anne Boleyn was essentially involved in the very beginnings by her insistence on the King’s getting rid of Catherine as his wife and Queen, nevertheless each individual Englishman who gave up his Faith was responsible for his own soul. It is the teaching of the Church to which all are subject that no man can be tempted beyond his strength to resist. And who knows better than God what that limitation is? All our Divine Lord asks at the start is a modicum of good will. After that His grace is sufficient. But He never interferes with His great gift to all of us, our freedom of will. Faith is indeed a gift but until it is accepted it is just an item like a box of candy on the shelf of a shop…about to be given as a gift but only becoming so when it is presented to and accepted by the recipient.

Five years ago the Rev. Edward Holloway, S.T.L., Editor of Faith magazine in England, commented on the series of important articles printed in The Times reflecting the deepening crisis of Anglicanism brought on by its total loss of a Magisterium. In the first series of articles the question is asked, ‘So what is Anglicanism?” The publication of a report unanimously agreed by 18 of England’s “most illustrious scholars” would seem to indicate that the nominal 28 million Anglicans in England would hardly be offended by the report; the 18 theologians hold in common a belief in the “likelihood” of God and reverence for Jesus. They disagree about everything else. The reports say that belief should be rational and critical with a strong sense of the relativity of language…the very excuse priests today employ to defend Teilard de Chardin. His views they say are not heretical its just a case of semantics…the relativity of language!

In the United States, Canada and New Zealand the Anglican Church gave the decision to ordain women and any church such as the four million member Episcopal Church would be free to do so and actually has. When Thomas More was asked about women priests in the Catholic Church more than four hundred years ago he pointed out that had Christ approved of women priests. He could have appointed the perfect woman as the first, His Mother. Today the rebellious nuns are attempting to answer that argument by saying that in the culture of ancient times women were given a less prominent place. One may, meaning no irreverence at all, imagine Our Lord being presented with this argument backing away and with hand to forehead saying, “Oh, I never thought of that.”

We forget in our own little world where cultures change that with Almighty God all time is NOW.

The author of “A Man for All Seasons” explains that he feels the need to apologize for treating Thomas More a Christian Saint as a hero of selfhood…whatever that may mean. The playwright Bolt, says it means that he was impressed by the fact that the whole drama of More’s life hinged on the fact that he brought about his own death because he couldn’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie. But the ordinary lie, as Bolt calls it, declared that the King was head not only of the State but of the Church in England. This abolished the jurisdiction of the Pope in all matters even spiritual and placed the successor to Saint Peter subordinate to Henry VIII!

In More’s own words:

“We cannot think that Christ about to ascend into Heaven would have left His Church without any ruler or guide, in such a way that for the deciding of doubts, disputes and controversies for contradiction of dangerous and novel opinions for the repression of disobedience and rebellion and for the quieting of other disturbances in the Church, Christians would have no one to whom they might have recourse but be obliged for every trivial business to call together a General Council. Everyone can see what great confusion it would produce in the Church if no one had received such an authority from Christ!”

The very term, Supremacy of the Pope, for which belief Thomas gave his life, involves more than the definition, “highest authority,” found in the dictionary, much more. Modern non-Catholic scholars while still fascinated by the Man for All Seasons , at times imply and in some instances declare quite explicitly that political considerations were involved not only in the case of the King’s divorce but in More’s trial and execution. While, we said, only another saint can fully understand a saint’s sanctity, once Rome has spoken and proclaimed a particular execution a martyrdom even the rest of us in the Faith have a more accurate conception of what is involved than someone separated from Rome by disbelief.

But it was the principle of papal supremacy for which More died and it is one of the major doctrines being attacked today, not so much on an academic basis but actually flaunting it in practice. One optimistic pastor estimated it would take about ten years to bring back the laity or at least to see positive signs of their return but that it would be at least twenty years to put down the rebellious spirit of the clergy and convents and restore the true other-world holiness. All seem to be aware of the damage already done…some of it in the very presence of the Vicar of Christ on his visit to this country.

