Lessons From St. Thomas More on His Feast Day

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Thomas More and St. John Fischer, who were martyred by King Henry VIII during the English Reformation. Many today mostly speak of St. Thomas More as being martyred due to his conscience. Yet, this seems to ignore the even more obvious point: More was martyred for his faith. He was martyred because as loyal as he was to his country, as loyal as he was to his King, there were still higher loyalties, namely the Catholic Church.

The whole reason that both More and Fischer were killed is because they would not take the Oath of Supremacy (1535), which read:

I (state your name) do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall: And that no forraine Prince, Person, Prelate, State or Potentate, hath or ought to have any Jurisdiction, Power, Superiorities, Preeminence or Authority Ecclesiasticall or Spirituall within this Realme. And therefore, I do utterly renounce and forsake all Jurisdictions, Powers, Superiorities, or Authorities; and do promise that from henchforth I shall beare faith and true Allegiance to the Kings Highnesse, his Heires and lawfull Successors: and to my power shall assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Privileges, Preheminences and Authorities granted or belonging to the Kings Highnesse, his Heires and Successors or united and annexed to the Imperial Crowne of the Realme: so helpe me God: and by the Contents of this Booke.

This oath includes two key parts: a declaration that the King is the only supreme authority on matters both temporal and spiritual in his respective realms, and that the taker of the oath will pledge total allegiance to the King on all matters temporal and spiritual and renounce any other authorities. This oath is a direct assault on the Catholic Church but also, frankly, on the very fundamentals of the Christian faith. Even if you are a Protestant, surely you should be able to see that a Head of State being also the supreme Head of the Church is bad news. Is the King really the supreme authority of all spiritual and ecclesiastical matters, or is it Jesus Christ and the Word of God? If a Protestant sincerely believes in sola scriptura, they will deny that a King or anyone else could be the supreme authority on spiritual matters. But let us consider the Catholic Church, the obvious target of the oath (considering the oath was a Protestant oath). The Catholic Church has held, since the time of Pope Gelasius I, that the spiritual and temporal realms are separate and that the temporal ruler is not the supreme authority on spiritual matters, but the Church. And who is the head of the Church? Most fundamentally Jesus Christ Himself, obviously, but as He is sitting in Heaven, it is His Vicar on Earth, the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, for Christ declared, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 NRSVCE). The Pope, as the successor of Peter, is the Supreme Authority on spiritual matters. Ecumenical Councils, too, when they have the papal sign-off, are similarly supreme authorities in what they declare. The idea, then, that a Prince could supersede either the Pope or an Ecumenical Council is completely contrary to the teachings of the Church and has no foundation in Sacred Scripture. Not even Philip the Fair attempted such a power grab.

So, what did St. Thomas More have to say about all this?

For as much as, my Lords, this Indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament, directly repugnant ,to the Laws of God and his Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which, or of any part thereof, no Temporal Person may by any Law presume to take upon him, being what right belongs to the See of Rome, which by special Prerogative was granted by the Mouth of our Savior Christ himself to St. Peter, and the Bishops of Rome his Successors only, whilst he lived, and was personally present here on Earth: it is therefore, amongst Catholic Christians, insufficient in Law, to charge any Christian to obey it. And in order to the proof of his Assertion, he declared among other things, that whereas this Kingdom alone being but one Member, and a small part of the Church, was not to make a particular Law disagreeing with the general Law of Christ's universal Catholic Church, no more than the City of London, being but one Member in respect to the whole Kingdom, might enact a Law against an Act of Parliament, to be binding to the whole Realm: so he shewed farther, That Law was ,even contrary to the Laws and Statutes of the Kingdom yet unrepealed, as might evidently be seen by Magna Charta, wherein are these Words; Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit, habet omnia jura integra, libertates suas illcesas: And it is contrary also to that sacred Oath which the King's Majesty himself, and every other Christian Prince, always take with great Solemnity, at their Coronations.

When the Lord Chancellor answered More by saying that “all the Bishops, Universities, and the most learned Men in the Kingdom had agreed to that Act”, More answered “I do not think myself bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom.”

When his death sentence was proclaimed, he said:

Well, seeing I am condemned, God knows how justly, I will freely speak for the disburdening my Conscience, what I think of this Law. When I perceived it was the King's Pleasure to sift out from whence the Pope's Authority was derived; I confess I studied seven years together to find out the truth of it, and I could not meet with the Works of any one Doctor, approved by the Church, that avouch a Layman was, or ever could be the Head of the Church.

When the Lord Chancellor again replied by asking how More could arrive at a different conclusion than “all the Bishops, learned Doctors, Nobility and Commons of this Realm”, More retorted, “I am able to produce against, one Bishop which you can produce on your side, a hundred holy and Catholic Bishops for my Opinion; and against one Realm, the Consent of Christendom for a thousand years.”

Prior to his falling out with the King, More was a good friend of the King, who prior to his falling out with the Pope, was an ardent defender of the Catholic faith, even writing Assertio Septem Sacramentorum or “Defense of the Seven Sacraments”, which earned him the title of Defender of the Faith from Pope Leo X. Up until the last, More held that he was loyal the King and wanted nothing more than the good of the King and the realm. This is why More never publicly spoke out against the Acts or attempted to subvert the King and cause public disturbance, and it is why he ultimately submitted to the King throughout his imprisonment, condemnation, and death. Submission only goes so far though, because More also had loyalties to Christ and to the Church, which far exceeded his loyalties to the King. More did not deny the Oath because it was a mere violation of his conscience, though this was certainly part of it. Rather, he denied the Oath because he firmly held that the Pope is the head of the Church Universal and that no King could ever become head of the Church, local or Universal. He is a thoroughly Catholic martyr. It is an insult of the highest degree that the Anglican Church dares to proclaim the man a Saint considering they killed him and others for their insistence upon the truth of the Catholic and Papal claims.

So, what can we learn from More’s example today? For starters, we can learn from the man himself. He was a family man and a statesman. He was a defender of the faith. He loved his country, he loved his family, he loved his countrymen. But he loved God more. He loved the Church more. He suffered ridicule from his family, friends, and colleagues. He suffered humiliation, calumny, and injustice. He suffered when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. But he suffered it all for his faith. Today we may be called to suffer for our faith. Though it is unlikely (for now) that we will be put to death, we are being asked to pledge allegiance to radical gender ideology, race ideology, and abortion. We are being asked to pledge allegiance to a variety of things which directly contradict our faith. And if we refuse to pledge allegiance to those things, we risk public ridicule, loss of our jobs, oppression by the State, and even loss of friends and family. Yet, what is more important, the approval of those here on earth, or the approval of our Father in Heaven? Good standing with our government, with companies, with the social media mob, with family and friends, or good standing with the Creator and the Supreme Judge?

Like St. Thomas More, we must be prepared to stand firm in our convictions. We must be prepared to defend the faith and to hold to it as those around us conform to evil, even in the face of great consequences.

Let us end with a final quote by St. Thomas More from his trial:

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.

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