St. Thomas More Didn’t Die For This — Did He?

By Shaun Kenney, The Wanderer, August 15, 2019

Our European readers who are attempting to decipher the average Catholic in the United States would do themselves well to watch the film A Man for All Seasons featuring Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More and for good reason. One might posit that More’s example is what most Catholics in America think of when they consider the links between faith and citizenship.

For nearly 200 years, Catholicism would be treated much as French Jacobins would be treated in the wake of the American War for Independence — with hostility and contempt.

Allow me to rewind just a touch — a good 484 years to be precise. Thomas More was martyred in 1535 for his refusal to assent to the marriage, so goes the hagiography written by Robert Bolt in 1954 and turned into film after a successful debut on stage in London. By 1966, the story of More standing for conscience resonated strongly with many Catholics in the West, precisely for the reason that they balanced conscience between two vices: the unthinking patriotism of those loyal to the lusty King Henry VIII and the unfeeling pedantry of the bureaucratic class whose sole ambition was preferment.

Much of Bolt’s screenplay was inevitably viewed in the lens of the Cold War, yet for the Catholic world suffering under the boot of Soviet Communism the example meant something more — something that the political left could not decipher and could not attain. Much like Crassus in the film Spartacus written by the now-known Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in 1960, both the political left and the Catholic conscientious objector knew the evil of abasing oneself to the state.

Yet Spartacus could not martyr himself the way More did; Trumbo simply lacked the vocabulary Bolt knew by heart. It is the reason why the Soviets collapsed and Catholic Poland perseveres despite new ideologies threatening her fidelity to the faith of old.

More’s martyrdom presages an Anglican Catholicism that never was, or at least the one that could have flourished if allowed to do so under holy men such as John Cardinal Fisher and Reginald Cardinal Pole. Catholic England remains one of the great “what ifs” of history, and while Campion’s Brag continued to offer its body to the racks of Tyburn, her sons and daughters found refuge on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Catholic Maryland.
This is not to say that Catholics in America enjoyed a bed of roses by any stretch, as you well know. The Fifth of November was celebrated well into the American War of Independence when General George Washington — taught as a young man at Ferry Farm by a Jesuit schoolmaster no less — banned the practice of burning the Holy Father in effigy so as to welcome Catholics into the ranks of the Continental Army.

Georgetown University thrived under Jesuits worthy of the moniker “God’s Marines.” Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the sole Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence as a sign of our new nation’s inclusiveness of all faiths — Episcopalian, Baptists, Methodists, and even a rascally papist or two.

For the time, such olive branches were unspeakable in Protestant England. Elizabeth the First attempted religious toleration during her reign, only to be pushed into executing her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots while the so-called “Protestant wind” pushed the Spanish Armada back out to sea and into the fireships of Sir Walter Raleigh. For nearly 200 years, Catholicism would be treated much as French Jacobins would be treated in the wake of the American War for Independence — with hostility and contempt.

For Catholics newly found on the shores of a young republic, heroes were needed and in short supply. When Irish and then German immigrants appeared in numbers, they fanned out in the American Midwest and settled in American cities, bringing with them the very seeds of Catholicism — priests — that Elizabethan propagandists filled the heads of young men and women before sending them in barges to settle English America. Thus the hostilities of the Elizabethan era were waiting to meet these eager new immigrants who were determined to prove themselves both good Catholics and good Americans.

Given their numbers after the Great Famine, the Catholic hierarchy in America was overwhelmingly Irish, and the emphasis to present a façade of unity required a more Anglicized idea of what it meant to be a good Catholic in America. Thus the heroes of Catholic America would not be German or Slavic, but rather Irish and English. St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. John Fisher and Reginald Pole would join these ranks, but above them all? St. Thomas More.

Two Catholic Virtues

There are two reasons for this, and both of these reasons speak to the present day. More exemplified two very distinct Catholic virtues, ones that Americans instinctively embrace and totalitarians of any stripe — Elizabethan, socialist, or fascist, for example — instinctively reject.
First and foremost is the role of conscience in public life. Not the sort of gnostic conscience that embraces some abstract personal truth, nor the slavish devotion to rules. Rather, conscience properly formed that understands the subjective and objective qualities of its purpose are directed toward one end — to conform to the just and to the good.

Second and perhaps less discussed is the surrender of Christian pluralism to totalitarianism, something Bolt clearly communicates in A Man for All Seasons but is somewhat lost today. Critics of More will claim that he extended very little religious freedom to those who fought against the Catholic Church while ignoring the bloodthirsty nature of both Cromwell and the Elizabethan pogroms that followed the death of Queen Mary. Yet More’s defense regarding his silence is what touches the Catholic heart. We quote Bolt’s play in full:

“I am the King’s true subject, and I pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm. I say none harm. I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith I long not to live.”

Considering the events of the present day, and it is becoming increasingly clear to many faithful Catholics that our silence — our willingness to live good lives, to do none harm, say none harm, and think none harm — will not be enough.

Pro Church Demonstration in Poland

Poland’s Catholic bishops are already raising the banner of defiance against the postmodern ideologies attempting to grip their politics, and are being openly ridiculed by the so-called “enlightened” left pushing very much otherwise.

Already in Canada, the bishops have all but surrendered. Among our American bishops we see pockets of resistance, but they are pockets. In England, they turn our cathedrals into golf courses. In Germany they push for married priests.

Did St. Thomas More offer himself up as a martyr for this?

St. Thomas More — rather than accept a radical redefinition of marriage — allowed the state to cut his head off. That ought to be the spirit of any Catholicism worthy of the name. Those looking to decipher the Catholic American have no further to look than A Man for All Seasons. Conscience, religious freedom, and our silence…and if this be not enough to keep a man alive?

Well . . . you know the rest

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