Just as some contemporary Northern European bishops are presently seeking to fudge similarly settled Church teaching, considerable efforts were made by bishops in 1533 to persuade More to be more flexible with Henry VIII’s demands.
“To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.”
Among the many statements made by Cardinal Walter Kasper while making his case for changing Church teaching that prohibits divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics who choose not to live as brother and sister to receive communion, this was perhaps the most revealing. It reflects an approach to Christian morality which goes beyond presenting (and thus essentially marginalizing) Christ’s moral teaching as an ideal that, sotto voce, no-one’s seriously expected to follow in all their free choices. It also effectively downplays something that all Christians must face at some point: the Cross.
Every Christian has a cross to bear. The point is not whether we stumble under their burden. We all do. What’s crucial is that we repent, get up, and resolve to go and sin no more. Each Christian is after all called to holiness, not averageness. In short, striving to be a saint isn’t just for extraordinary people. It’s something Christ asks of all His followers: rich or poor, man or woman, African or German. In our equality-fixated age, the call to be a saint is in fact one of the great equalizers for Christians—not least because, as Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, “Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal” (VS 96).
In that sense, the lives of the saints, especially the martyrs, may well be the strongest refutation of the Kasper proposal, not to mention the entire canopy of ideas for which, as everyone knows, it is serving as a stalking-horse. And one saint whose life is particularly relevant for the 2015 Synod on the Family is surely Thomas More. Universally recognized as a scholar, statesman and lawyer, we often forget that More was also a son, father, and husband. Moreover, one of the principles for which More gave his life could not be more pertinent for this Synod’s reflections: the indissolubility of marriage in the face of Henry VIII’s determination to live as man and wife with a lady who, in the Church’s judgment, was not his wife.
To the extent that More’s story is known by Catholics, it’s invariably for his choices in the last years of his life. Fewer are familiar with the more everyday aspects of More’s time on earth.
All of More’s biographers, even the hostile, underline his devotion to his family. The workload assumed by More upon entering the king’s service in 1518 would have broken many people. Yet despite his weighty responsibilities, More organized and helped impart an educational program for his children, including his daughters (a radical step for the time), that would put most of us to shame today. Even when More’s obligations required him to be away from his family for long periods, he engaged in constant correspondence with them, listened to their problems, gave advice and encouragement, and, when necessary, gently reprimanded them.
Above all, More worked to shape his family’s faith and moral character. Living the Christian life and pursuing the virtues was not, to More’s mind, beyond the powers of all but a small heroic group. Though recognizing that self-mastery is difficult, More was firmly convinced that it was, with the aid of grace, a potentially that anyone could actualize.
It’s tempting to view all this in somewhat idyllic terms: that More’s family life consisted entirely of piety, humor, and high learning. That’s the picture you find in hagiographies of More, Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of More and his family, and Robert Bolt’s great (albeit somewhat misleading) play A Man for All Seasons.
Less well-known is the not-so-sublime side of More’s family. More’s son-in-law and biographer, William Roper, for instance, didn’t just flirt with heresy and thus bring considerable distress to his thoroughly orthodox in-laws. As recent More biographersillustrate, Roper was a somewhat greedy man, not shy of using his Parliamentary position for personal gain. He also possessed a difficult personality, quarrelling frequently with other members of More’s family. Roper was peculiarly prone to litigiousness. Not long after More’s death, Roper even attempted to evict his now-widowed mother-in-law, Lady Alice, from a piece of land that Roper (falsely) claimed to be part of his wife Margaret’s dowry. Lady Alice promptly hired her other barrister son-in-law, Giles Alington, to duke it out in the courts with Roper on her behalf. That degree of inter-familial antagonism didn’t spring from nowhere.
More’s family wasn’t therefore without its shadows. It couldn’t have been easy for More to see his entire family, including his beloved daughter Margaret, swear the oaths which More himself refused. He also witnessed, close-up, the human wreckage left by Henry VIII’s rapacious appetites and the king’s treatment of his wife, Katherine of Aragon. None of this, however, lessened by one iota his commitment to marriage’s indissolubility and subsequent refusal to condone Henry’s simulation of a marriage to Anne Boleyn, despite the considerable inducements to do so.
“Yes” to mercy but also to free will
Lest this tempt us to regard More as a heartless rigorist, it’s important to emphasize that the theme of mercy appears frequently in his writings. This features prominently in More’s apologetic works, not least because some Protestant reformers’ ideas concerning predestination, More believed, effectively nullified God’s mercy. If someone is predestined for hell, More wondered, how could God be merciful to that person?
For More, God’s mercy reflected His refusal to abandon the most stubborn of sinners who refuses to repent and go and sin no more. But God’s mercy, More added, makes no sense unless we accept that man has free will. In his Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, More uses the image of a merciful God hovering outside the door of the sinner’s heart “always knocking upon him to be by the free will of man let in with his grace into the house of man’s heart again.” The sinner who desires to repent—say, a man civilly-married to someone who isn’t actually his wife and who recognizes the truth about this relationship—can, with the aid of God’s grace, freely choose to abstain from sexual relations with that woman. Cardinal Kasper’s schema seems to assume that such a choice is simply beyond most people. By contrast, More warns that someone who continues to sin and assumes that a casual expression of mild remorse before they die will restore them to full life in Christ “turneth trust into presumption, and maketh men the more bold in sin.”
Moral absolutes and compromising clergy
Here it’s imperative to recognize just how much More dreaded sin and accepted what the Church has always taught: that (1) there are some acts which may never be done, no matter how good the intentions or extenuating the circumstances; and (2) such acts put a person’s salvation at stake. Henry and Anne Boleyn may have, for all More knew, genuinely loved each other. More was certain, however, that Henry was validly married to someone else. Hence, any sexual act between Henry and Anne constituted an act of adultery: an act which, the Church specifies may never be chosen and, being a mortal sin, deeply wounds one’s relationship with Christ and His Church.
