Public Arguments: Saint Thomas More

June is a happy month to stress the office of the papacy, for it is the month of two great saints’ days, the feast of Saint Thomas More, one of the greatest saints of the English-speaking world, and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Both of these celebrations are linked—it was for his fidelity to the office of Peter that Thomas More cheerfully laid his neck on the block, having taken care to protect, as he pointed out, his innocent beard.

In our time, the office of Peter may have proved to be more useful to the Christian faith than at any time in the past. Among all the religious institutions in the Communist world during the long darkness of the years 1917-1989, those whose leaders had a lifeline to Rome were best protected. Against the Communist authorities, the bishops who maintained union with Rome always had one last defense: “I am not the final authority, I must defer to the Pope.” The Pope was their bond of unity across national frontiers. Of course, the bond in the Spirit that Christians always have with one another also reaches across every frontier of space and time. But in the papacy this bond is, so to say, rendered physical, sacramental, witnessed to (even with all attendant weaknesses). And so, when Pope John Paul II began to travel in the flesh to Communist Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Ukraine, the almost physical magnetism of the sacrament of Holy Orders radiated with extraordinary power throughout the countryside, as eyewitnesses still attest, and launched an era-ending revolution.

Moreover, in an age characterized by the world-circling eye of television, the camera can focus on one man—the Pope—in a way that it cannot focus on a conclave, conference, or council, as a concrete symbol of unity. One of the great mysteries of Christianity is incarnation: the stunning and even scandalous fact that God would reveal Himself not (say) in world-terrifying brilliance or overpowering voice, but in the humble form of human flesh, in Jesus Christ. Analogously, Jesus left on earth a human vicar, not at all divine, a humble man of flesh and blood and human faults: Peter and his successors. In this altogether humble and fleshly way, the focal point of the worldwide Christian community is the successor of Peter. (The life, authority, and grace of the Church come, of course, not from Peter but from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)

It is providential, then, that the calendar of the Church assigns June 22 to the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher and June 29 to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. For the first feast points to the second, and on the second we celebrate our worldwide communion with Peter (and that other great apostle, Paul).

Today’s secular communitarians don’t hold a candle to the sort of community that figures in the Catholic imagination: a community of saints that stretches backwards and forwards in time like the stars of the milky way, joining the living and the dead, and not hesitating to include angels and archangels, cherubim, seraphim, and all the heavenly host. The Catholic liturgy, the great twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini once wrote, is “all creation redeemed and at prayer.” The visible sign of this unity is communion with Rome. This month, CRISIS celebrates it.

Today’s Papal Initiative: The Catholicism of Vatican II

Our communion now witnesses an historic moment. For the great initiative of the papacy at this moment is the publication of the new Catechism—in effect, the catechism of Vatican II, intended to reflect developments of understanding and definition since the great catechism of the Council of Trent, approved by Pius IV in 1564. We do our best to help introduce this great initiative to the American public, for the future of our faith much depends upon it. In other countries the Catechism is a bestseller and, insofar as the “consent of the faithful” is also an indication of the authenticity of authoritative teaching, the initial response has been enthusiastic.

But why is a catechism important? Shouldn’t individual Christians just think for themselves? The Catholic faith is the faith of a community; it does not belong to any one individual or faction or nation or era. The God that Christians adore is the God of Truth, not the God of fuzzy sentiment. Getting the faith right therefore matters a great deal. In More’s time, uncertainty about what faith demanded led to scandalous division in the Church. Christians are not saved by warm and fuzzy vaguenesses but by guillotine-clear adherence to the faith given them—the whole faith and nothing but the faith.

To my non-Catholics friends I explain that, for us, the givens of faith are like the givens of experience; they are data to be inquired into for the sake of understanding; data to be saved intact, even when not yet understood. One must not discard the data, though often one is not quite sure what to make of it—only that all such data are important and intelligible to God, even if unintelligible to us. That is why Thomas More took the one “small” issue of divorce with deadly seriousness.

Thomas More, Layman

Some 18 months ago, escorting me through the Catholic seminary for the Archdiocese of London, my host (the grandson of Lord Acton) surprised me by explaining that this was Thomas More’s old property, and he pointed to the spreading tree under which, tradition has it, Thomas More, Erasmus, and even the King had sometimes conversed. I was in awe. The sense of the sacred emanated from the place. In the months since, twice now, I have been invited to reflect formally on the life of Thomas More. Our age seems to cry out for Thomas More.

