A Historian Breaks More Ground

The King's Good Servant but God's First: the Life and Writings of St. Thomas More

by James Monti

(Ignatius Press 1997, 492 pages, $ 19.95 paperback)

If you don't count the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is, after all, in a league of her own, there are more books, articles, and reviews written about St. Thomas More (1478-1535) than there are about all other lay saints combined. Biographies of the famous English chancellor who refused to budge on King Henry VIII's “great matter,” began to appear soon after his judicial murder early one summer morning in the Tower of London. Since his inexplicably tardy canonization in 1935, a rich harvest of Moreana, as it is known, has graced secular and ecclesiastical centers with obvious fruit to all who consult it.

In recent years some of the more ambitious attempts to analyze Thomas More's life and writings have been flawed by the use of dubious psychological theories, apparently under the assumption that any man who could give up so much power and prestige over a technical matter of which he himself was not entirely sure, must have been just a little crazy. But on this count, the verdict of history has already pronounced More “not guilty” and he who quipped more than once about making “merry in Heaven” with his executioners, would doubtless rejoice at meeting some of his sheep-faced modern critics at St. Peter's gate as well.

Ironically, however, it is this very embarrassment of riches in Thomas More studies that may serve to keep the glittering example of the man's life and works from being better known at the popular level. More's most famous book, Utopia, is not typical of the man as he actually lived and believed, and his apologetic writing, comprising by far the largest portion of his works, seems, in the eyes of many, dated. Indeed, Robert Bolt's play, A Man for Seasons, presented on stage and screen, has done more to keep the Thomas More story alive in the popular mind than have, it seems, all of the published materials by or about this great saint. The King's Good Servant but God's First: the Life and Writings of St. Thomas More, may help change all that.

In producing his first major monograph, James Monti has accomplished what, strictly speaking, rather few have tried, and even fewer have succeeded at: he has produced a book which examines the writings of St. Thomas More from the perspective neither of their times nor purpose, but rather as an extension of the life of the man. Not simply another biography of More (however nicely done) and not simply another critique of More's works (however useful), Monti sets out to “present a new portrait of Thomas More in the light of his writings — most especially his writings in the Church and the spiritual life. In this context we will discover a fundamental theme of More's apologetical writing: a passionate dedication to the unity of the Church, a unity of faith he saw as necessitating assent to all her teachings and obedience to her ordained ministers.”

It is Monti's focus on More's lengthy apologetic writings, works usually dismissed as amateurish and acrid, that I found most valuable. Many of the themes which More developed in his published debates are as relevant to the ecumenical issues of today as they were to the doctrinal discords of his times. In discussing these overlooked texts, as well as the later devotional works More penned (or charcoaled, as the case often was) from prison, Monti never fails to relate the saint's written words to his life of charity and faith. “Key to our understanding” writes Monti, “will be the recognition of three fundamental traits of the saint's inner life: his consciousness of the mystery of man's mortality, his pervasive devotion to the Passion of Christ, and his deep love for Holy Eucharist. These elements permeate his spiritual writings, having largely shaped his thoughts, words, and actions. But it is also possible to discern other characteristics of More's spirituality: his intense prayer life, his acts of penance and works of mercy, his devotion to the Heart of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as his love of Scriptures and the sacred liturgy.”

Monti's book could scarcely be better timed. Yale University has brought out 16 volumes of its definitive Complete Works of St. Thomas More series which, however expensive they are, represent the vital first step in presenting authenticated Latin and English texts to a much wider audience than was possible even just a few years ago. Monti wisely keys his own study to these volumes and thereby makes his own book an excellent companion to the direct study of the saint's writings.

My criticisms of Monti's book are few. He could do with fewer oxymorons such as “appears certain” and “gently berates.” Anyone who needs to be reminded that 1492 was the year Columbus discovered America, surely needs to have explained that a “butler” in an “Inn,” as was Thomas More's father, was not a servant in a hotel, but rather on the road to a solid legal career. The bibliography of secondary sources is also uneven. For example, Monti lists Hilaire Belloc's Cranmer but omits his Wolsey. Alistair Fox's flawed but important biography does not appear anywhere, but then neither do any of Gerald Wegemer's valuable recent monographs. But these are small points in comparison to Monti's otherwise fine service.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, an Englishman who, if he were ever to be canonized, could give Thomas More a run for his money in terms of total materials being published about him, once wrote that “Thomas More is more important at this moment [1929] than at any moment since his death, but he is not quite so important now as he will be in about a hundred years.” That only leaves us about 30 years. Let me suggest making Monti's study one of the first things on our St. Thomas More things-to-do list.

Edward Peters, a canon and civil lawyer, writes from San Diego, California.