Saturday, November 24, 2012

AB Chaput Endorses St Thomas More---But St Thomas Is A Humanist!

St Thomas More and his family by Hans Holbein.  One of the family monkeys is in the lower right hand corner next to Alice More.

One of the trends of the conservative church that has always amused me is the continual dragging forth of St Thomas More to bolster their point.  Off hand I can't think of too many Catholic right wing enterprises that don't feature Thomas More with regularity. Come to think of it,  the same kind of thing is happening with Cardinal Newman.  The truth about Thomas More is that he was not a conservative thinker.  They don't call him one of the fathers of humanism for nothing.  While he was also a staunch defender of Catholicism--he did preside over the burning of Lutheran heretics--he was far more complicated than that.  I would say he was sorely conflicted between his secular speculations and his religious training and couldn't find a reasonable way out of his entangled mind.  Which I suppose is why he is my favorite saint.  In the end he died for his faith, not necessarily for the Church.  He thought the Church was virtually overrun with ambitious clerics and outright corruption.

So while I don't find it surprising that AB Chaput waxes eloquently about Thomas More, I do find it somewhat amusing because based on what he wrote in Utopia, More would have been a democrat, if not an outright socialist.

Archbishop Chaput Writes on the Call To Martyrdom

By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Archbishop of Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA, NOV. 23, 2012 ( The Church has many good reasons why people should believe in God, believe in Jesus Christ and believe in the beauty and urgency of her own mission.  But she has only one irrefutable argument for the truth of what she teaches – the personal example of her saints.
Over this Thanksgiving weekend, or sometime during Advent, I have a homework assignment for you.  I want you to rent or buy or borrow a copy of the 1966 film about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons.  I want you to watch it with your family.  Here’s why.  More was one of the most distinguished scholars of his time, a brilliant lawyer, a gifted diplomat and a skilled political leader.  Jonathan Swift, the great Anglo-Irish writer, once described him as the “person of the greatest virtue this kingdom (of England) ever produced.”

Above all, Thomas More was a man of profound Catholic faith and practice.  He lived what he claimed to believe.  He had his priorities in right order.  He was a husband and a father first; a man who – in the words of Robert Bolt, the author of the original play and the 1966 film – “adored, and was adored, by his own large family.” (He was also one of the few men of his time who insisted his daughters receive the same classical education as his son. Many of his fellow scholars thought he was nuts to waste that kind of education on females.)

A Man for All Seasons won Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Actor, and it’s clearly one of the great stories ever brought to the screen.  But it captures only a small fraction of the real man. In his daily life, Thomas More loved to laugh.  He enjoyed life and every one of its gifts.   Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist scholar and a friend of More and his family, described More as a man of “amiable joyousness (and) simple dress … born and framed for friendship … easy of access to all,” uninterested in ceremony and riches, humble, indifferent to food,  unimpressed by opinions of the crowd, and never departing from common sense. (Erasmus also thought St Thomas had compromised his integrity by agreeing to serve in a corrupt monarchy.)

Despite the integrity of More’s character, and despite his faithful service, Henry VIII martyred him in 1535.  More refused to accept the Tudor king’s illicit marriage to Anne Boleyn, and he refused to repudiate his fidelity to the Holy See.  In 1935, the Church declared Thomas More a saint.  Today – half a millennium after he died and a continent away -- this one man’s faith still moves us in our own daily lives.  That’s the power of sainthood.  That’s the power of holiness. (Correction, St Thomas refused to disavow his belief in the religious primacy of the Pope.  In truth he thought the Holy See was a cesspool of corruption which compromised the spiritual mission of the Church.  Kind of like today.)

Here’s the lesson I want to leave you with this week.  We’re all called to martyrdom.  That’s what the word martyr means:  It’s the Greek word for “witness.”  We may or may not ever suffer personally for our love of Jesus Christ.  But we’re all called to be witnesses.

In proclaiming the Year of Faith, Benedict XVI wrote that:
“By faith, across the centuries, men and women of all ages, whose names are written in the Book of Life … have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness to the fact that they were Christian: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called.”

