Sunday, July 6, 2008

The King's Good Servant

Thomas More (Holbein)

On this day and at about this time 473 years ago St. Thomas More was executed for treason on evidence of perjured testimony. More's opposition to Henry's anti-papal action and his silence regarding the English monarch's illicit marriage with Lady Ann Boleyn* grieved the King, whose less conscience-encumbered subjects saw to it that one source of the King's displeasure was empowered to remain permanently mum.

Owing to the former Chancellor's years of faithful service to the crown, King Henry commuted the sentence of being hanged, drawn, and quartered to beheading. "The King is good unto me," More said in humble acknowledgement of His Majesty's benevolence.

From the scaffold Thomas asked prayers of the witnesses, both for himself and for the King -- that it might please God to give him good counsel. More added that he "died the King's good servant but God's first."

When Thomas kneeled a few stray hairs of his beard fell across the executioner's block. As he adjusted his errant whiskers More addressed himself to the axeman: "Don't cut my beard -- it has not been accused of treason." More pardoned the executioner, who then removed his head from his body with a single stroke of the axe.

There is a tendency these days to see in More merely a single individual standing up against institutionalized tyrannical authority. Such are the fashions and prejudices of our democratic age that it presumes monarchy is synonymous with despotism and that the man who stands firm against it for the sake of his conscience is to be commended on that ground alone.

Sir Thomas loved his country and his king; he was no rebel, no anarchist, no allegedly reforming revolutionary throwing off an oppressor. He would have dismissed as absurd the notion that his individual conscience was in itself worthy of admiration simply because it was his own. More knew that what made his conscience worth mounting the scaffold for was its conformity to Truth itself. A man was responsible for the formation of his own conscience, and it was his obligation to see that it is formed properly. But dying for a conscience just because it was the individual's? That would not be even utopian, it would simply be preposterous. God gave man an intellect by means of which he can know truth from falsehood and right from wrong.

The accepted messenger of Truth in More's era was the Catholic Church, an institution to which Thomas was joyfully devoted. And not that he looked the other way at the failings of individual Churchmen: it was More himself who said, "The world is tired of the clergy, but the clergy are not tired of the world." More was also an accomplished statesman, seasoned diplomat, and witty humanist who quickly penetrated to the heart of a matter -- thus, at his execution there was for him no anesthetic of a fanatic's wide-eyed stare. He met his end with an innocent mirth, an unaffected and steady gaze, and a soul at peace after having performed its duty of doing the right thing at the right time for Christ's sake.

Thomas More was canonized in 1935 -- the 400th anniversary of his martyrdom. In raising St. Thomas to the altar Pope Pius XI not only commended to our attention a holy and heroic model, he pointed to an example of how to conduct one's self in the face of absolutist governments (e.g. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia). God has His rights in society and His claims on our allegiance, our affections, and our intellect, the Church was saying. Just ask St. Thomas More.

* For all his concern over securing a dynasty, Henry's six marriages produced only one sickly son (Edward) and an insecure succession with two princesses (Mary and Elizabeth). None of them produced heirs -- thus, in spite of Henry's machinations and politicking and murders and schism, his line ended within a generation.

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