More and Religious Liberty - Part 2

The Unhelpfulness of Hagiography

(Read The Unhelpfulness of Hagiography I)Even putting to the side More’s purposes in the writing of Utopia, and Bolt’s in composing A Man for All Seasons, certain contexts pertaining to each are revealing. Published in 1516, Utopia was given birth a year before Martin Luther would set in train those events leading eventually to the division of Western Christendom, and more than a decade before More ascended to become England’s Lord Chancellor in the midst of this division. While Bolt’s play could hardly ignore More’s years as Chancellor, they are glided through quickly, set almost entirely in the company of More’s family and friends, and focused specifically on his unraveling relationship with his king. Which is simply—but importantly—to say, the two works upon which the nearly canonical view of More are based have nothing at all to say about More’s own involvement with what Chaput describes as “judicial murder.”

That six men during More’s short Chancellorship were sentenced to death by burning because they would not renounce that which they believed to be true is not a disputed question. Nor is More’s own stated conviction that heretics were “well and worthily burned.” To be sure, as even the “revisionist” Elton recognizes, More “was not at all out of step with the official policy of those years.” No less certainly, as Elton again acknowledges, “the more scurrilous stories of his personal ill-treatment of accused heretics have been properly buried.” But, he immediately continues, “that is not to make him into a tolerant liberal.” No, it was left to Bolt, some four hundred years later, to make him into a tolerant liberal, a “hero of selfhood” as Bolt would have it.

Once granted that Hilary Mantel is not the only author to engage in “rewriting the narrative” on Thomas More, it becomes increasingly difficult to suppose, as Chaput does, that the “entire structures of the two Mores and real More theories” derive merely from antipathy to More’s Christian faith. Instead, such theories derive also from the recognition that the same Thomas More who is admired, as Pope Benedict XVI noted, “for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing his sovereign,” could not himself, when it counted, admire the integrity with which Protestants followed their own consciences, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign. Such theories derive also from the fact that the eloquent idealist who could in Utopia speak of the “[k]indness and good nature [which] unite men more effectually and with greater strength than any agreements whatsoever” was also the crude polemicist who, addressing Luther, could speak of throwing “back into your paternity’s sh***y mouth, truly the s**t-pool of all s**t, all the muck and s**t which your damnable rottenness has vomited up.” And yet—

And yet I hasten to add that Archbishop Chaput is none the less entirely correct; there are not “two” Thomas Mores, but one. To ask his rhetorical question, then, “which is it: More the saint or More the sinner?” is to invite the only possible answer: yes. More was, as his nemesis Luther would describe all true Christians, “simul justus et peccator,” at the same time righteous and a sinner. Like all sinner-saints, at work in the one More were what St. Paul could describe as “two laws” constantly warring with one another (see, e.g., Romans 7:22-23). With More, as with us all, sometimes the spirit prevailed, sometimes the flesh.

Thus, it is for this reason also that the legacy of Thomas More continues to matter for the church, and to matter especially right now, as the State would yet again attempt to coerce Christians into acting both against their consciences and contrary to their faith. Not only because the “real” Thomas More bravely and rightly refused to act against his own conscience, and so paid for this refusal with his life; but also because the very same Thomas More, when it was in his power to do so, would condemn others to die for similarly refusing.

It is in each respect that More is truly “a man for all seasons”—and for all denominations. His death as martyr and his life as Chancellor testify in uniquely powerful, if very different, ways to the enduring truth that the coercion of conscience and the denial of religious liberty—even when not leading to the block or to the pyre—are profound evils.