In 1929, G.K. Chesterton said that Thomas More “is important today, but he is not as important now as he will be in 100 years from today.”
We haven’t reached the centennial of Chesterton’s prediction, but it has already come true.
Within six years of Chesterton’s quote, Pope Pius XII canonized Cardinal John Fisher and Thomas More, describing them as “bright champions and the glory of their nation,” who sacrificed their lives in witness to the unity of the Church.
Biographers — from R.W. Chambers in 1935 to Travis Curtwright in 2014 — have told More’s story. They include E.E. Reynolds, Gerard Wegemer, James Monti, Peter Berglar (in German) and Peter Ackroyd. Editors from the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of Thomas More have debated his character and his handling of religious heresy in 16th-century England (Richard Marius and Louis L. Martz). He has been a character in plays and movies (A Man for All Seasons, Anne of a Thousand Days, The Tudors and Wolf Hall) and in historical fiction (Robert Hugh Benson’s The King’s Achievement and Jean Plaidy’s St. Thomas’s Eve).
Legal organizations defending religious freedom and conscience rights claim him as a patron, as do parishes, high schools, colleges and universities. The Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas provides an online resource and hosts biannual conferences on some aspect of More’s life and works.
And Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed St. Thomas More the official patron of politicians and statesmen in 2000.
Since 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has scheduled the “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 through July 4, highlighting the martyrs celebrated during that period, including Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More (June 22 feast day). His portrait is on a prayer card for religious liberty.
Why is St. Thomas More as important today as Chesterton thought he would be in the 21st century? Here are at least two reasons:
Champion of Conscience
He is regarded as a champion of the rights of conscience. When he was asked to swear the Oath of Succession, he would neither swear the oath nor share his reasons for not swearing the oath. His silence, as he said at trial, implied his consent because he had never done or said anything to oppose any of Henry VIII’s actions. He had resigned as chancellor when he saw what Henry and Thomas Cromwell were about to do. More did not organize rebellion or raise protests against his sovereign. He just wanted to remain silent.
More told his questioners, “I do nobody harm; I say none harm; I think none harm, but wish everybody good” — but that was not enough for Henry VIII and Cromwell. Therefore, he was imprisoned, tried and executed. He was standing alone against his sovereign’s demands. Cromwell and others reminded him often that everyone else had signed the oath — why couldn’t he? Even his dearest daughter Meg tried to convince him to save his own life by just giving in.
But More understood that the properly formed conscience must follow the revelation of God protected by the Church, so he called upon a cloud of witnesses throughout the ages to testify on his behalf. While his death could not stop Henry, his faithfulness demonstrated that the state could not compel him to violate his conscience.
Defender of the Faith
More is usually credited with providing input into Henry VIII’s Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Henry VIII earned the title of “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X for this response to Martin Luther. More answered Luther’s attack on Henry VIII and debated William Tyndale in print, writing six works of apologetics.
More lived and died as a faithful and observant Catholic, advocating reform and renewal of the Church even as he defended her teachings. He set aside time for prayer and devotion, dedicating Fridays to meditation on Our Lord’s passion.
He raised his son and daughters, adopted children and wards to be good Catholics too, discussing the things of heaven and leading the family in prayer. Hans Holbein’s famous family portrait of More’s household, which survives in sketches and copies, shows everyone gathered to pray the Divine Office.
More used his imprisonment in the Tower of London as a time for solitude, study and prayer. His famous “Tower Works” include the Treatise on Passion, a meditation on the Agony in the Garden (The Sadness of Christ) and prayers that emphasized his renunciation of self, love of his enemies and the imitation of Christ. He repented of his sins and was determined to unite himself more closely to Jesus as he faced death.
In both his public and private life, St. Thomas More offers us a model of integrity and devotion. His importance will not diminish as we near the centenary of Chesterton’s remarks, because we continue to face what Pope Benedict XVI, during his address at Westminster Hall on Sept. 17, 2010, called “the perennial question of what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.”
While highlighting St. Thomas More’s importance, we must not forget his companion martyr, St. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester. Cardinal Fisher, given that title by Pope Paul III in hopes of receiving some mercy from Henry VIII, was the only Catholic bishop in England who consistently stood up against Henry VIII.
He defended the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of matrimony and papal authority during all of the debates in the convocation of bishops. Like More, he stood alone; like More, he faced his imprisonment, trial and death with grace and dignity. Known for his holiness and learning as a bishop, he also wrote devotional works while imprisoned in the Tower of London. If More is the model for Catholic laity in civil society, Fisher is the model for our priests and bishops, teaching and upholding the Catholic faith.
Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, canonized 80 years ago this year, pray for us!
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation,
available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas, and blogs at SupremacyandSurvival.blogspot.com.