St Thomas More and the Protestant Reformation

When Martin Luther was promoting the destruction of the Catholic faith in Germany, there was one man in England who had the foresight to see the long term consequences of this shattering event. His name was Thomas More (1478 -1535).

He came from a deeply Christian family, was educated at Oxford university, and subsequently studied law in London at Lincoln’s Inn. His formation in the practices of Christian piety had not been neglected either at school or in the university. His study of the classics at Oxford prepared him for his subsequent studies of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, which he later used effectively in defence of the Church. At twenty three he lectured on St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei to the intelligentsia of London. With his brilliant mind and his legal experience he received rapid promotions and honours. At some stage More came to the notice of King Henry VIII and was appointed to his council. Henry used him for several diplomatic missions abroad in the course of which he was brought into contact with the centres of men of power in Europe. More had an extraordinary ability with languages and was a brilliant ex tempore speaker. In 1529 Henry made him Lord Chancellor, an appointment which gave him authority second only to the king. Although Henry had given tangible and repeated expression of his confidence in him, More had no illusions about the man he was dealing with. As he confided to his son-in-law William Roper one day as they walked along the Thames, ‘If my head could win him a castle in France, it would not fail to go’.

More, in his different secular appointments, saw that for him fulfilment of his civic responsibilities meant that he should take an active part in state affairs  despite any reluctance he might have in that direction. He adopted a positive approach to his assignment as Lord Chancellor, a philosophy to which he had already given expression in his Utopia published some years previously. In discussing how wise councils can be brought to bear on the actions of princes, he comments: ‘You must labour to guide affairs by indirection, so that you may handle everything as well as you are able, and what you cannot turn to good, you may at least succeed in rendering least bad. In stormy weather you must not abandon ship merely because you are unable to control the winds.’  He knew the men around Henry, he was fully aware of the inherent limitations of his situation, and thus his expectations were tempered with a realism which he had already articulated in his inimitable laconic manner: ‘For all things could not possibly go well unless all men were good, and that I do not expect to see as yet for some  few  years’.

In July 1520 Martin Luther was excommunicated and in May 1521 his books were ceremoniously burned in London. Later in the same year Henry  finished a book of his own which attacked Luther’s doctrines and defended the seven sacraments of the Church. For this effort he was rewarded by the Pope with the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith), a title which is still sported on English coins with the letters F.D.

Luther fell into a fury when he read the king’s book. His reply to Henry is regarded as being one of the most scurrilous productions ever written and without parallel in literature. He called Henry, to mention a few of the less offensive epithets, a louse, an ass, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face, a thomist pig!       

Since it was beneath Henry’s dignity to reply to such a scabrous attack on his person, More was asked to take up his pen in defence of the king. This he did under the assumed name of William Rosseus. Writing in Latin he deftly demolished Luther’s argumentation and showed that he could also match Luther’s language when it suited his case.

What was happening in Germany was clear evidence to More of the danger of the Lutheran heresy and of what might happen if Luther’s teaching became generally accepted. Within two years of writing his book against Luther (1523) the bloody peasants’ war had fulfilled the worst of his fears for Germany. 

The fact that Henry’s marriage to Catherine had produced no male heir was a concern for Henry from the point of view of the future of the Tudor line. Catherine had first been married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who died shortly afterwards. At some stage Henry found a text in the Old Testament (Lev 20:21) which said that a man who takes his brother’s wife shall be cursed by God and remain childless. This suggested to him that his marriage to Catherine was invalid. So Henry set up commissions of theologians and canon lawyers to study the matter. The result was to find in the king’s favour.

When Henry first asked More for an opinion on the marriage question he showed him the passage from Lev 20;21. More studied this and other scriptural references in the light of the interpretation of the Fathers. He came back to Henry with several references from St Jerome, St Augustine and other patristic sources which were not at all to the king’s liking. But because of his respect at that time for More’s erudition and intellectual honesty he took it in good part with a view to discussing it further with More. Henry meanwhile petitioned Rome for an annulment but it was refused.

