FAITH: Today is the feast of Saint Thomas More, Martyr (1478-1535)
The life and martyrdom of Saint Thomas More have been the source of a message which spans the centuries and which speaks to people everywhere of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience, which (…) is “the most intimate centre and sanctuary of a person, in which he or she is alone with God, whose voice echoes within them” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). Whenever men or women heed the call of truth, their conscience then guides their actions reliably towards good. 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.
Thomas More had a remarkable political career in his native land. Born in London in 1478 of a respectable family, as a young boy he was placed in the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, Lord Chancellor of the Realm. He then studied law at Oxford and London, while broadening his interests in the spheres of culture, theology and classical literature. He mastered Greek and enjoyed the company and friendship of important figures of Renaissance culture, including Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.
His sincere religious sentiment led him to pursue virtue through the assiduous practice of asceticism: he cultivated friendly relations with the Observant Franciscans of the Friary at Greenwich, and for a time he lived at the London Charterhouse, these being two of the main centres of religious fervour in the Kingdom. Feeling himself called to marriage, family life and dedication as a layman, in 1505 he married Jane Colt, who bore him four children. Jane died in 1511 and Thomas then married Alice Middleton, a widow with one daughter. Throughout his life he was an affectionate and faithful husband and father, deeply involved in his children’s religious, moral and intellectual education. His house offered a welcome to his children’s spouses and his grandchildren, and was always open to his many young friends in search of the truth or of their own calling in life. Family life also gave him ample opportunity for prayer in common and lectio divina, as well as for happy and wholesome relaxation. Thomas attended daily Mass in the parish church, but the austere penances which he practised were known only to his immediate family.
He was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1504 under King Henry VII. The latter’s successor Henry VIII renewed his mandate in 1510, and even made him the Crown’s representative in the capital. This launched him on a prominent career in public administration. During the following decade the King sent him on several diplomatic and commercial missions to Flanders and the territory of present-day France. Having been made a member of the King’s Council, presiding judge of an important tribunal, deputy treasurer and a knight, in 1523 he became Speaker of the House of Commons.
Highly esteemed by everyone for his unfailing moral integrity, sharpness of mind, his open and humorous character, and his extraordinary learning, in 1529 at a time of political and economic crisis in the country he was appointed by the King to the post of Lord Chancellor. The first layman to occupy this position, Thomas faced an extremely difficult period, as he sought to serve King and country. In fidelity to his principles, he concentrated on promoting justice and restraining the harmful influence of those who advanced their own interests at the expense of the weak. In 1532, not wishing to support Henry VIII’s intention to take control of the Church in England, he resigned. He withdrew from public life, resigning himself to suffering poverty with his family and being deserted by many people who, in the moment of trial, proved to be false friends.
Given his inflexible firmness in rejecting any compromise with his own conscience, in 1534 the King had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was subjected to various kinds of psychological pressure. Thomas More did not allow himself to waver, and he refused to take the oath requested of him, since this would have involved accepting a political and ecclesiastical arrangement that prepared the way for uncontrolled despotism. At his trial, he made an impassioned defence 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. Condemned by the Court, he was beheaded.
Thomas More, together with 53 other martyrs, including Bishop John Fisher, was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. And with John Fisher, he was canonized by Pius XI in 1935, on the fourth centenary of his martyrdom.
The life of Saint Thomas More clearly illustrates a fundamental truth of political ethics. The defence of the Church’s freedom from unwarranted interference by the State is at the same time a defence, in the name of the primacy of conscience, of the individual’s freedom vis-à-vis political power. Here we find the basic principle of every civil order consonant with human nature.
Therefore, after due consideration and willingly acceding to the petitions addressed to me, I establish and declare Saint Thomas More the heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, and I decree that he be ascribed all the liturgical honours and privileges which, according to law, belong to the Patrons of categories of people.
(John Paul II - Apostolic letter issued Motu Proprio proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians - October 31, 2000)