2016-05-12

St. Thomas More, Statesman and Martyr: Patron of Lawyers and Politicians

"Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his
life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as
an imperishable example of moral integrity. And even outside the Church,
particularly among those with responsibility for the destinies of peoples,
he is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which
has as its supreme goal the service of the human person." So wrote Pope John
Paul II concerning the man whose inspiring life, fidelity to his Catholic
Christian faith, unjust persecution and Martyrs death we commemorate in the
western Church on June 22.

The England of the sixteenth century was in the midst of a serious crisis of
politics, culture and faith, not unlike the times in which we now live.  In
1534 all citizens who were of age were required to take an oath called "The
Act of Succession" which  acknowledged that King Henry VIII was married to
Anne Boleyn, even though he was not. His desire to divorce Catherine was not
sufficient to make that marriage null and his attempt to use his political
power to change the truth was objectively unsuccessful.

The King went further, he used the power of his office to promulgate an
unjust positive (man-made) Law by which he proclaimed that he and Anne were
lawfully married. It went further. He also declared himself to be the
Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus abrogating to himself the
authority to determine that his lawful marital bond was dissolved and
denying the authority of the successor of the Apostle Peter. The Holy Father
had refused to succumb to Henry's demand that he grant him an annulment from
his lawful marriage. He would not affirm Henry's decision to place his
disordered desires over the objective truth.

The King knew Thomas More and admired his knowledge and his demonstrated
integrity which was so evident in his family life and accomplished career in
public service. In addition to the Law which he had studied with excellence
at New Inn, Thomas had studied literature, history, theology and philosophy
at Oxford. He was elected to the Parliament of England in 1504 and held
several other elective and appointed offices. They placed him in our
equivalent of both legislative and judicial service.

In spite of Thomas having made known to the King that he could not agree
with the dissolution of his lawful marriage to Catherine, the King appointed
this man of law, learning and letters to be the Lord Chancellor of England
in 1529. Thomas was the first layman to ever occupy such a high political
position in the realm. His beloved England was in the midst of difficult
economic problems and he had deep concerns for his countrymen, especially
for the poor, the weak and vulnerable. He pursued justice through his
political office and sought to serve the King while remaining faithful to
the higher law.

He knew the order of truth and he applied a hierarchy of values in both his
personal life and his public life. In short, he lived as a faithful Catholic
Christian, demonstrating a unity of life. He always stayed faithful to the
Truth. In 1532, knowing that he could not enforce the declaration of his
temporal King to usurp the authority of the Church which had been granted to
it by the King of Kings, he resigned his political position. He tried to do
so with the kind of integrity that had characterized his entire life. He
withdrew from public life and bore the ridicule and taunts of those who once
praised him.

He offered the suffering to the Lord by joining it to the Cross of the
Savior. He then tried to continue to care for his beloved family, the
domestic church of the home, by teaching them how to live lives of virtue
and simplicity. He had lost his prestige and his considerable financial
resources, but he gained the peace which always comes through fidelity to
the Lord. His hopes for a life with his family, lived in simplicity and
fidelity to the Church, were short lived. The King, by now drunk on his own
power, insisted that Thomas take the oath under the "Act of Succession",
thereby acknowledging the legitimacy of his "marriage" to Anne and his
authority over the Church.

Thomas would not do so because he refused to violate his truly formed
conscience. So, the King had his former counselor imprisoned in the Tower of
London. There he underwent intense tortures of both body and soul. These
came not only from the henchmen of the State but even from some within his
own family and circle of friends who failed to understand his minds had been
dulled by compromise. At the time, few would have even noticed if Thomas had
succumbed to the Royal request. He probably could have even justified the
action through the exercise of his well honed rhetorical and logical skills
by calling it a merely perfunctory action. He could have thereby restored
his political position, some would have argued, in order to try to influence
the King for the good over the long haul.

He could have had his substantial properties restored if he had just sworn
that oath, others would say, in order to provide material safety for his
beloved family. Instead, this man who loved life, loved his family, loved
his career and properly loved the world and all of its goods, loved the Lord
first and would not compromise the Truth. He was an ordinary Christian who
shows us ordinary Christians the way to living a unity of life in the midst
of the creeping darkness and distractions of our own age. He held in harmony
his vocation as the father of a family with his profession as a lawyer and
his service in the highest of Political offices. He knew that there is a
hierarchy of values which bring with them a hierarchy of duties and
loyalties. His witness in life and in death challenges us to examine whether
we do.

