St. Thomas More: From Renaissance Man to Christian Martyr

When we consider the period in Western civilization known today as the Renaissance, we encounter a time of notable change in virtually every area of culture. Visual art was departing from the purely symbolic, representative forms of the Middle Ages and exhibiting a more earthly, mundane realism, and while it continued to concentrate on religious depictions, secular themes began to show themselves with more regularity. In intellectual life, rhetorical, literary and historical studies offered an alternative to the old scholastic methodology that had dominated the medieval university for so long, and many of the themes of this new prosaic humanism were unabashedly secular, reflecting the pre-Christian Greco-Roman culture from which they drew inspiration. The first stirrings of modern science were making themselves felt, which would eventually challenge Aristotelian natural philosophy at its very foundations. In politics, the period witnessed the emergence of what became the modern secular state: a political order wherein legitimacy was not in any way derived from the Church.

sir-thomas-more copyThomas More (1478-1535) found himself in the midst of this period of change and, when one considers the details of his life, it is safe to say that he did not, on the whole, feel himself a stranger to the spirit of his age.  He received a classical, humanist education devoid of the subtleties of scholasticism. As a youth, Thomas went to study at Oxford. Here he wrote an English translation of a Latin biography of Pico della Mirandola, a prominent Italian humanist.  While he long considered a religious vocation, he ultimately chose to be a man of the world, becoming a husband, a father, a lawyer, a judge, and finally a statesman.  As a judge, he conscientiously fulfilled his secular vocation in a consistent and thoroughgoing pursuit of plain, simple justice according to the law.  In such disinterested commitment, he became, in the words of an admiring contemporary, “the best friend the poor ever had.”  Such rational detachment was an early, and ironic, manifestation of what the Church today calls the “preferential option for the poor.” As a statesman in the service of the king, Thomas More devoted much of his professional and intellectual energies to advancing the interests of the secular power.  In 1515 he led a royal delegation to Flanders, where he successfully resolved a trade dispute. In 1529 he became Lord Chancellor of England (the 16th century equivalent of Prime Minister).  Even his more leisurely intellectual work bore the stamp of his commitment to the secular commonwealth, as seen in his most famous work, Utopia. In this strange work More envisioned a society constructed according to philosophical principles without reference to revealed religion, and although there is an unmistakable satirical dimension to the work, it nonetheless expresses the naïveté of an early modern vision of society constructed according to reason alone.

Thomas More discovered, however, that philosophical reasoning and ‘reasons of state’ are by no means identical.  Henry VIII had utopian aspirations of his own, and induced Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which declared the king to be supreme head of the Church in England, thus usurping the juridical prerogative of the papacy.  Thomas More, of course, opposed Henry’s action. As a Catholic philosopher, Thomas held the profoundly reasonable conviction that the Church, as the repository of divine revelation, was subject to divine authority.  The secular state, as the repository of human authority, was therefore bound, as a matter of reason, to respect the freedom of the Church.  Human authority, however, very readily morphs into raw power.  Henry forcibly subjected the Church to the power of the state, and Thomas More stood out as a high-profile contradiction to this secular power-grab. The state simply ran rough-shod over Thomas’ philosophical separation of Church and state, and he found himself imprisoned, sentenced to die. While awaiting his execution, Thomas composed a collection of meditations titled The Sadness of Christ. In these, he leads the reader in a profound narrative meditation of the sufferings of Christ, beginning in Gethsemane and ending with his death on the cross. One of the lessons Thomas draws from the Paschal Mystery is the importance of not trying to make the world into a place of repose and happiness:

If we get so weary of pain and grief that we perversely attempt to change this world, this place of labor and penance, into a joyful haven of rest, if we seek heaven on earth, we cut ourselves off forever from true happiness.

He also composed a meditation resigning himself to the loss of all the worldly attachments that characterized the age of the Renaissance: “Recreations no necessary—to cut off; of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss as nothing for the winning of Christ.” The “Renaissance man” now became the Christian martyr.

Likewise in our own time, the secular state refuses to acknowledge any reasonable basis for the independence of the Church or for the religious commitments of individuals and institutions.  The governments of the West have, to varying degrees, constructed their own secular utopias, intentionally deaf to any reasoned defense of religious liberty. Examples of this include the HHS mandate in the United States, requiring Catholic organizations and other faith-based institutions to subsidize activities contrary to their mission; an attempt by the government of Ireland to legally require priests to violate the seal of the sacrament of reconciliation; and the governments of Germany and Sweden ruthlessly persecuting homeschooling families.  Consequently, Christians today find themselves facing the same conflicts that beset Thomas More and other faithful Catholics of his day. Like Thomas More, may we be steadfast in our commitment to the rights of the Church, and through his intercession may God grant us the grace to count the loss of worldly attachments “as nothing for the winning of Christ.”

Author’s note: Quotations from the writings of Thomas More are taken from The Sadness of Christ, Gerard Wegemer, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 1993).

John P. Bequette

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John P. Bequette is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His interests include medieval Christian thought, the lives of the saints, and Christian humanism.

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