Fr. Raymond de Suza points to the clarity of vision that St. Thomas More gives to us. In a recent article in the Catholic Herald he illustrates:
Thomas More was executed on July 6, 1535. At that time the liturgical calendar marked July 6 as the octave day for Ss Peter and Paul. In his last letter, written on July 5, More hopes for a speedy death, and notes that it is already the “[vigil] of St Peter”. No doubt it brought him consolation to know that he was executed for his loyalty to the Successor of St Peter on a feast of Peter himself.
So we can agree that St Thomas died for the divine constitution of the Church and the Petrine office, and for the indissolubility of marriage. Yet to understand him as a martyr for conscience does not diminish that.
When the American bishops first proposed an annual campaign for religious liberty to begin with the feast of Fisher and More – now observed on June 22, the date of Fisher’s execution – the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made . . . the point that Thomas More was not really a martyr for the rights of conscience.
But St John Paul II took a different view when in October 2000 he declared St Thomas the patron saint of statesmen and politicians, beginning his apostolic letter with the words: [The life and martyrdom of St Thomas More … speaks to people everywhere] of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience.
“What enlightened his conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality,” the Holy Father continued. “And it was precisely in defence of the rights of conscience that the example of Thomas More shone brightly. It can be said that he demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience which is ‘the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul’ [Veritatis Splendor, 58], even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time.”
Certainly in the 16th century our concept of religious liberty was not held by St Thomas More, nor anyone else. He did believe strongly in the liberty of the Church, from which religious liberty of individuals developed. The understanding of state and sovereign, amid the upheaval of the Reformation, was radically changing, and would continue to change as the Christian concept of the state as a sacral actor gave way to the modern state as a rival, not ally, of the Christian faith.
Every martyr dies for a particular issue. But fidelity to that issue to the point of shedding of the blood is also a heroic exercise of conscience. The same is true today when the rights of conscience are denied. The issue may be marriage, or the sanctity of life, or the sacramental seal of Confession – but it is also a violation of conscience.
One final thing [the words of St Thomas at his execution]: “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” That’s the play A Man for All Seasons, not history. It’s a mistake I made until the recent exhibition on More in Washington revealed the truth – More said “and” not “but”. He died the king’s servant, and God’s. Just as he died for Catholic truth and conscience.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.