How did he do it? Quite simply, he prayed and he really believed. He lived
in a communion with the Risen Lord as a faithful son of the Church which is
His Body. He was a man who loved the Lord in the Heart of the Catholic
Church. His very real and sincerely lived piety has filled the books written
about him and the writings he left for our own growth and edification.
Thomas would meditate on the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ every Friday,
the day on which Our Lord suffered and died. This was only a part of how he
integrated the pattern of the Liturgical year of the Church and Catholic
life and culture into his own lived faith. He also practiced regular
ascetical disciplines which he always offered in love to the Lord. In fact,
even while he suffered in that Tower, awaiting a Martyrs death, he continued
the regimen.

He teaches us that the Christian vocation requires our constant response to
the Lord's invitation to follow him and that we cannot get by on yesterdays'
decisions. During that brief time which he had with his family, after
attempting to quietly resign rather than violate his formed conscience and
before he was imprisoned, when his wife or children complained about their
lack he would tell them that they could not expect to "go to heaven in
featherbeds". He taught them regularly to reflect upon the privation and
sufferings of Jesus on our behalf and he prayed with them for the grace to
join their own to Him on the Cross.

Our readings in the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, offer us a
tender letter on his Feast, written by the Saint to his beloved daughter
Margaret as he awaited his martyrdom. His only concern was for her to grow
in her relationship with the Lord. He had loved her so in life that he
wanted that love to continue in the life to come. This is the same daughter
whose husband had succumbed to one of several heresies afflicting the Church
in Thomas' day. Thomas patiently won the young man back to the orthodox
catholic faith and back to the Church through prayer and an apostolate of
apologetics. The young man, who sought out the advice of his father in law,
went on to live a life of virtue and fidelity in the heart of the Catholic
Church.

Thomas More showed heroic courage in the face of a State which had lost its
soul. He never wavered in his fidelity to the Truth. He would not betray the
truth or compromise it on the altar of public opinion for political
opportunism. He knew that to do so would not only have dishonored God and
led his family and so many others astray, but that it would have given tacit
assent to the emerging despotism of his age. Thomas More was brought to
trial for his fidelity to the Truth. As is often the case with persecution
against Christians, it was framed as a charge against the "positive law".
This outstanding lawyer defended the Truth  - for which he would later give
his life.

Thomas used the occasion of the Courtroom, where he had practiced his trade,
to defend the Truth and its obligations in the temporal order. In the
eloquent words of the late Servant of God Pope John Paul II, who proclaimed
him not only the Patron of all lawyers but the Patron of all politicians,
"he made an impassioned defense of his own convictions on the
indissolubility of marriage, the respect due to the juridical patrimony of
Christian civilization, and the freedom of the Church in her relations with
the State."

He was found "guilty", this man of truth and the patently unjust verdict
still brings shame upon every unjust tribunal and misuse of governmental
power as it increases on an almost daily basis. Thomas faced his
executioners with the very same dignity he had shown in life, speaking with
humor and affection to them even before they beheaded him. After his death
it was found that he had left these words in the margin of his Book of
Hours: "Give me your grace, good Lord, to set the world at naught...to have
my mind well united to you; to not depend on the changing opinions of
others...so that I may think joyfully of the things of God and tenderly
implore his help. So that I may lean on God's strength and make an effort to
love him... So as to thank Him ceaselessly for his benefits; so as to redeem
the time I have wasted..."

Catholics and all faithful Christians face similar challenges to those which
faced St. Thomas More. The attacks on true marriage are raging. The evil
action of killing our smallest neighbors in the womb by abortion is enforced
with the Police Power of the State, though it violates the Natural Law Right
to Life. St. Thomas More has been properly called a "Man for all Seasons". I
propose he is a man for this season.

*****
Bread on the Trail: St. Thomas More did not withdraw from the culture. He
went into the midst of it and offered all of his talents to the service of
the King. However, he knew he was the Lord's Servant before all else. When
the time came that his allegiance was tested, he stood for the Truth. he had
the courage that comes to those whose lives are, in the words of St. Paul to
the Colossians "Hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3) He loved the Lord until
the very end and he joined the Holy Martyrs who welcomed him home. He calls
us in this urgent hour to offer ourselves in service in a corrupted age in
which we live as leaven and seeds of the Gospel. We are to imitate the Lord
himself, becoming grains of wheat which fall to the ground and bear fruit.
(John 12:24)

Prayer: Father, may the example of St. Thomas More, Statesman, Martyr and
hero of the faith, inspire a new generation of Christians who serve in the
Courts and the political arena without compomising truth. men and women who
have the courage of Christ and can, by their lives and witness, transform
this current culture of death into a new culture of life..


 

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