Wolf Hall, the recent novel-turned-television-series, raises the question of who is right about the actions and legacy of Thomas More (1478-1535) and Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). The stakes are higher than many realize. As Mark Movsesian explains:
In its biased portrayal of More, British history’s great example of religious resistance to state orthodoxy, Wolf Hall is sending its audience a message: Don’t think this man was at all admirable. He was a dangerous head case. And, by extension, be careful of his analogues today, who continue to oppose religious fanaticism to tolerance, reason, and progress. Cromwell and people like him—pragmatic people who protect us from the forces of reaction—are the real heroes.
Though there can be little doubt about the agenda of Wolf Hall’s author, Hilary Mantel, she may have performed a service. For her work invites reflection and clarification as to why the Roman Catholic Church proclaims More as patron saint of statesmen and government leaders and how More could be an instructive model for leaders today.
Patron Saint for All Seasons
As its fifteenth anniversary approaches in October, Pope John Paul II’s proclamation of More as Patron Saint of Statesmen remains widely ignored and often misunderstood. John Paul II’s understanding of More not only recapitulates Catholic social teaching; it also emphasizes many of the same key attributes that are highlighted in Robert Bolt’s famous play, A Man for all Seasons (1960).
Bolt’s More possesses an “adamantine sense of self” that derives from his “conscience.” This characterization of More comports with John Paul II’s longstanding account of conscience. As early as 1962, while auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, he wrote: “The conscience provides the basis for the definitive structure [of the self] and defines me as that unique and unrepeatable self or I.” Bolt’s distaste for Catholicism notwithstanding, he and the pope both stress the inseparability of selfhood and conscience.
Integrity emerges in those leaders who follow their conscience. The Vatican proclamation emphasizes More’s “unity of life,” his commitment to pursue sanctity through and within his legal and political work. Integrity in government leaders best serves the common good because, as Bolt’s More observes, “when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties … they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
As John Paul II puts it, More’s “defense of the Church’s freedom from unwarranted interference by the State is at the same time a defense, in the primacy of conscience, of the individual’s freedom vis-à-vis political power.” The Church’s freedom, in other words, cannot be untethered from that of the individuals who uphold its teachings. More himself made this point in self-defense, invoking the Magna Carta Libertatum (1215)—and its doctrine that the Church shall be free—at his trial. So both More and John Paul II argue that no definition of the individual’s conscience can exclude God’s moral law or the Church that interprets and teaches it.
On this point, the pope’s treatment of More invokes the earlier encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993). That document teaches that “human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect” because “man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence.” Thus, the pope proposes conscience as the actualization of humanity’s highest faculties and the proper exercise of freedom as a participation in divine life, a point exemplified by More’s life and death.
Do John Paul II and Robert Bolt really paint a historically accurate image of More? Or are they merely making anachronistic impositions upon history? An anecdote from the end of More’s life presents evidence for the more positive view.
While More was in the Tower of London, he emphasized conscience, the “adamantine self,” and the importance of faith by telling a story about a man named Company, the only honest man on a jury of twelve. Company refuses to join the others in condemning an innocent man, but the rest of the jury coaxes him anyway. “Good fellow,” they say, “play then the good companion. Come along with us on that basis; go ahead, just as good company [should do].” Company refuses. More deploys the anecdote personally, confessing that he cannot “play Good company” either. “I never intend, God being my good Lord,” More writes, “to pin my soul to another man’s back, not even the best man that I know this day living: for I know not where he may lead it.”
Religious Liberty and Heresy
The objection against More as model leader for our times is that this “man for all seasons” did not respect the rights of those who disagreed with him over religion. The late Cardinal George, for example, argued that the American Bishops should not invoke More’s name in the 2012 campaign for religious freedom because More was “not a tolerant person.” In contemporary debates that pit religious liberties against the state, More’s example strikes many as medieval and unenlightened.