Thomas More is important for our time because he was one of the first lay saints of the modern period. His knowledge of theology and philosophy, his talent for writing and artistic expression, his wit, and his faith supplied a major part of the intellectual defense of the Catholic faith in his time—more so, indeed, than was supplied by many cardinals, archbishops, and priests.

Like many other devout and pious laymen in Catholic history, More had considered the priesthood, in his case the strict order of the Carthusian monks. After four years, he learned to his satisfaction that he was called to a professional life. He recognized in himself a vital sexual drive, and that his was a vocation in a world of wealth and power, in which he would have to protect his Christian resolution by vivid methods of self-denial, such as the hair shirt he continued to wear throughout his life, and by the practice of inner detachment. His asceticism eventually made it possible for him to lay down his life, and thus to turn away from all the temporal goods he had accumulated and loved. He studied Greek and Latin and was able not only to read texts fluently, but also—a far more difficult art—to write the ancient tongues with a truly breathtaking elegance, brevity, humor, and irony.

The Context of More’s Life (1478-1535)

When he was young and entering upon his professional life, Thomas More offered a series of lectures on Saint Augustine’s City of God. That book described a time of growing darkness for civilization, much as More might have sensed was descending upon his own. In these lectures, open to the bright professional leaders of London, More went through the City of God chapter by chapter, as if to clarify in his own mind right at the beginning of his professional career the precise respective demands of the “city of God” and the “city of man.” It is difficult to believe that More did not intend Utopia (composed in Holland in 1515) to represent a further stage in these reflections.

Behind the City of God, moreover, lay Plato’s Republic. For Plato, seemingly, the highest happiness of humans lay in contemplation, an activity open only to a few—the philosophers—so that in some way the best city ought to be organized for the benefit of the philosophers. Although not in fact so organized, Athens was a city in which the number of slaves and servants far exceeded the number of free men; its economy was based on slavery. In the ancient world, it seemed plainly observable that the law of nature is a law of inequality. Whether one thinks in terms of intelligence or imagination or vitality, only a few people are of “gold,” a rather larger minority of “silver,” and the vast majority of human beings of “lead.” This was the view of ancient natural philosophy, which Saint Augustine, in the light of the gospels, meant to challenge in the City of God.

Cicero, meanwhile, that most elegant and beautiful of Latin writers, had introduced a modification of his own into Plato’s theory of republican happiness. Cicero located happiness in active public service, in striving to improve the city and its laws and its ethos. It was Cicero’s model that taught later thinkers to speak of “civic republicanism,” a concept that blended well with the Christian vocation to make the “city of man” a more just reflection of the “City of God.”

In the years during which Saint Augustine wrote, barbarians were descending upon the centers of civilization. Neither reason and civic republicanism nor Christian faith could stand against the onslaught of barbarism. But, Augustine could hope, they just might penetrate barbarism as yeast does dough, and gradually transform it.

When More came to write Utopia, darkness was descending, too. An assault upon reason and free will was in the air, and the rejection of Christianity was advocated by certain Renaissance humanists. In More’s mind, as in the Catholic tradition exemplified by Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, reason and faith belong together; neither is healthy apart from the other. But reason was under attack from more than one direction; and so was Christian faith. And the two were being energetically sundered.

To bring our survey to today, yet one more moment in history needs to be recalled. The American founders, designing a Seal for their new republic, emblazoned on it a Virgilian inscription (which Catholics used to be able to understand): novus ordo seclorum. This, too, in its way, was a vision of a new ideal for the human race. In Federalist 37, the young James Madison had urged posterity not to overlook the fact that, though the Constitutional Convention had paid due respect to the struggles and lessons of the past, the American founders should not be denied their originality; they had reared a form of government without any model on the face of the earth; it was not like Britain, not like France, or Morocco, or Constantinople. It was a novus ordo. Moreover, it was intended for “the ages” as a model to which, one day (as George Washington said in his Farewell Address), the nations of the world would repair.

In our time, we have seen the impact of that model, as in the Statue of Liberty erected by the students of China in Tiananmen Square in 1989; and in Czechoslovakia where a young man named Zdenek urged his fellow workers in a brewery to join the students in Wenceslaus Square for the “Velvet Revolution” by reciting these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights…”

Yet, one thing is quite striking about the American version of “utopia”: it is not and never was intended to be “utopic.” It is based on biblical and evangelical realism. It is a republic designed for sinners, and therefore well suited with checks and balances and “auxiliary precautions.” The founders did not assume that all men are virtuous, but quite the contrary, and they spoke all the more effectively to “the better angels of our nature” for not disregarding the worse angels of our nature.