When the report that in England there were several “shared churches” as an ecumenical gesture (a) Father David Woodward writing in The Tablet (England) states: “I am proposing that at St. Andrew’s shared church the distinction between Anglican and Catholics at the respective Eucharists should not be observed after Maundy Thursday this year for anyone in the two communities who so wishes….”

Pope St. Pius X in condemning Modernism declared that it combined all the heresies, all the evil of error in Faith. And the blessed saints and martyrs in modern interpretation of their lives are not immune from these false interpretations. Take Saint Francis of Assisi after whom so many Anglican and Episcopal Churches are named. Protestants see him as the bird-on-a-shoulder-saint. How can they adopt him in all seriousness as a patron when one of his chief virtues was his loyalty to the Holy Father and the Holy Roman Church? Celano, the saint’s famous biographer, says that as a result of Francis’ preaching “the damnable heresies were routed. Francis declared most strongly that in all things and above all things the Faith of the Holy Roman Church must be maintained, revered and observed; that in this Faith alone all could be saved” (Hiararin Felder O.F.M. Cap. The Ideals of Saint Francis ).

Some see a resemblance between one of the more recently canonized saints, Elizabeth Seton and Thomas More. Both, it is true were devoted to the Mass. She abandoned Anglicanism because she couldn’t bear to be deprived of receiving Our Divine Lord in Holy Communion while outside the Church. Yet on the occasion of her canonization in the interests of Ecumenism the rector of an Episcopalian church in a suburb of New York was introduced into the pulpit of a Catholic Church at services honoring Saint Elizabeth Seton…”since,” said the Catholic pastor, “this is a saint we both share…” (no recognition of the conversion which cost Mother Seton so much).

Saint John Ogilvie, the only canonized Scottish martyr of the so-called Reformation was likewise smeared with the modern brush. The Guardian, a paper in England, in giving a brief account of his canonization unblushingly announced that he died for Religious Freedom! If John Ogilvie had given one iota of suggestion that he believed we are free to believe anything but what we ought he would never had been executed. He believed that only Christ’s Truth can make us free. In the papers prepared by the procurator for his cause was this official statement in 1628. The letter of Fr. V. Cepari, S.J. Procurator of the Cause of John Ogilvie includes an account of Father Ogilvie’s activities and his trial and the procurator adds, “He could not by threats or promises be drawn into heresy but persisted stoutly and steadfastly in his confession of the Catholic Faith and detestation of heresy and claimed that the Pope had special jurisdiction in the realms of king and over the whole world and can excommunicate any king who is a heretic. He further claimed that no man can find salvation outside of the Catholic Church. he was therefore condemned to death.”

From Saint Thomas More’s own parish, Saint Dunstan’s, Canterbury reports drift into Moreana-

One Englishman boasted that Thomas More was a true Anglican….One of the members of Amici Moris, dedicated to the writings of Thomas More, answered this silly remark with the thrust, “To say that Saint Thomas More was an Anglican is like saying that Saint Dominic was a Calvinist.”

Now let Saint Thomas himself have the last words:

“But since that upon Saint Peter’s first confession of the right faith that Christ was God’s son, our Lord made him his universal vicar and under him head of his Church, and that for his successor he should be the first upon whom and whose firm confessed faith he would build his Church and of any that was only man make him the first and chief head and ruler thereof, therefore he showed him that his faith, that is to say the faith by him confessed, should never fail in his Church, nor never did it, notwithstanding his denying. For yet stood still the light of faith in Our Lady, of whom we read in the Gospel continual assistance to her sweetest son without fleeing or flitting. And in all other we find either fleeing from him one time or another, or else doubt of his resurrection after his death, his dear mother only except, for the signification and remembrance whereof the Church yearly in the Tenebrae lessons leaveth her candle burning still when all the remnant, that signifieth his apostles and disciples, be one by one put out. And since his faith in effect failed, and yet the faith that he professed abode still in Our Lady, the promise that God was made, as it seemeth, meant to him but as head of the Church. And therefore Our lord added thereto, ‘And thou being one of these days converted, confirm and strengthen thy brethren.’ In which by these words Our Saviour meant and promised that the faith should stand for ever. So that the gates of hell should not prevail there against.”