Today is the feast day of Saints John Fischer and St. Thomas More, martyrs of the Church. An English statesman, Thomas More lived during the Reformation and part of the infamous reign of King Henry VIII. More, who became Chancellor of England, had lived an active life in government and law and was highly devoted to the King. During the beginning of Henry’s reign, More had high hopes. The King was a supporter of the arts, a humanist, and most of all a devout and loyal Catholic. At one point, Henry VIII even wrote the work Assertio Septem Sacramentorum or “Defence of the Seven Sacraments”, which earned him the title of Defender of the Faith from Pope Leo X. A man of the Church indeed, and a king who earned the utmost loyalty from Thomas More. During the annulment crisis, More rarely, if ever, expressed his opinions, doing so only to the King and in very private circumstances, even to his death.
Then, during the Reformation and when Henry VIII began to espouse heretical and anti-catholic views, More remained largely silent on the king. He wrote many works of apologetics during this time, clearly aimed at persuading the King, but again he made no public scene and did not criticize the King openly. Some have attacked him for his silence, saying that More failed to be as courageous and outward about his faith and convictions as he should have bee. It’s true, More made clear he wanted to avoid outright rebellion against the King even when he was pressed to sign the Oath of Supremacy. Instead of making an argument against it, More simply said that he objected to only parts of it and would not sign because his conscience did not permit him to do so. He made no public spectacle of his disobedience. It was only at his trial when he finally let all his private thoughts on the matter come forth, and even then he praises the King. Below is that speech, a masterful defense of the faith, and an important piece to read today as the State often attempts to usurp the Church.
If I were a man, my lords, that did not regard an oath, I need not, as it is well known, in this place, at this time, nor in this case to stand as an accused person. And if this oath of yours, Master Rich, be true, then pray I that I may never see God in the face, which I would not say, were it otherwise to win the whole world.
In good faith, Master Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for mine own peril, and you shall understand that neither I nor any man else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such credit in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you. And I, as you know, of no small while have been acquainted with you and your conversation, who have known you from your youth hitherto, for we long dwelled together in one parish. Whereas yourself can tell (I am sorry you compel me to say) you were esteemed very light of tongue, a great dicer, and of no commendable fame. And so in your house at the Temple, where hath been your chief bringing up, were you likewise accounted. Can it therefore seem likely to your honorable lordships, that I would, in so weighty a cause, so unadvisedly overshoot myself as to trust Master Rich, a man of me always reputed for one of little truth, as your lordships have heard, so far above my sovereign lord the king, or any of his noble counselors, that I would unto him utter the secrets of my conscience touching the king's supremacy, the special point and only mark at my hands so long sought for?
A thing which I never did, nor ever would, after the statute thereof made, reveal unto the King's Highness himself or to any of his honorable counselors, as it is not unknown to your honors, at sundry and several times, sent from His Grace's own person unto the Tower unto me for none other purpose. Can this in your judgment, my lords, seem likely to be true? And if I had so done, indeed, my lords, as Master Rich hath sworn, seeing it was spoken but in familiar, secret talk, nothing affirming, and only in putting of cases, without other displeasant circumstances, it cannot justly be taken to be spoken maliciously; and where there is no malice there can be no offense. And over this I can never think, my lords, that so many worthy bishops, so many noble personages, and many other worshipful, virtuous, wise, and well-learned men as at the making of the law were in Parliament assembled, ever meant to have any man punished by death in whom there could be found no malice, taking malitia pro malevolentia: for if malitia be generally taken for sin, no man is there that can excuse himself. Quia si dixerimus quod peccatum non habemus, nosmetipsos seducimus, et veritas in nobis non est. [If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.] And only this word, "maliciously" is in the statute material, as this term "forcibly" is in the statute of forcible entries, by which statute if a man enter peaceably, and put not his adversary out "forcibly," it is no offense, but if he put him out "forcibly," then by that statute it is an offense, and so shall be punished by this term, "forcibly."
Besides this, the manifold goodness of the King's Highness himself, that hath been so many ways my singular good lord and gracious sovereign, and that hath so dearly loved and trusted me, even at my first coming into his noble service, with the dignity of his honorable privy council, vouchsafing to admit me; and finally with the weighty room of His Grace's higher chancellor, the like whereof he never did to temporal man before, next to his own royal person the highest office in this whole realm, so far above my qualities or merits and meet therefor of his own incomparable benignity honored and exalted me, by the space of twenty years or more, showing his continual favors towards me, and (until, at mine own poor suit it pleased His Highness, giving me license with His Majesty's favor to bestow the residue of my life wholly for the provision of my soul in the service of God, and of his special goodness thereof to discharge and unburden me) most benignly heaped honors continually more and more upon me; all this His Highness's goodness, I say, so long thus bountifully extended towards me, were in my mind, my lords, matter sufficient to convince this slanderous surmise by this man so wrongfully imagined against me....
Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man....
More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.1
From this speech we learn that while we are certainly bound to honor and respect the temporal authority as much as possible, there come times when we must obey our conscience and our faith and disobey the civil authorities, even if it means being put to death. Around the world, especially in China, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, Christians are at risk daily for their religious beliefs, and many have been pushed underground or outright murdered for the faith. In the United States, Christians are privileged with the First Amendment right to free exercise of their religion, and most parts of the West allow for free exercise of religion or are even majority Christian, making it very unlikely that the government will persecute Christians any time soon. However, certain religious liberties and institutions are under attack. Religious child-care services are having their contracts either revoked or altered because they refuse to allow gay couples to adopt. The Little Sisters of the Poor have been repeatedly sued, both by the Obama administration and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in attempts to force them to provide contraceptive services. Gender ideology continues to invade the public sphere and the broader culture. Christians in the United States may not be asked to renounce their God or their Church by the government, but they may be pressed to compromise on grave moral and ethical teachings. We can never obey any law or demand that is “directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church”, even if it means our reputation, financial situation, or even physical body are harmed. Thus, St. Thomas More and the example he set continues to be relevant to us today, and I would encourage readers to explore more about Sir Thomas More. A very good biography which I have read is The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd.
1 Safire, William, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. Rev. Ed.
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997, . 328-330.