In brief, the history of poetic reflections upon the ideal nature of the human city has a sweep of its own: from Plato’s Republic to Cicero’s “civic republicanism,” from the City of God to More’s Utopia, and still later from America’s novus ordo seclorum to that very Communism, now vanquished, which paid tribute to More’s Utopia by erecting a monument in its honor in Red Square itself, as if More’s Utopia were a basic text for the Communist experiment.

Times Out of Joint: On Reading More’s Utopia

In revisiting both Utopia and Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (which may be translated as either “In Praise of More” or “In Praise of Folly”), I have been struck by the lighthearted admiration for the comedies of the Latin poet Lucan that both texts exemplify. Whereas once I would have interpreted No Place (as I prefer to translate Utopia) as though it really did state an ideal to warm the hearts of adolescents, this time—after the fall of Communism—I read it in the spirit of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. I read it as satire. I read it as a prediction of how and why Communism would fall, based as it was upon preposterous premises.

In part, my mind was led in this direction by remembering that More read the Holy Scriptures every day, had an almost physical hunger for Christ and His Sacraments, and cherished a profound knowledge of his need for the mercy of Christ. Yet No Place is a land not founded on the gospels. In addition, I could not overlook the many jokes, inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities strewn throughout the text. The reader of No Place must be on guard lest his leg be pulled.

Writing hardly 25 years after Columbus’s discovery of America, no doubt More heard reports of “a new world” in which the gospels had not been preached. At the same time, the renewed study of Latin and Greek texts was revealing the splendors of art and intellect in the ancient world where Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Cicero knew nothing of the gospels. By 1515, some great thinkers were imagining a world without Christianity, a world, as they thought, of “Enlightenment” defined against Christian darkness. Such writers as this could have imagined an ideal No Place without Christ. But could Thomas More? No—except with tongue in cheek.

Thomas More was no Pelagian. He knew that he needed Christ, and he knew that the world needs Christ. Had More intended No Place to be taken literally, he would have been quite vulnerable to the accusation of Martin Luther that Catholic faith is faith not in the grace of Christ but in human works. Thomas More knew his Saint Augustine better than that; in fact, as Gerard Wegemer makes plain in a recent issue of Renascence, the design of No Place is in direct opposition to the City of God:

Utopia boasts of a 1760-year history in which no civil wars have taken place and only two natural catastrophes have affected their civic life (121.30; 137.25-27; 245.9-16); the City of God teaches that constant war and continuous catastrophes, both natural and moral, will always plague human societies (XIX.5). Utopia is “not merely the best but the only [political order] which can rightly claim the name of a commonwealth” (237.38-9); the City of God denies that a truly just commonwealth is possible anywhere or at any time here on earth (XIX.20-21). The City of God argues that personal peace is attained only through a life-long struggle with the evil forces in oneself, a struggle that involves great personal self-denial (XIX.4); Utopians live a life of pleasurable leisure and consider great self-denial “the extreme of madness” (163.18; 179.8). The City of God considers “nothing more disgraceful and monstrous” than holding pleasure as the end of life (V.20)—the very position held by the Utopians (167.6). The City of God is indifferent to customs if these do not directly violate the law of God (XIX.17); Utopia is absolutely unbending in social custom, even in such matters as arbitrary as dress, voting procedure, or choice of home. While the City of God considers virtue as the key to peace and is tolerant of a wide range of institutional ways of bringing about that peace (XIX.10,17), Utopia considers its own institutional arrangement as not only the key but the only way of bringing about peace (103.24-31; 236.31-33; 245.611). Lastly but most importantly from the Augustinian point of view, the City of God is absolutely unbending regarding teachings about God’s nature and the worship due Him (XIX.17), while Utopia officially encourages diversity in such belief while being just as unbending about certain social customs and teachings of God that affect the state.

In brief, Wegemer uncovers “the playfully antagonistic stance which More constructs within the text of Utopia between Raphael’s and Augustine’s views on the best way of life.”