About this time Henry became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. It was in this context that he decided to reject papal authority and to make himself head of the Church in England. In this way he could obtain the annulment which he so desired and be free to marry Anne. In due course parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which denied the universal authority of the Pope and which included the taking of an oath to this effect. Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury, a creature of Henry VIII, declared the marriage with Catherine null and void, and a few days later confirmed the marriage of Anne and Henry to be valid.

More refused to take the oath, although all the nobility of England and all the hierarchy, with the exception of Bishop John Fisher, under pressure from the king, succumbed to Henry’s wish. Henry pointed out to the bishops that they could not have divided loyalties –  they must opt for him or the Pope. On 15 May 1532 the hierarchy made their complete surrender to Henry. Next day More resigned his office as Lord Chancellor.

Because of More’s prestige and the high esteem in which he was held by the people, Henry was prepared to use all the means at his disposal to persuade More to change his mind about the papal issue. More was imprisoned and subjected to intense interrogation by the King’s Council, to which he responded in masterly fashion. In the end he concluded, ‘I am the king’s true, faithful subject and daily bedesman, and pray for his highness, and all his, and all the realm. I do nobody no harm, I say none harm, I think no harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live.’     

To try to appreciate more fully the significance of the stand taken by More  in defending the supremacy of the See of Peter, it is useful to consider the human and material circumstances of the papacy in the first third of the sixteenth century..

More lived under the worst of the renaissance popes – Alexander VI ruled and died within More’s lifetime. The papacy he knew was very different from the papacy we know and respect today. He died for a papacy that, as far as men  could see, was little else than a small Italian princedom ruled by some of the least reputable of the renaissance princes. This was the marvel of More’s faith.

His defence of the Church and the primacy of the Pope reflects those qualities of loyalty, magnanimity and erudition which were so characteristic of everything he wrote. More showed himself to be a true reformer, a man of patience. ‘It is far more to be wished’ he said, ‘that God may raise up such Popes  as befit the Christian cause and the dignity of the office: men who despising riches and honours, will care only for heaven, will promote piety in people, will bring about peace, and exercise the authority they have been given by God… With one or two such popes the Christian world would soon perceive how much preferable it is that the papacy should be reformed rather than abrogated’.

Thomas More was not blind to the papal scandals of the time, so his longing for ‘popes as befit the Christian cause’ came from a sorrowing heart, but that in no way shook his faith in the authority they had received from God: ‘And I doubt not that long ago Christ would have looked down on the pastor of his flock if the Christian people had chosen to pray for the welfare of their Father than to persecute him, to hide the shame of their Father than to laugh at it’. More’s exquisite charity and loyalty to the Pope is surely a challenge to Catholics of every generation.

In 1528 when his friend Bishop Tunstall of London commissioned him to write refutations of heretical works which were being distributed in England, he was having recourse to a man who was eminently well qualified to do so. More used the Fathers to witness to a great many beliefs and practices which the reformers rejected e.g. the doctrine of purgatory, the perpetual virginity of our Lady, etc. He used the Fathers too to reinforce his condemnation of Luther’s immoral situation. With Luther’s marriage to the nun Katherine von Bora ever before his eyes, of one thing More was certain: if God were to make a revelation against his Catholic Church, he would not send a ‘friar out of a nun’s bed to preach it’.

From 1528 until 1534 when he was lodged in the Tower of London, More was to stand out in England as the champion of the Church, and in doing so was to write nearly a million words in its defence. Defending the Church’s position, More does not demy, here any more than elsewhere, the need for a reformation of morals both among the clergy and the laity. In a climate of violent anticlericalism he makes a plea for objectivity in regard to the clergy. His view was that poor standards  – human, intellectual and moral – among the clergy would be half solved  if bishops would be much more careful and selective in their choice of candidates for the priesthood. There were, he thought, too many bishops and priests engaged in too many activities which were definitely not priestly. 

