In DC’s Virginia Suburbs, Catholic Lawyers and Politicians Have a Double Patron in St. Thomas More
‘Father. Lawyer. Writer. Educator. Intellectual. Politician. Martyr. He’s the patron for all seasons…’
Lawyers, politicians, and other civil servants living in Northern Virginia have a patron in St. Thomas More—in more ways than one.
Not only is the 16th century chancellor-of-England-turned-martyr the patron saint of statesmen and others working in the political and legal fields; he’s also the patron saint of the entire Diocese of Arlington—appropriate for an ecclesial territory that’s home to many Catholics involved in politics and law, either on the other side of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., or at one of the many federal agencies based in Northern Virginia.
“St. Thomas More is a natural fit as the patron of this diocese,” said Chris Scalia, a member of the diocese who works as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC public policy thinktank.
Although Scalia notes that most people who live in the Diocese of Arlington aren’t involved in law and politics (“thank goodness!”), “many of them are, and it’s fitting to have their patron saint front and center as a reminder for them to seek his intercession, and to meet the high standard he set in combining a devout and firm faith with a commitment to the rule of law.”
A Justice’s “Hero”
One Diocese of Arlington civil servant who had a great devotion to St. Thomas More? Scalia’s own father, Antonin, the longtime Supreme Court justice, who looked to the English statesman, philosopher, and saint as “a hero.”
According to the younger Scalia, his father and mother saw the play A Man for All Seasons in London in the early 1960s, and the portrayal of More made a significant impression on the future jurist. The senior Scalia admired the saint’s commitment to the rule of law, said his son, but also his willingness “to be seen as a fool for his faith in the teachings of the Church.”
“As my father put it, St. Thomas More saw ‘not with the eyes of men, but with the eyes of faith,’” said Chris Scalia, who added that the late Supreme Court justice also “encouraged Catholic lawyers and intellectuals to see St. Thomas More as a patron ‘for the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.'”
Justice Scalia’s devotion to More became more widely known in 2013 through, of all things, a fashion statement of sorts. At the 2013 inauguration of President Barack Obama for his second term in office, Justice Scalia wore a black cap modeled after one that More had worn — a gift given to the Supreme Court justice by the St. Thomas More Society of the Diocese of Richmond, a group of Catholic lawyers.
According to another son of the jurist, Arlington diocesan priest Father Paul Scalia, the late justice was also “particularly fond” of More’s prayer written in the Tower of London as the English saint awaited his eventual execution in 1535 for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England.
A Saint for All Seasons
More has been the patron of the Diocese of Arlington since its establishment in 1974, when it was created out of territory and parishes in Northern Virginia that had previously been part of the Diocese of Richmond. An already established church was needed to serve as the new diocesan cathedral, and officials selected St. Thomas More parish in Arlington, in part because of its large sanctuary and ample room for parking.
The parish had originally been founded in 1938, just three years after More had been canonized. Today, the Cathedral of St. Thomas More is one of two cathedrals in the U.S. dedicated to the English martyr; the co-cathedral of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, located in Florida’s capital city, is the other. It does not appear that any other cathedrals in the world are named for St. Thomas More.
Father Scalia, who serves as Arlington’s vicar for clergy, has previously written about the ongoing relevance of St. Thomas More for Catholics today, especially in the face of increased hostility from the state. He told the Register that having More as Arlington’s patron “serves as a reminder to Catholics of the primacy of their Catholic faith in their public work.”
The saint is certainly appreciated by Catholics working in politics like Bob Burkett, who has previously worked in the executive branch and in Congress, and now works for a political advocacy non-profit. Burkett told the Register that he thinks St. Thomas More “is one of the best representatives of how to be both a good Catholic and a good public servant.”
Like Justice Scalia, Burkett first encountered More in a compelling way through A Man for All Seasons, though he saw the film, rather than the theatrical version; he said he rewatches it every couple years. The English martyr has been a personal intercessor for Burkett at different moments, such as when he prayed a novena to the patron to discern whether he should go to law school or continue to work in politics. Although Burkett said the novena didn’t result in overwhelming clarity, it was still “helpful to have someone to turn to.”
Burkett, who moved to the Diocese of Arlington from D.C. three years ago, said that he thinks More is relatable to a lot of people in public service because he was faced with a common dilemma: choosing between sticking to one’s principles, or compromising them for the sake of some other goal.
But unlike most people in contemporary politics, Burkett said More chose to stick with his principles, even knowing it would likely cost him the ultimate price.
“I don’t know many people in modern politics that would be willing to resign if push came to shove and they were told to do something immoral,” Burkett said, referring to More’s decision to resign the chancellorship of England when he felt he could no longer serve the king in good conscience.
St. Thomas More has another Arlington devotee in Matthias Caro, a lawyer and educator who lives in the western part of the diocese. Although Caro’s legal work is unrelated to the D.C.-scene, he still says More “checks so many boxes.”
“Father. Lawyer. Writer. Educator. Intellectual. Politician. Martyr. He’s the patron for all seasons,” said Caro, who added that St. Thomas More “has one of the most human portraits of all the saints.” He experienced many relatable struggles and temptations, and didn’t experience a kind of dramatic persecution at the hands of pagans, but instead suffered a kind of “accidental martyrdom” by simply following Christ “in the most straightforward manner possible.”
Despite St. Thomas More’s diocesan patronage, there was no dedicated group for Catholic lawyers, judges, and law students named for him in the Arlington dioces— until about four years ago, when Caro and Paul Abraham, a classmate of Caro’s at the Scalia School of Law at George Mason University (named for the late justice) co-founded the St. Thomas Guild for Catholic Legal Professionals.
Today, the group has 250 members. They host regular Zoom lunch meetings on emerging legal issues impacting Catholics, have an annual update from the Virginia Catholic Conference on important legislative matters, and, of course, celebrate St. Thomas More on his feast day — which they’ll do today with a Solemnity Mass celebrated by Father Scalia.
In the fall, Arlington’s St. Thomas More Guild will host the national Catholic Bar Association’s annual conference, with Bishop Michael Burbidge celebrating a “Red Mass” for legal professionals at the Basilica of St. Mary’s in Alexandria.
Caro, the president of the guild, said “it felt downright negligent” that there wasn’t already a local group dedicated to the patron of lawyers and statesmen, especially in a diocese dedicated to him.
“It seems only right to form a community that seeks St. Thomas More’s intercession as we encounter the face of Christ in the persons we serve in our daily professional practice,” he said, noting that most of the people served by the legal profession are “vulnerable, hurt, and in need.”
Awareness of St. Thomas More’s status as the patron of the Diocese of Arlington will likely get a boost in the coming years, as the diocese marks its 50th anniversary with a three year celebration, concluding in 2024.
As part of the celebration, the Cathedral of St. Thomas More is receiving a significant renovation, to help give the former parochial church building a heightened sense of beauty and reverence appropriate for the diocese’s “mother church.” Additionally, a diocesan spokesman confirmed that Arlington plans on “reinforcing our patronage” in the final preparatory year leading up to the 2024 Golden Jubilee, which will be focused on evangelization.
According to Father Scalia, the greater attention brought to St. Thomas More and his example for Catholics in the public square is “right on schedule,” as the man for all seasons may be especially relevant to the one American Catholics are currently going through.
“About one hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton remarked that Thomas More was of great importance, but not as important as he would be in… one hundred years.”