Sir Thomas More was executed by Henry VIII on 5 July 1535. The first Sunday in July 1992 is thus the 457th anniversary of his martyrdom. Because the principle for which he died is as relevant to the condition of the Catholic Church today as it was then, it deserves to be properly understood.
On the scaffold, awaiting death, Thomas More himself defined his own position as that of "the King's good servant, but God's first."
More was not only one of the greatest humanists of the age, but a practising lawyer from a legal family, who was appointed by Henry VIII to the position of Lord Chancellor of England. His words were always carefully chosen. By the phrase, "the King's good servant, but God's first", he accepted that he was bound to obey the King's law - whatever he might have thought of its wisdom - had he not come to be convinced that it transgressed God's law. He was setting aside one authority which had a claim on his conscience, but only because, in his view, it clashed with another authority which possessed a superior claim.
Even that, in a sense, was not the central point.
Thomas More did not claim — having himself seriously considered the King's argument against the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon — that he had made up his own mind, personally reaching the conclusion that the marriage was valid: and that it was as a result of his personal and individual judgement that he had arrived at a position of conscience which compelled him to disobey the King's will, expressed in law.
In fact, concerning the validity of the Papal dispensation which had permitted Henry VIII to marry Catherine, the widow of his elder brother, many honest persons were originally quite unsure. As Philip Hughes points out in The Reformation in England, the Papal dispensation was "only the second or third of its kind, and ... the event had caused a certain amount of head-shaking among the lawyers. Among those who had not liked the thing, and had said so in 1503, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham ...".
More was moved by an entirely different line of reasoning. It was that contained in the written opinion which St John Fisher submitted to Wolsey: that the Pope had decided the question by his dispensation and that whatever his own opinion of the facts, as a result of that "plenitude of power which Christ has conferred on the Sovereign Pontiff", the Pope had jurisdiction to determine what was God's law, a power which was not political, juridical or constitutional, but of divine origin.
It is interesting to note that it was originally Henry VIII himself who had won More to this view: "It was Henry VIII's trenchant exposition of the doctrine that first drew St Thomas More's attention to it, who, until he read the manuscript of his sovereign's work (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum), had thought the Roman primacy to be merely the outcome of a kind of constitutional development" (Hughes, p. 171).
Having finally taken this stand for this reason, More was duly condemned to death for refusing to take the oath prescribed by the Act of Supremacy. When Audley, replying to More's final speech to the Privy Council, stated that many bishops and universities held the opposite view to More's, as to the limits of Papal authority, More replied:
"If I should speak of those that are already dead, of whom many be now holy saints in heaven, I am very sure it is the far greater part of them that, all the while they lived, thought in this case that way that I think now; and therefore I am not bounden, my Lord, to conform my conscience to the [Privy] Council of one realm against the general Council of Christendom. For of the aforesaid holy bishops I have, for every bishop of yours, above one hundred; and for one Council or Parliament of yours (God knoweth what manner of one), I have all the Councils made these thousand years. And for this one kingdom, I have all other Christian realms." For More that consideration was decisive.
He did not claim, as some today claim, that having listened respectfully to the Pope, but made his own study of the doctrinal or moral question, he could conscientiously reject the Pope's position and still remain a Catholic. If he had been tolerant of casuistry he might have said that, in view of all the other contrary episcopal and other 'expert' positions, the issues associated with the King's marriage were at least doubtful, and that to save his own life, he was entitled to avail himself of the benefit of an honest doubt.
He might further have argued that the King's passion for Anne would not last, and that, by temporising, he might weather the storm and perhaps save England for Catholicism, arguably doing a much greater good than giving testimony to his principle by dying for it.
Thomas More thus died only secondly, as it were, in defence of the rights of individual conscience. He died primarily in defence of the Pope's authority.
More would have shown little sympathy for the weakness which Rome has generally displayed towards 'dissenting' theologians since Vatican II. His judgement as to what would follow from this persistent weakness was consistent with that expressed centuries later by Hubert Jedin, the great historian of the Council of Trent, (see AD2000, March 1992).
St Thomas More knew his world as few other men did. One of the greatest humanists of his era, his intellectual capacity was at least the equal of that of the leading men of his age. He was not, however, merely an abstract intellectual. As England's Lord Chancellor, he was a practical man of affairs. Watching the progress of the 'reformed' doctrine, he came to the conclusion that Catholics were living in a fool's paradise.
"The Catholics, he said, allow the heretics to talk unchecked, confident that no heresy can overcome the truth: 'But,' said the Saint, 'they do not look far enough. For as the sea will never surround and overwhelm all the land, yet it has eaten it in many places, and swallowed whole countries up and made many places sea, which sometime were well-inhabited lands, and has lost part of its possession again in other places: so, though the faith of Christ shall never be overwhelmed with heresy, nor the gates of Hell prevail against Christ's Church, yet as in some places it winneth new peoples, so by negligence in some places the old may be lost'" (Thomas More, English Works, 921. Quoted by Philip Hughes in The Reformation in England, Vol.1, p.155).
This is precisely what is happening today. Some bishops, while apparently supporting the Pope's repeated directions on the matter of the ordination of women, are obviously attempting to prepare the way for its realisation. Others, in the name of inclusive language, are prepared to tamper with the words of Holy Writ. Others, again, permit the minds of the teachers and students, placed in their care by virtue of their office, to be misled by heretical theologians, often imported into this country. Yet nothing is done to restore order.
It would, of course, be more diplomatic to ignore this essential question: but the failure to act before it is too late will prove to be the same fundamental error as that against which More warned so eloquently - and unavailingly.