“Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time. He may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history. For he was above all things historic; he represented at once a type, a turning point and an ultimate destiny. If there had not happened to be that particular man at the particular moment, the whole of history would have been different.”
— G. K. Chesterton, 1929
Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Thomas More, the great English statesman and martyr, on June 22. But the actual date of his execution was 480 years ago today, July 6, in 1535. Henry VIII had him beheaded two weeks after the judicial murder of his friend and bishop of Rochester, St. John Fisher. Both men died for refusing to accept the king’s debasement of marriage in divorcing his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and adulterously “marrying” Anne Boleyn — who later followed them both to the execution block.
The difference in their deaths, of course, is telling. More and Fisher died for principle and kept their integrity. Boleyn was simply disposed of.
It’s easy to sentimentalize More’s life. Robert Bolt’s great play, A Man for All Seasons — later a wonderful film — captures much of the saint’s humanity, intellect and warmth. But he was also a tough public official in a bitterly conflicted time alien to the modern temperament. More did not die, as Bolt suggests, for the sovereignty of personal conscience. That idea would have been foreign to him.
Rather, More died for the sovereignty of Christian truth as taught by the Catholic Church, which he saw as accessible to all persons and obligating all consciences. In that, he very much remains a saint for our times.
Others have already done a good job of deconstructing the Supreme Court’s June 26 Obergefell v. Hodges decision forcing “gay marriage” onto the nation. Legally incoherent and impressive in its abuse of judicial power, it will have huge implications for the way Americans live their lives.
Anyone who wonders what “marriage equality” really means need only watch the fallout in our laws, courts and public policies over the next decade. Persons innocent enough to imagine that the Church might be allowed to continue her social mission without growing government interference will have an unhappy encounter with reality.
Christians have a privileged calling to respect the God-given dignity of all persons, including those with same-sex attraction. That’s fundamental to Christian love and justice. We are accountable to God for the way we treat others.
But Christians also have a duty to think clearly, and to live, teach and work for the truth about the nature of human sexuality, the purpose of marriage and the integrity of the family. No court ruling can change that. And the last thing we need from religious — including Catholic — leaders in the face of this profoundly flawed Supreme Court decision is weakness or ambiguity.
Half a century ago, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII – now St. John XXIII — wrote a powerful text on the nature of peace. In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), he stressed that “peace on earth — which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after — can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order” (PT, 1; emphasis added).
We need to consider his words carefully. No political power can change the nature of marriage or rework the meaning of family. No lobbying campaign, no president, no lawmakers and no judges can redraw the blueprint laid down by God for the well-being of the children he loves. If men and women want peace, there’s only one way to have it — by seeking and living the truth. And the truth, as Pope John told us more than five decades ago, is this:
“The family, founded upon marriage freely contracted, one and indissoluble, must be regarded as the natural, primary cell of human society. The interests of the family, therefore, must be taken very specially into consideration in social and economic affairs, as well as in the spheres of faith and morals. For all of these have to do with strengthening the family and assisting it in the fulfillment of its mission” (PT, 16).
We cannot care for the family by trying to redefine its meaning. We cannot provide for the family by undercutting the privileged place in our culture of a woman and a man made one flesh in marriage. Nations that ignore these truths — no matter what their intentions — are laying the cornerstone of war and suffering. And this is not what God seeks for anyone.
It’s a good day, this July 6, to remember Thomas More and his witness. In the years ahead, may God give us a portion of his integrity, courage and perseverance. We’ll need it.