When John Paul II addresses More’s enforcement of his country’s harsh heresy laws, he rightly calls the saint’s punishment of heretics a reflection of “the limits of the culture of his time.” By recognizing that More’s legally required actions against heresy occurred within a flawed culture, John Paul II’s appraisal of England’s one-time chancellor resonates with Dignitatis Humanae (1965), or “Of the Dignity of the Human Person,” the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, which was composed to develop the doctrine and rights of religious liberty in the modern world.
Since the Council, the Church has upheld the rights of every individual conscience and has urged all states to permit religious freedom. Yet there are qualifications. Although “no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs,” the caveat “within due limits” signifies the primacy of the common good. Also required is “that just public order is observed.”
These limitations raise the important question about why any limitations to religious liberty can be necessary or prudent—a question that More’s office forced him to confront. In his most popular work on religious controversy, The Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529, 1531), More explains how divergent teachings about Christ were present right after his death but that, no matter how many sects or heresies sprouted, “there was virtually never any punishment inflicted” on dissenters besides the “refuting and disproving done in disputation, either oral or written,” or condemnations by way of “excommunication” or demanding “silence on pain of forfeiture of a certain amount of money.” Like Thomas Aquinas before him, in consideration of non-Christian or Muslim peoples, More states his agreement with the “wish that all the world were all agreed to take all violence and compulsion away on all sides … and that no one were constrained to believe but as they could be induced to by grace, wisdom, and good words.”
More also recalls the way in which England’s own laws against heresy emerged. Lord Cobham, or Sir John Oldcastle, used religious dissent to amass an army opposing King Henry V, so heresy and sedition were often thought to go hand-in-hand. Thus, the term “heretic” not only referred to those Catholics who, after having been formally challenged to consider the matter, denied the Catholic faith, but also to those who would ignite and support treason with violent measures. That violence was real and extreme, as the slaughter of 70,000 peasants in Germany during the summer of 1525 revealed.
Mantel would have readers forget that, as Lord Chancellor, More was required to take an oath to handle heresy cases in order to prevent sectarian violence. In the Dialogue, More believed that “from the beginning [religious dissenters] were never by any temporal punishment of their bodies at all harshly treated until they began to be violent themselves.” Mantel’s Cromwell contradicts More on this point during the latter’s interrogation: “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members.” Cromwell’s point might have been just if Mantel had not obscured English history herself.
Ironically, the Cromwell of history—unlike the one imagined by Mantel—held that the old heretics “were as well burned” for denying the pope’s authority as the new heretics would “be beheaded” for denying the king’s spiritual authority. It was More who remained silent, like those non-violent and silent religious dissenters who, in the past, were not punished. Cromwell’s demand that More endorse Henry’s legislation departs from previous practice in handling religious dissent because it required interior acquiescence and construed More’s silence as legal cause for requiring More to swear an oath that violated his conscience.
What is presented by Mantel as a devious evasion—More’s silence in response to the king’s newest title as head of the Church of England—resembles the position of the coerced juror Company. In More’s tale, Company asks his fellow jurors if they would follow him “when we depart and come before God, and He sends you to heaven for doing according to your conscience, and me to the devil for doing against mine.” Of course, the others would not follow Company in such a case, and so neither would Company change his verdict. As he tells them, “the passage of my poor soul passes all good company.” Indeed, More’s defense of his own “poor soul” reveals the priority of conscience to the obligations owed to a sovereign.
Patron of Government Leaders
In 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI met with British politicians, academics, members of the diplomatic corps, and business leaders, he observed:
The fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse.
The proclamation of More as patron of statesmen does not contain a rubric for any particular position on contemporary events. Instead, it challenges government leaders to recall and consider “the ethical foundations of civil discourse” in their deliberations and decisions. Would that all government leaders were inclined to do so.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Sir Thomas More’s Farewell to His Daughter” was painted by Edward Matthew Ward (1816-1879).