The only thing that matters is to be a saint.  That’s what we need to be.  That’s what we need to become.  And if we can serve God through the witness of our lives by kindling that fire of holiness again in the heart of our local parishes and communities, then the Christ Child who comes to us at Christmas will make all things new – in our Church, in our families and in our nation.
May God grant us all a joy-filled and blessed Thanksgiving.


AB Chaput does have this right, Thomas More loved to laugh.  He even kept his own jester who is reported to have had no problem cutting More's ego down to size.  More's wife however, was not so enamored of their court jester.  One too many jokes about her portly proportions I guess.  But then the poor woman also had to put up with her husbands personal zoo.  While Chancellor of England, More's personal zoo was substantial and contained quite a number of exotic animals.  The monkeys were given the run of his house, as can be seen in the above Holbein painting of the family. Besides the court jester, More would also foster patients from London's infamous Bedlam, the beastly forerunner of mental hospitals. In short he seemed to have a penchant for taking in all kinds of strays and befriending all kinds of marginal people.  Personally I think his wife should be the saint.

To protect his own privacy, More also built his own study separate from the main Chelsea Manor, in which he did most of his writing.  It's shape was based on an octagon for esoteric reasons.  Presumably no monkees were allowed.  One could say he invented the first 'man cave' as he did spend a great deal of time in his study when he was at home,  His children and wife were not allowed in it's holy precincts but this might have been as much for security interests as anything else.

More's life is rarely placed in the context in which he actually lived.  These were momentous times and adjustments to an utterly new reality made belief in religious truths a form of personal security.  The man lived in a period of time in European history when all the rules were changing.  The New World with all it's other humans had been discovered during his teen years.  I don't know that contemporary Catholics can fathom how earth shaking this must have been.  Not only was the Earth round, but it held unknown races of people.  It would be as if we today were suddenly confronted with the existence of actual sentient alien life. On top of this, there was enormous corruption in the church which had precipitated major schisms and protests, of which both Erasmus and More were prolific in their own negative assessments of the institutional church, and like the heretics, they could get their writings read by many people because the printing press was beginning to be felt as the truly consciousness changing invention it was.  Reading and writing were no longer just the province of a minority of educated nobility and clerics.  The power of the intellect was being unleashed in anyone who chose to learn to read and write.  Many men were doing just that which would then spawn the Enlightenment.  It was the humanists like Thomas More who laid the seeds for that future.

But not all of More's writings were of the academic sort. Some of More's less known writings are his pamphlets in which he was essentially the Rush Limbaugh of Catholic apologetics.  I suppose they are less known because he wrote them under a pseudonym--supposedly at the behest of Henry VIII.  A number of these apologetic tracts were written in refutation of Martin Luther and William Tyndale who responded in kind. Luther was furious More was writing under a pseudonym while he Luther, was writing under his own name.  Having read a few of these back and forth pamphlets, I'm not sure any of the men should have been proud of their efforts.  Some of the language was truly spewed forth from a gutter and the personal attacks were vicious and completely juvenile.  They were actually far worse than most of today's internet exchanges, and certainly not the kind of thing that owners of Catholic law schools named after the mythical St Thomas More want known about the real St Thomas More.

It is questionable if Thomas More would have ever been made a saint if Henry VIII hadn't beheaded him.  There was no question of More recanting his position on Henry's marriage or the primacy of the papacy for Roman Catholicism. More became even more religiously conservative after the Lutheran schism.  More's Catholicism was his anchor in a world of change, some of which he embraced and initiated, and some of which he refused to even consider.  For all his open mindedness in some areas, he could be downright close minded in other areas.  He could correspond with off kilter mystics who spouted one form of heresy while at the same time he was executing Lutherans for spouting what he deemed actual heresy.  He could see to it that his daughters were well educated in classical Greek and Latin while he was persecuting Tyndale for translating the bible in to English from the original Greek sources. I suppose the difference lay in More's ability to control his daughter's education but lack of ability to control Tyndale, whose translation very cleverly used particular English words to undercut certain very important Church concepts, like the translation of the Greek word ecclesia as congregation rather than Church.  In any event, the two enemies met the same fate, execution. One is a saint and one is a heretic, at least in the eyes of the Church.