There are many signs that More expects us to read this work with wit intact and guard up. The name of his enthusiastic narrator, Raphael Hythlodaeus, itself means “Bearer of Nonsense.” The name of the chief river in Utopia is “waterless.” The name of its capital city means something like “dimly” or “darkness descends.” (That is rather as if More referred to Washington, D.C. as “Gomorrah on the Potomac.”) The text is so playful and so loaded with satirical possibilities that one is forced to stand back and ask oneself: What really does More mean? He seems to want us to question everything, and not quite to believe what anyone says, certainly not what “Bearer of Nonsense” says, nor even exactly what More puts into the mouth of the character who bears his own name.

Anyone who knew anything about the vices and foibles of London, Paris, Rome, and The Hague at that time could hardly have overlooked that the people of No Place, however drab and boring and uniform their lives might seem, nonetheless lived by a higher level of virtue than characterized “Christian” Europe. Surely, one edge of More’s satire is meant to rub across the conscience of Christian Europe. At the same time, we are no doubt supposed to see just how narrow-minded, shallow, uncritical, and self-deluded the inhabitants of No Place are. The mendacity and brutality of their leaders and the rationalizations that “Bearer of Nonsense” gives for their habits of warfare and slavery are by no means as enlightened as a superficial reading suggests. No Place is not a picture of paradise; it borders playfully on being a picture of hell, disguised by a gaudy and rosy frame.

Though no expert on interpretations of Utopia, I sense More’s own forebodings. A life lived by reason alone, with nothing more for protection than the natural virtues and the institutional arrangements of a certain kind of social engineering, may very well seem to be a model for a new world to come; but it can by no means be taken to be a happy model. Yet, if Utopia describes the Scylla of a humanism without Christ, More’s later writings against Luther and Tyndale express in detail his forebodings about the Charybdis of a Christ without humanism. A Christian faith from which have been ripped away the gifts of wit and reason and feeling and responsibility with which our Creator endowed us, before He redeemed us, is only a pale shadow of true faith. In the early sixteenth century, Europe was about to be split apart between an anti-humanist Christianity and a humanism that is anti-Christian. This splitting asunder would shake More to the core of his being—indeed, it would require his life.

For Thomas More stood for a synthesis in which, on the one hand, biblical faith rejoices in the highest possible expression of human wit and creativity, and, on the other, human wit and creativity express gratitude to God. This was the synthesis for which that earlier Thomas, Thomas Aquinas, had aspired in his Secunda Secundae. This is Christian humanism at its high point. As its original moment faded shortly after the death of Aquinas in 1274 (most of his successors fell far below his acuity), its second moment also was to perish shortly after the death of Thomas More three centuries later. The apogee of Christian humanism is, it seems, difficult to reach and even more difficult to make endure.

Contemporary Christophobia

Our own time is at least as out of joint as the time of Thomas More. The legitimate authority of the bishop of Rome is under threat—although in our own time, the truly dangerous threat comes more often from within the Church than from outside it. One hardly goes to a meeting on a Catholic campus or at a Catholic convent or monastery these days without hearing abusive comments about Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II. All over England at the time of More’s death, papal authority was being rejected. More had had experience in the city of Rome; it had filled him with revulsion. Like his friend Erasmus, he was sickened by the corruption and worldly martial power of Julian II. Yet More was willing to surrender life itself to uphold the principle of papal authority, so crucial did he hold it to the integrity of Catholic faith. How many Catholic intellectuals in America today would follow More in this? How many would rather die than approve of divorce?

In our own time, we witness an aggressive secularism determined to banish every sign of Judaism and Christianity from the public square. Public schools, which themselves began as religious schools before they became state schools, are not allowed even to have on their walls a copy of the Ten Commandments. It seems that they cannot exhibit a crucifix, either, unless it is presented in a jar of urine and described as contemporary art, in which case its viewing cannot be banned since that would be an act of “censorship.” Our Supreme Court sometimes shows more respect for pornography than for religion. In its obiter dicta during the past 50 years the Court has propounded a deranged picture of religion—as divisive, possibly homicidal, irrational, diseased, and pestilential.

The most fashionable and powerful philosophy in our midst today is called “Deconstructionism.” This is not an easy concept to define. As the joke goes: “What happened when a deconstructionist married a Mafioso? They had children who made them offers they couldn’t understand.” In effect, today’s vulgar deconstructionists hold that there is no such thing as truth. There is only, as University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, “contingency all the way down.” There is no “foundation” for epistemology or ethics. There is no “ground.” There is only nothingness, a void. What advance is this upon the previously dominant philosophical doctrine of “moral expressivism,” according to which morality expresses only our subjective preferences, and the prevailing public morality is no more than those preferences that happen to be supported by social power? In other words, every proposition that purports to be an assertion about the true or the good must be “deconstructed” into a sentence about the preferences and the social power of those who assert them. But if there is no truth, and there is no good, then neither are there any unalienable rights, nor is there any justice. All that we have are ignorant armies clashing by night—and may the most powerful win.

