Before nine o’clock on July 6, 1535, the Lord Chancellor of England was conducted to Tower Hill, London, where he lost his head for the crime of keeping his head. As Joseph Addison said, “He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind.”
Sir Thomas More is now revered as Saint Thomas More because he would not accept the divine right of kings as more divine than the Catholic Church. For him, it was essential that the monarchy remained under God and law, and he was ready to object graciously all the way to the gallows if ever that hierarchy was reversed—which it was, and which he did. Nearly five hundred years later, the kings of the earth are still under the law, more or less, but God and His Church have been seriously demoted. The divorce between Church and State has been complete for over a century, relegating the Church to a position of unimportance while elevating the State beyond its importance.
As chancellor of England, it was a tense moment when More did not attend the illicit wedding of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It was treason, however, when he refused to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the Church. Thomas More was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. (The king mercifully mitigated this to beheading.) After securing his own blindfold and heartily forgiving his executioner, Saint Thomas famously said: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Thomas More’s story of moral courage in the struggle between Church and State is striking in this age when the separation of Church and State has resulted in a subjugation of the Church by the State—and all in the name of money and power. Thomas More worked to preserve the Church’s teachings in the State by guiding the discourses of learned men. He supported that people should debate their doubts in private. But More had always striven to prevent Englishmen from being subtly poisoned by insinuated heresy in public. “Never was there a heretic that spoke all false,” he said. And he was right. As G. K. Chesterton (another great Englishman) put it, a heretic hides all the other truths, misleading people to believe in one thing without the context of everything else.
A couple of years ago, I was attending a Pontifical Mass where the bishop said from the pulpit, “Our world is filled with voices of hate, rooted in religious and cultural differences. In this modern and sophisticated era, people are still discriminated against because of the color of their skin, the way they speak, their country of origin, their lifestyle, and what they don’t have.” The word “lifestyle” stuck in my craw. As Catholics, aren’t we supposed to discriminate against “lifestyle”? I can think of some lifestyles that discerning Catholics should discriminate against.
Thomas More was not afraid to discriminate. He lived to reform the Church and died for Christendom. Alas, Christendom is no more, with nary a nation left that acknowledges the vital role of the Catholic Church in society. The same corruption, however, that More fought against to rescue Christendom remains, and we need to fight against it to restore Christendom.
In his excellent essay on Saint Thomas More, Chesterton commented on the grave danger in giving the State too much credit and too much credence:
Public life must be rather more regimented than private life; just as a man cannot wander about in the traffic of Piccadilly exactly as he could wander about in his own garden. Where there is traffic there will be regulation of traffic; and this is quite as true, or even more true, where it is what we should call an illicit traffic; where the most modern governments organize sterilization to-day and may organize infanticide to-morrow. Those who hold the modern superstition that the State can do no wrong will be bound to accept such a thing as right.
The stance against the infanticide Chesterton prophesied is upheld by faithful Catholics—lay and clerical alike—from their rostrums and pulpits. And yet more must be said about the sterilization of birth control. More must be said about political charlatans and immoral legislation. More must be said against save-the-planet, open borders globalism. More must be said about the duty of Catholics at the voting booth. But that would make a stir indeed. The more regulation interferes with religion, the more it becomes a religion.
The Church often finds itself in the middle of the argument More found himself in—between what is right and what is legal. Saint Thomas chose the moral side of the argument and the government hewed his head from his shoulders and exhibited it on London Bridge. Christ pointed out the graven image of the “divine” emperor’s head to the Pharisees and said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” For it is in His Divine Image that we are made. The coin can go to the State, but men must go to the Church—even if that means going to the gallows.
Today our government is making a whole host of wrongs not just right but legal rights, and it is the Church’s duty—and our bishops’ and priests’ particular duty—to teach the truth and resist the machinations of the wayward world. We remember Senator Rick Santorum in recent days or Kellyanne Conway nowadays, knowing that there are still political leaders who are willing to be unapologetically and unreservedly Catholic—to say nothing of laymen like Scott Hahn and Christopher Check.
In a recent article for these pages, Auguste Meyrat critiqued Bishop Robert Barron’s call for the laity to take up the defense of the Church in the public square instead of haranguing the bishops about it. “I would argue that the lion’s share of the work regarding this massive societal problem belongs to those whose proper arena is the society and whose expertise lies precisely in the relevant areas of concern, namely, the laity,” Bishop Barron wrote at Word on Fire. “If I may be blunt, the question ought not be, ‘what are the bishops doing about it?’ but rather, ‘what can I and my Christian friends do about it?’”
His Excellency was blunt, indeed. Mr. Meyrat’s piece called his response pitiful, but honest. I would add, reasonable. Though there is reason to be frustrated with the bishops, it is also reasonable to expect more from the laity. It is not just bishops who are called to defend the Faith, and we cannot use the bishops as an excuse for our inactivity. We have to step up ourselves before we can accuse anyone of being cowardly. Today, in fact, is a signal day for lay response to a Church in crisis—and Bishop Barron’s words invoke the layman who died on this day for the Catholic Faith.
As for Bishop Barron, on July 4 he himself joined a group of Catholics to guard a statue of Saint Junipero Serra at Ventura City Hall when Antifa promised to target it. Many of our bishops are doing all they can, and their work will only be strengthened if their flock remains strong and faithful.
Two weeks before Saint Thomas More was executed, the only bishop who refused to take Henry VIII’s oath of succession was executed, Saint John Fisher. It is true that More was martyred after the last bishop in England was martyred, but that is no reason for us to wait until all of our bishops have either fled or fallen. We, too, must be good servants of the king, but of God first.
Image: The Meeting of Sir Thomas More With His Daughter After His Sentence of Death by William Frederick Yeames