I have no doubt Thomas More is a saint, but not because he was martyred.  At the end of his life, while he was in prison having lost everything, he wrote his most profound works.  They were mystical treatises on his relationship with the Eucharist and with Jesus Christ.  Stripped bare, he was able to reconcile his intellect with his faith and find his personal truth.  He died true to his conscience.  He died a saint not just a martyr.


  1. Dear Colleen,
    It seems to me that Thomas More loses any credibility as a humanist after his persecution of Protestants...he burned them at the stake and even the Catholic sources relate how he was very convinced of the righteousness of his actions and had no qualms about what he was doing......he burned one man to death who wanted to read the Bible in his native tongue of seem to ignore the seriousness of burning another person to say "he was far more complicated"...???.....he's touted by Catholic hierarchals today because he defended the primacy of the Pope against the Protestants and supported the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church.....JPII made him the patron saint of politicians...?!...God save us from a lawyer who according to a biographer wanted to exterminate Protestants.....check out Stephen Frye's commentaries on the Catholic Church on you tube...somehow the term "relationship with Jesus" doesn't seem to go with burning Protestants at the stake......

    1. Michael, I'm not trying to down play More's attitude toward protestants. I brought it up because I've run into many many Catholics who aren't aware of his actions in the burning of heretics. Catholic apologists never mention this aspect of his life at all.

      I find his life an example of a brilliant man with a stage II spirituality, and that led him to engage in acts he could not square with his adult intellect. After all the man also wore a hair shirt and engaged in self flagellation, and never said a word about this to his family. For me he was as psychologically conflicted as King Henry VIII.

      I've pretty much seen his canonization as a move to shore up the validity of the papacy during the 30's when England was supposed to be up to it's ears in godless communists.

      I guess I will disagree with you on the relationship with Jesus point. Roman Catholicism has a very long history defining how people will relate to Jesus. More was not an exception and given his indoctrinated understanding, he had as much of a relationship with Jesus as he could allow himself.

  2. Here is a link to Stephen Fry's remarks about Thomas More from the Intelligence Squared Debate in London in late 2009. The remarks on Thomas More begin about 1:35.

    I thought torture was an intrinsic evil.

    1. Now a days torture is an intrinsic evil, back then it was 'medicine for the soul'. :)

    2. Right, it wasnt JP II the first to made him the patron saint of politicians, it was Escrivá, the founder from Opus Dei has seen in Thomas More a good example for his "married sons", powerful, reich, next to the king...etc Thomas More is a patron saint in Opus Dei since near 60 or 70 years, the thing is:

      Who gives this idea to JPII in order to make him patron of politicians?

    3. Ana, that piece of information explains a great deal as to why More has become the right wing saint for all reasons. Unfortunately for Escriva, More lost everything when it became apparent to Henry he could not be bought. I can think of a few GOP politicians who really could use More as their model, at least in the sense he couldn't be bought.

    4. He is the patron saint of lawyers, just sayin'!

  3. I am more inclined to believe that Thomas More's wife was the better Saint.

    I'm sure Opus Dei likes Thomas More too.


    1. Thomas More seems to have become the Saint For All Reasons. He's such a conundrum just about anyone can grind their ideological axe using his neck. Newman is being used the same way.

    2. Yea, I hear you. More is like the Saint that any Cafeteria Catholic can pick for whatever reason. :-)


  4. Colleen, you're so right about the entire Catholic rightwing "continual dragging forth of St Thomas More to bolster their point." The reason is summarized by Chaput: "Here’s the lesson I want to leave you with this week. We’re all called to martyrdom." The entire rightwing pride themselves as being "martyrs" to the "true faith" although the most any of them have been called to do is show up at pro-life rallies or demonstrate during the "Fortnight of Freedom" in possibly bad weather. Betty Clermont

    1. Good point about the martyr thing Betty. There is a certain tendency for the right to make themselves martyrs and victims.

    2. The only Betty I know of who fits that passive-aggressive masochistic pseudo-martyrdom nonsense is this one:

      Something I found at NCRegister:

      "I’ve been stunned to see how trivial the religious freedom issue has proved in the campaign, and how few Catholics realize the lethal stakes for which we’re playing."

