St. Thomas More for our time: not a cultural war hero

In an age when the Catholic Church in the United States is flirting with communion bans and populist nationalism, it’s good to ask again why Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians, isn’t a cultural war hero. .

The feast of More on the calendar of saints is June 22 (accordingly, the day the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops launches its Religious freedom week). He was martyred in 1535 after refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy by which Parliament made King Henry VIII the head of the Church of England.

Under this great political battle hides a more personal battle: Henry wanted Pope Clement VII to grant him the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. And the king wanted More’s approval for the cancellation. Plus also refused this. He was made a saint in 1935 and appointed patron of politicians by John Paul II in 2000.

More was indeed a remarkable man and a great saint. A brilliant humanist and lawyer, he wrote the classic Utopia at the height of the Renaissance; played a major role in the development of English common law; and was Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII until his resignation in 1532.

Over the past decades, More has been made famous by the power and popularity of Robert Bolt’s play “A man for all seasons“(who became a movie as well as). For a keen sense of man’s courage, humanity and holiness, I suggest the wonderful biography of Peter Ackroyd, The life of Thomas More.

Here are four principles for interpreting this luminous figure which hovers over our time as an inspiration and a challenge.

It wasn’t just marriage

At first glance, More is the perfect saint for the conservative Catholic inclined to think that the great political issues of our time have to do with the intersection of law and Church teaching on sex and marriage. Indeed, after being sentenced to his trial, More told the court: “It is not so much for this Supremacy that you seek my blood, that for that I would not condescend to the marriage.”

But it’s important to view More’s final struggle in light of the longer arc of his opposition to tyranny. Decades before his own death at the hands of Henry, More lamented King Tudor’s tyrannical actions manifested in the execution of political opponents, incitement to foreign wars and the encroachment on church freedoms. . Moreover, he dissected the vices of tyranny in Utopia and in his work called History of Richard III.

We reduce More to a character of a culture war if we only relate it to disputes over law and sexual ethics. We see it in its true light when we consider the breadth and depth of his opposition to the tyrannical impulses of a leader whose appetite for power has become the measure of law and truth (a phenomenon belonging to kings and to the presidents).

Freedom of the Church: yes and no

More was not a lonely modern hero type. He was more of a clergyman. He understood that his conscience was in communion with the mystical body of Christ. He saw in the primacy of the Pope a guarantor of the freedom of the Catholic Church in England and therefore a guarantor of the protection of conscience against the aggressive encroachment of the king.

As the Vatican proclamation of More as patron of statesmen says: “Saint Thomas More gave his life to defend the freedom of the Church in the face of the State. But in this way, he also defended the freedom and the primacy of the conscience of the citizen before the power of the State.

Of course, the freedom of the Church is an inalienable Catholic theological claim before the power of the State. Dignitatis Humanae, the 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council, explained: “It is a sacred freedom, because the Only Begotten endowed with it the Church which he bought with his blood.

But it’s important to note the problematic ways the concept can be deployed in religious freedom struggles today.

First, the notion of church freedom can become the de facto justification for religious freedom. This way of putting it not only diminishes the scope of the Declaration on Religious Freedom’s argument that the right to freedom of religion is based on the dignity of the human person, but it also tends to make freedom of religion the right of a collective rather than the right of the individuals who constitute the collective.

In addition, the emphasis on church freedom may also signal the view that freedom of conscience in civil society depends on the freedom of the church from government encroachment. But this is too one-sided a way to put the relationship between church freedom and freedom of conscience (as the next interpretive principle clearly shows).

More was a hero of conscience who persecuted heretics

As Lord Chancellor, More presided over the execution of heretics. Of Richard Bayfield, a former Benedictine monk who was found with forbidden books, More said: “The monk and the apostate [was] well and worthily burned at Smithfield. “

Biographer Ackroyd notes: “His adversaries were genuinely following their conscience, while More saw them as the harbinger of the devil’s rule on earth. “

More’s involvement in such practices is inhuman to us. And while we cannot just judge him by our standards, we also cannot forget that for him the freedom of the church may have guaranteed the freedom of conscience of Catholics, but it was not. a guarantor of the freedom of conscience of others, like the alleged apostate monk burnt at Smithfield.

Indeed, it took centuries after More for the Church to assert a right to religious freedom based on human dignity that applied to everyone, Catholics and heretics. To remember More’s persecuting faith is to recall the intolerance that lurks at the door of church freedom.

In the name of religious freedom, it’s time to associate Thomas More with Bartolomé de las Casas

More represents the culmination of the medieval Catholic Church in England. But it’s enlightening to pair him with a 16th-century contemporary who risked his life halfway around the world to stem the rapacious tide that unleashed on the indigenous peoples of the lands known as America.

The Dominican brother Bartolomé de las Casas denounced for decades the genocide of the natives pushed by the mixture of the cross and the sword, the church and the crown in Spain. Indeed, we forget that at the heart of all the colonial effort were assumptions about the diminished religious freedom of indigenous people which made them apt to become objects of violence.

We need to spend much more time thinking not only about what can infringe the freedom of the church, but also how the freedom of the church can affect others.