“I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”–Thomas More
“Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years time. He may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history. For he was above all things historic; he represented at once a type, a turning point and an ultimate destiny. If there had not happened to be that particular man at that particular moment, the whole of history would have been different.”
–G. K. Chesterson, “A Turning Point in History”
We were assigned to read the two act play by the woman who ran the English department at the small Catholic college in Houston where I had been granted a scholarship, much to the amusement of friends and family because I had declared myself an atheist at eighteen. It was writing like this that seared and mesmerized my youthful idealistic soul:Decades ago in an undergraduate English class, I was introduced to Thomas More through the eyes of another atheist, screenwriter Robert Bolt. One of the more successful playwrights of the last century, Bolt wrote the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and The Mission. But it was A Man For All Seasons for which he was best known.
Norfolk: I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us for friendship?
More: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for friendship?
Cranmer: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas?
More: I don’t know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man’s conscience. I condemn no one.
Cranmer: Then the matter is capable of question?
Cranmer: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty — and sign.
More: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? No, I will not sign.
Bolt’s fascination with Thomas More derives from the extensive research he did on the man. A man, Bolt explains in his Preface to A Man For All Seasons, who did not race to martyrdom unlike most of the saints revered by the Church rejected by Bolt. Quite the contrary. More was a man of law and a loyal subject of the King of England, considering Henry to be a friend. Married with four children whom he loved dearly, Thomas More was a lover of life, good food and fine wines. He was a humanist; a concept which in the sixteenth century, conveyed submission to God and his law. A man who did not want to die.
The years from 1529 through 1535 were years replete with attempted compromise. In 1529, Sir Thomas More was appointed Lord Chancellor of England; in 1535, More was beheaded for his treasonable refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy declaring Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and which validated Henry’s annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boyleyn. Over and over the statesman sought conciliation- a way to reconcile the rupture between his king and his faith; a way to prevent the schism between the Church and the King. Finally More persuades King Henry to accept his resignation as Lord Chancellor in hopes that the resignation could serve to recuse him from signing. Bolt’s play reveals a frightened, increasingly desperate man as he seeks a way out.
But More’s Catholicism was no obligation bounded by Sunday Mass and the sacraments; his faith defined his person-hood. As a young college student, I recall feeling envy for the clarity of this person portrayed by Bolt in his play. Feeling a profound desire for Something or Someone so great that were it to be taken away I would cease to exist, I developed a high regard for Thomas More all those years ago- a deep and real sense of who he had been and even of who I hoped to be.
In a futile attempt to help his beloved daughter Meg understand why he cannot sign the Act of Supremacy, the playwright writes this in Act ll of A Man For All Seasons:
MORE You want me to swear to the Act of Succession?
MARGARET “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth.” Or so you’ve always told me.
MARGARET Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.
MORE What is an oath then but words we say to God?
MARGARET That’s very neat.
MORE Do you mean it isn’t true?
MARGARET No, it’s true.
MORE Then it’s a poor argument to call it “neat,” Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then-he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.
MARGARET In any State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you’ve done already. It’s not your fault the State’s three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.
MORE That’s very neat. But look now . . . If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all. . . why then perhaps we must stand fast a little-even at the risk of being heroes.
MARGARET (Emotionally) But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?
MORE Well . . . finally . . . it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.
In the year 2000, then Pope John Paul ll declared St. Thomas More to be the “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.”