      ## I'll play.

      Number of churches destroyed: 0
      Number of Catholics imprisoned for being Catholic: 0
      Number of Acts forbidding or impeding the practice of Catholicism: 0
      Number of religious orders suppressed: 0
      Number of bishops prosecuted for being in union with Rome: 0
      Number of Government-sponsored attacks upon the Papacy: 0
      Number of papal nuncios expelled: 0
      Number of Catholic presses destroyed: 0
      Number of catechisms, missals, etc. confiscated by Government: 0
      Number of Catholic bookshops closed, confiscated or demolished: 0
      Number of nursing orders closed down by Government: 0
      Number of children taken by Government from parents lest they be brought up as Catholics: 0
      Number of concentration camps, prisons & lao gais built to hold Catholic after their arrest & until their martyrdom: 0
      Number of missionary orders expelled or closed down by government: 0
      Number of TV stations & radio stations closed or confiscated: 0
      Number of Catholic schools of all kinds confiscated or destroyed: 0
      Number of Catholic universities of all kinds confiscated or destroyed: 0
      Number of Catholics forbidden to teach or lecture: 0
      Number of pilgrimage sites demolished, profaned or rendered inaccessible: 0
      Number of churches secularised by Government: 0
      Number of Catholics put to death: 0
      Number of Papal letters lamenting the maltreatment of the CC under the tyranny of Barack Obama, & the countless violations of the Church's freedom by him: 0

      Have I missed anything out ? I wish with all my heart that the CC in the UK was suffering persecution as brutal as that to which Obama is subjecting the CC in the US: that persecution looks remarkably like a *very* comfortable & *very* privileged state of affairs.

      Talk about self-indulgent complaining by people who do not know how lucky they are. These bishops & their lay supporters ought to be ashamed of themselves.

    3. Your excellent response goes to show just how loony and phony the claims of religious persecution are. The political bishops have decided to play the same stupid political persecution game that the Religious Right does, and they make these absurd claims precisely because they don't control the levers of power that would make it possible for them to persecute and silence their opponents. They have no clue what real persecution is. They should find out from their remaining colleagues that survived the Nazi and Stalinist eras just what real persecution is.

  5. "Some of the language was truly spewed forth from a gutter and the personal attacks were vicious and completely juvenile."

    ## That makes one wonder whether any Saints were foul-mouthed. Today, calling someone a "mother-****ing ****-faced bastard ****" would count as rather "blue", to put it mildly. But if St. Thomas More could vilify Luther in the way he did - & both of them had a rich fund of very nasty language - & be canonised, one has to wonder. Some of the insults in the NT are not very nice, so maybe one can get away with telling people to FOAD (I got that from the Urban Dictionary).

  6. My understanding is that both Luther and More resorted to scatological insults to make their respective points.

    1. More fun stuff from NCReg:

      A Special Message From

      Why the Next Four Years Are Going to Be Critical for You, Your Family and All of America

      Pro-lifers all across the country are in shock and anguish at the results of the recent election.
      While the news isn’t all bad, we’ve definitely suffered a major blow, and it’s crucial that we keep one thing in mind...

      This Is Not the Time to Give Up!

      The last four years dealt a series of huge blows to our nation. On virtually every front, we have seen one disaster after another:

      • The most aggressive assault on religious liberty in American history
      • Government-mandated coverage of abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization
      • America supporting the spread of abortion abroad
      • Increasing government endorsement of homosexuality, including in the military
      • Legalization of homosexual “marriage” in more states than ever

      And these are just a few of the crises. We haven’t even mentioned all the problems with the economy, education, health care, violence in the Middle East, and nations like Iran rushing to get nuclear weapons. In other words . . .

      We’ve Got a Huge Mess on Our Hands

      It’s going to take a lot of time — and hard work! — to clean up that mess and work our way towards spiritual victory. It won’t be easy, either, because the same forces that produced the recent string of disasters are still out there, anxious to do even more. You can bet that they will be taking an active role pushing their agenda when it comes to issues like:

      • Appointing new justices to the Supreme Court (as many as two or three in the next four years)
      • Promoting abortion and contraception here in America and overseas
      • Expanding homosexual “marriage” to every state in the union
      • Continuing their campaign against religious liberty and their drive to silence the Church

      Who This Impacts

      As you can see, America is facing an enormous problem. Really, it is an enormous set of problems. It’s a set of problems that affects the entire nation. That means that, in one way or another, it’s going to affect your family, your friends, your co-workers. And that means: It’s going to affect you. What is more . . .