Philosophers who hold such views cannot say with Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” because they do not believe that there are any truths, let alone “self-evident” truths. There is only naked power. Rorty claims that this is a cheerful nihilism, to be held in an ironic and gentle way. But what is to prevent more powerful people in Virginia or anywhere else from wiping the grin off Rorty’s face, puncturing his cheerfulness, and enforcing upon him their own wild preferences, simply because they are ruder and stronger than he and his friends? Given his commitment to nihilism, Rorty, unlike Havel, Walesa, and other heroes of the Eastern European resistance, could claim neither right nor truth nor justice in voicing a futile protest against power.

On another front, the impact of feminism on our public life must also to be addressed, and by (I would especially hope) some truly brilliant female followers of Thomas More. Much that has occurred in the practical order under the impact of feminism has been good. But in the domain of critical reason, more that is destructive has also been unleashed. Certain forms of feminist ideology dismiss even reason itself as hatefully male, the property of Dead White European Males. In the heated atmosphere of such discourse, no reasoned conversation is possible. The aim seems to be to deny the very personality of the other, and to disallow the other’s presence entirely, so as to proceed entirely ad hominem and by those sanitized and intolerant forms of speech known as “political correctness.”

In a similar way, some gays and lesbians today claim to seek only tolerance and laissez-faire, but what they really are requesting is totalitarian tolerance: they do not want merely to be left alone; they want nothing less than our official and open and heartfelt approval. Were any of us to say, for example, what serious and orthodox Jews and Christians must say, that homosexual acts are mortal sins—every bit as much as acts of fornication or adultery—we would be accused of “bigotry” or “intolerance.” We are told that we must treat homosexuality and heterosexuality as morally equivalent; to each, his or her preferences; to each, his or her orientation.

We live, in short, in an age in which to be both an orthodox Catholic and to pursue the paths of civic republicanism, critical reason, and humanism is to live under assault. Those of us who choose to follow Thomas More down paths such as these must recognize that our foes are out to destroy us: To de-legitimize us, to marginalize us, and finally to dismiss us so that we will be heard from no more. They can live with nothing less than our moral approval, and that we cannot give. They wish to live in ways that we must—we really have no choice—call evil, but they cannot bear to be implicated in evil.

Though Thomas More may be a man for all seasons, it is exactly in seasons like our own that his example is most poignant. His circumstances were dire, and so are ours. He was driven to the extremity; and so are we. But are we as brave and witty or kind?

Called to Holiness

What is it that we need from Thomas More and can learn from him? First, that ultimately there is nothing apart from holiness of life. Second, that we must have the courage to live as a counter-culture in opposition to main currents on both right and left. We must be able to resist intimidation. We must be ready to be called names, to be humiliated, to be rebuked, to be marginalized. And, finally, and most important, we must learn that our only way out is through the example of Christian humanism: by the use of our wits, by good humor, by civility, and by kindness.

When we are surrounded by enemies, charity is our best revenge. What our enemies cannot stand, above all else, is that when they have done their worst, we should still be able to love them. They would prefer that we become embittered, and that we rage against them as they rage against us. We need a certain diamond-like, adamantine firmness in our hearts so as continually to call evil evil, while at the same time appealing to others with wit, humor, kindness, and humanity. We must take care, in short, not to sentimentalize Thomas More; he could be rough and highly judgmental in his opposition to moral evil; he could be hard and unyielding. But such qualities are not rare; they are altogether too common. What set him apart from others was his good humor and vitality of spirit.

When, before his beheading, More asked his executioner to be careful not to cut off his beard since it had done no harm, he did not intend only one meaning—that his beard was inanimate and incapable of fault—but also another: that, known throughout his life for being clean shaven, and having grown a beard only during his time in prison, he had endured—without fault—his imprisonment and trial, and knew the proceedings to be fraudulent. That he died with humor and without bitterness, as if—just as Saint Augustine had predicted in the City of God—this is the way the world is, was a rare and precious flash of the fire of the human spirit.

How beautiful are the ways of the Lord.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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