The binding, exceptionless character of the moral absolutes—the thou-shall-nots of Christian morality—is crucial for understanding why More chose not to swear the oaths demanded of him by King Henry. In April 1534, More was asked to swear the public oath to the new Act of Succession required by all Henry’s subjects. This oath involved affirming that the marriage between Katherine and Henry VIII was in fact invalid. More refused to swear. He seems to have concluded very early in the dispute about the King’s Great Matter that the marriage of Henry and Katherine was valid and therefore indissoluble. The same conclusion was (eventually) reached by the pope in March 1534, one month before More was asked to swear an oath asserting the opposite.
What’s important is that for More to swear the required oath would have involved him publicly avowing the contrary of what he believed to be true: i.e., lying and thereby violating the moral absolute that forbids lying. More was willing to suffer immediate life-imprisonment and confiscation of all his property rather than freely will a falsehood. For More well-knew that the Church has always taught that there’s never a good reason to violate any of the moral absolutes, a point most recently and solemnly reaffirmed by Pope John Paul’s Veritatis Splendor 459 years after More refused to lie on oath.
Such was More’s commitment to the Church’s teaching on this subject that he declined to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen on 1 June 1533. More—and everyone else—was well aware that his presence would have been regarded as assent to Henry’s simulated marriage. After all, no king makes his mistress the Queen.
Just as some contemporary Northern European bishops are presently seeking to fudge similarly settled Church teaching, considerable efforts were made by bishops in 1533 to persuade More to be a little more flexible. Throughout his life, More knew many clergy. He thus had no illusions that priestly ordination somehow ensures that someone remains or becomes a good man. It was three old friends—Bishops Stephen Gardiner, John Clerk, and Cuthbert Tunstall—who invited More to join them at Anne’s coronation. More politely declined, and by way of a story written by the Roman historian Tacitus, indicated to the bishops that while the King might be able to kill him, he wasn’t going to let himself be slowly but perceptively drawn by the King—or his episcopal surrogates—into acting in ways that compromised his commitment to the truth about marriage’s indissolubility in general or Henry and Katherine’s marriage in particular.
Within a year of Anne’s coronation, More was in the Tower of London. More had few doubts that, unless he affirmed what he was certain to be untrue, he was facing a show-trial and likely-execution. That, however, makes it even more poignant that one of the last works penned by More, probably with a piece of coal, was his Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body of Our Lord. In this short text, More wrote directly about what Catholics should do if they wanted to be in a position to partake of Christ’s Body and Blood: a subject much on the minds of the Synod Fathers today.
Christ delights in being with us, More wrote, provided that we are in a state of grace when receiving the sacrament. That qualification is significant because, More believed, it was spiritually dangerous for someone to receive communion when not in a state of grace. It was thus essential, More concluded, that we “purge and cleanse our souls by confession, contrition, and penance, with full purpose of forsaking from thenceforth, the proud desires of the devil, the greed covetousness of wretched worldly wealth, and the foul attention of the filthy flesh, and be in full mind to preserve and continue in the ways of the God and holy cleanness of spirit.”
In case the point is missed, these words underscore that a firm determination to go and sin no more is a sine qua non of preparedness for communion. Tellingly, More then cites Saint Paul’s admonition from his Letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). This is perhaps the most important Scriptural passage which John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981) has in mind when it “reaffirms [the Church’s practice] of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84). John Paul then reiterated what some proposing changes to this teaching certainly know: “if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (FC 84).
But why should one worry about such error and confusion if one assumes, as some Christians apparently do today, that everyone is going to heaven? The reason we should care is that, as More well knew, no one is guaranteed access to heaven. More found the idea of eternal separation from God as distasteful as the rest of us. Nonetheless, More didn’t hesitate to ask Christ in one of his last known written prayers to help him “To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell.” That’s the ultimate horizon—that of heaven and hell—through which More viewed the turmoil that engulfed him and others in his concluding years. It wasn’t just that Henry VIII was destroying the Church’s unity. It was also that the King was putting his own and others’ salvation in jeopardy by simulating marriage with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
In his 2014 address to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis revealed that he says one of Thomas More’s prayers every day, specifically More’s supplication for a sense of humor. This trait is one for which More is rightly celebrated. Yet More’s renowned wit and love of laughter should never lead anyone to doubt that he was also a deadly serious man: someone who knew that the Church’s responsibility is to teach the truth, with love, in season and out of season. Part of that truth-telling includes reminding all of us that every mortal sin represents a free choice to act against that truth and to reject, in a decisive way, God’s love and mercy.
More was of course no naïf. He didn’t live in the abstract. He was acutely aware of life’s complexities. He knew that high politics was a messy, occasionally lethal business. He experienced the same temptations that confront everyone. Conscious of human frailty, More recognized that everyone sins and fails, including in family settings. He was also supremely patient with others’ follies, whether it was his cantankerous son-in-law or the ruthless monarch determined to put away his true wife at any cost: including, presumably, that of his soul.
That, however, is what’s ultimately at stake in this Synod—souls. It’s perhaps the principal reason why More invested so much time and energy contesting what he regarded as the bad ideas coming out of the German-speaking world of his own time. It wasn’t a question of intellectual pride or of a conservative’s desire to defend tradition for the sake of tradition. In the end, he fought and ultimately died for love: love of the good of marriage, love of the Church, love of the truth, and, at the root of all these things, love of the God who is Love and Truth.
Yes, he lost his head. But Thomas More won his soul. To the extent the Synod maintains a More-like focus on people’s souls and their salvation, we have nothing to fear.