What was More’s attitude to heretics? In his epitaph More stated that he had been ‘troublesome to thieves, murderers, and heretics.’ Writing in his Apology in 1533 after his resignation from the chancellorship, More gives us a further insight  into the policy he adopted towards heretics while he was in office: ‘As touching heretics, I hate that vice  of theirs and not their persons, and very fain would I that the one were destroyed and the other saved’. He was intransigent with regard to doctrine but showed the utmost consideration and tolerance in his personal dealings with people.

To More, however, the word heresy conveyed a very different meaning  from what it does today. It was the private choice, by an individual, of a doctrine contradictory to that held to be clearly revealed by the divinely guided society to which that individual belonged. And to understand this attitude it must be appreciated that at the time of More there was one fundamental fact which is at the root of the different attitudes then and now. ‘There was One Church, and not even the early reformers could imagine a divided Church, still less a large number of separated congregations each claiming to be heir to the True Church.’ With his  exceptional political foresight More realized, as few other men did, how chaos and religious wars would follow if the unity of the medieval Church was shattered.

More’s detailed knowledge of sacred Scripture was another of his powerful weapons in the battle against heresy. He eagerly upheld the study of sacred Scripture as the most fruitful occupation of the theologian. He had studied it from boyhood and he was engaged in a commentary on the Passion when his books and writing materials were taken from him in the Tower. On the other hand his appreciation of Scripture made him realize that in the hands of the unlettered it could be a dangerous instrument. ‘Holy Scripture’, he wrote, ‘is the highest and best learning that any man can have, if one takes the right way in the learning. It is… so marvellously well tempered that a mouse can wade therein and an elephant be drowned therein.’ He emphasised the need to read Scripture in the light of faith, with the Fathers as guide. This was More’s reply to the Sola Scriptura doctrine of Luther.  The examples of the Reformers with their innumerable schisms was proof enough to More of the dangers of reliance on Scripture alone.

The hierarchy were not unmindful or unappreciative of More’s efforts, and it was as an expression of this that the bishops of England arranged for a collection  to be made as a reward for his labours in combating heresy. However More gracefully refused the offer and said he was happy to lose even more nights’ sleep in this endeavour.

When More refused to swear to the oath which would recognise Henry as head of the Church in England, he was imprisoned in the Tower. Several efforts were made to get him to subscribe to the oath. When Henry’s lackeys found that civility could not achieve its purpose they turned to threats. More answered the insult that he should barter his conscience for mere cravenness, in a proud and splendid phrase. ‘My lords’ he said, ‘these terrors be arguments for children and not for me.’

In the end when he was brought to trial in Westminster Hall on July 1st, 1535, the government was able to secure a conviction on the charge of treason on the basis of perjured evidence. He was executed on Tower Hill on July 6th and was able to die, in his last words from the scaffold, ‘the king’s good servant but God’s first’.

After More had been asked whether he had anything to say against his sentence – hanging, drawing and quartering,- he replied that not only could the supremacy in the Church not belong to layman, but that ‘it rightfully belonged to the See of Peter, as granted personally by Our Lord when on earth to St Peter and his successors’.  The full significance of this assertion to the background of Henry’s treachery, the capitulation of the hierarchy, the venality of the judges, the perjury of the witnesses, and the intimidation of the jury was captured powerfully by Robert Bolt in his magnificent trial scene in the play and film A Man for All Seasons. It was the point towards which More’s whole life seemed directed, and he carried it through with a strength and nobility which must have few parallels in history. ‘It will remain’, as Chesterton remarked,’ ‘a permanent and determining fact, a hinge of history, that he saw, in the first hour of madness, that Rome and Reason are one’.

Rev. Thomas J. McGovern, who is a priest of the Opus Dei prelature, works in Dublin. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain. He is the author of Priestly Celibacy Today;  Priestly Identity: A study in the Theology of Priesthood,  and Generations of Priests.