St. Thomas More: Catholic and Patriot

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On January 27, 2020, the United States Supreme Court voted to grant the Trump administration the ability to limit benefits to immigrants to the United States. The nation’s highest court granted the current presidential administration the ability to select those immigrants who would be able to “pay their own way” into the United States and not be a drain on the nation’s already stressed finances.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an immediate response through Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley as well as Washington, D.C., Auxiliary Bishop Mario Eduardo Dorsonville-Rodriguez. They lamented the allegedly negative impact the ruling would have on members of immigrant communities in the United States who are “cast into the shadows because they fear deportation and family separation for seeking critical support.”

On the other hand, many conservative Catholics have argued that immigration levels—not only in the United States but the wider Western world as well—have reached a crisis level. It’s no longer a matter of lending a helping hand to those in need or showing solidarity with fellow Catholics in the Global South. There is neither the money nor the room in the West for more migrations, these conservative and populist critics argue. Nor, really, is there even the will among Western countries to assimilate the millions of immigrants who are already in the West, many of whom don’t want to assimilate.

What is needed at this point is for Catholics of the Western world to look deep in our tradition for a solution that allows for both an honest patriotism as well as a sincere charity that actively seeks the good of those Catholics living in the developing world who are in need of our aid. One of the great Catholic figures to whom we can turn for guidance is the great and beloved martyr of the English Reformation, St. Thomas More.

 

More’s last words—“I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first”—powerfully encapsulate both his piety as well as his oft-forgotten patriotism.

Despite his resistance to Henry VIII’s 1534 Act of Supremacy in which the rotund and scrupulous British monarch claimed authority over the English Church, More was a devoted English patriot. Yet this has not stopped some on the left from trying to recruit the Catholic martyr in support of open borders and unlimited migration and refugee settlement.

As these open-borders advocates note, More is the subject of a late sixteenth-century play by poet Anthony Munday, titled Sir Thomas More. There’s a speech in the play which More gives in defense of Protestant refugees from the Netherlands and France who were fleeing to England. (Some historians believe these lines in the play were added by William Shakespeare in 1603.)

Haranguing an angry English crowd, Munday’s fictional Thomas More proclaims tolerance for the refugees, for they share a common humanity with the English, and if the English themselves were to be displaced, they would expect refuge from the French and Dutch Protestants fleeing to English shores:

You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

There’s a great deal of truth in these lines. Humans are part of a collective humanity and, as children of Adam, share a common human nature and bond with one another. Moreover, it’s true that many in the West today—who, like the English of Munday’s play, enjoy relative prosperity and peace—were once themselves refugees, and could very well end up refugees in the near future. They may soon come to expect solace and succor from the very people whom they had previously rejected.

Yet we must add a few caveats. English and continental Europeans share not only a common ethnicity but also, at least at the time of St. Thomas More, a common Christian faith—albeit one that was rapidly dissolving into fractious sects. Moreover, the number of refugees fleeing continental Europe to England was relatively small compared to the contemporary crisis.

According to the United Nations’ own statistics, by 2016, 5.2 million refugees had entered Europe since the refugee crisis began. In the United States, conservative estimates on left-leaning websites place the number of illegal immigrants in the United States at around 10 million.

While leftists seeking to appropriate St. Thomas More as the patriot saint of refugees are correct to note the common humanity shared among us—regardless of race or legal status—they forget an essential element of Catholic immigration policy: preservation of the common good.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read that “political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.” Thus, if refugees and immigrants threaten the common good of a country, they may need to be regulated or even, quite possibly, peacefully and humanely sent back home.

Interestingly, despite attempts by leftists to recruit More for their open-borders assault against the West, the great English saint himself has a very robust concept of the common good. In fact, the maintenance of the common good is one of the central themes of More’s 1516 classic piece of proto-fantasy literature, Utopia.

There is one element from the life of St. Thomas More, however, that is most important for our discussion, for, by its very nature, it transcends the contemporary debate over immigration.

More than he was an English patriot concerned for the common good of England, and certainly more than he (as a literary figure) is a spokesman for refugee resettlement, St. Thomas More was a Catholic concerned with the salvation of souls. As Pope Pius XI said of Thomas More in his 1935 canonization homily, the English martyr’s primary concern was the salvation of souls and the “defense of the Catholic faith and… the safeguarding of Christian morality.”

As Catholics, we should not forget this highest good—the eternal salvation of souls—as we follow the example of St. Thomas More amid our internecine political squabbles.

Nonetheless, in this “valley of tears” we are engaged in a political struggle for the common good of our country and the survival of our civilization.

Thus, drawing from the Catechism as well as the work of the real St. Thomas More, we see the Supreme Court’s recent decision to support the Trump administration as not only just but entirely harmonious with Catholic teaching.

Jesse B. Russell

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Jesse B. Russell writes for a variety of Catholic publications.

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