      The Longer We Wait to Act, the Worse Things Will Be

      That’s why this is no time to slack off. We’ve just lost some important battles in the recent election, but we are far from losing the war. We still have a chance to address the great problems facing our nation and build a culture of life. The battles ahead will be difficult. But there is one vital resource we have — the truth — and it can make all the difference if we can just get it out to people, because...

      Information Is Critical

      In the last four years (and, frankly, for many years before that), we’ve seen how the Mainstream Media has distorted the news and denied the American people the information it needs......

      ## The words "Chicken Little" come to mind - as in the cartoon:

  7. Very intriguing post. Yes, I find it that the hierarchy will make the saints into uninteresting people. Your discussion of St Thomas More piqued my interest more than anything I've heard from the pulpit about the man. IIRC, it was Dorothy Day that spoke , “Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily. ”

    As you mentioned, St Thomas pursued Protestant heretics at the same time corresponding with heterodox mystics. His first published work was on the life of Pico della Mirandola, one of the noted scholars of Fincino's Platonic Academy. Thomas More held him up as an exemplary model of a laymen who tempered his youthful intellectual pride into life of scholarship. Some of Pico's works were condemned as heresy by the Vatican but Thomas More saw a founder of modern Western esoterica in a different light than he did the Protestant heretics. Perhaps because Pico also wrote against the Protestant heresy as well.

    The other aspect I see about this is that the bishops like the GOP and much of political conservatives they aligned themselves with is that they all are so tone deaf when it comes to outreach to other. The bishops in seeking to rally the Catholic vote and pull in some support from the Evangelical Christians to their religious freedom issue pick a heresy hunter who burned their Protestant forefathers at the stake. Couldn't the bishops have picked Charles Caroll as someone who defended religious freedom in 1700's Maryland and who was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence? Then again I'm not sure many Evangelical Christians know that much about Thomas More or have a copy of Foxe's Book of Martyrs so it probably didn't matter; the bishops were trying to corral the Catholic vote.

    John Fremont

  8. This is a great discussion[, don't think I can add more, but thank you for your graceful hosting, Coleen. It is most stimulating. dennis

  9. The Sisters of St. Joseph found themselves with some valuable property in downtown Toronto because the city grew up around their long held land. They moved to the suburbs and built their new absolutely beautiful complex on rolling acres of land at Morrow Park. The sisters used the complex for a variety of purposes. There was a girls school and retirement center for the nuns, among other purposes.

    In 2006 the diminished religious community sold the too large property to evangelical Protestants who have preserved the original buildings but now use them for a private university, the Tyndale University College & Seminary!

    Ironic eh?


  10. When we look for power shifts, edifices are a good key. Today average Insurance company buildings are bigger than most private hospitals. Yet there still are those that BELIEVE US Medicine the best in the world. Yet it is better in France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, maybe Canada. All those countries with more regulations to provide care for people. Unfortunately, even though the sisters were not a part of it, the administration of the Church has its crumbling edifices that are bigger than people. The Churches edifices will fall before the insurance companies'!!! But as in the French Revolution corrupt power eventually fails and falls. Colleen, again such a wonderful blog.

  11. One minor point: All educated people of More's day knew the Earth was round. Indeed, it had been known for centuries; Aristotle published a set of proofs that no one, then or now, had shown to be wrong. Eratosthenes, circa 240 BC, worked out the first rough value for the Earth's circumference, accurate to within 10% (there were problems with his measurements, but his method was sound). The last two cantos of Dante's Inferno only work if the Earth is round (Dante and Virgil climb through the center of the spherical earth, and "up" shifts by 180 degrees).

    1. good point . I believe it was Washington Irving's textbooks spread a lot of misconceptions in the American school system about the Middle Ages, including the belief that medievals thought that the world was flat. Veiled anti-Catholicism in 1800's Protestant America.

      John Fremont