There is authority greater than worldly power. We believe it, but do we have the strength to risk our lives for such a conviction as a matter of conscience and all with a sense of humor?
St. Thomas More was such a person. On the 400th anniversary of his execution, St. Thomas More was canonized in 1935, not that long ago.
We venerate people who have clarity of purpose, fortitude and a resolve to honor their values no matter what comes their way. Despite such admiration, few of us have this level of resolve to the point of death. How could we ever measure up to St. Thomas More?
Yet, a saint’s character speaks to us and inspires through the generations. St. Thomas More’s selfless resolve is not an unattainable remembrance. It is achievable.
In our lifetime, many have placed their moral core ahead of their self-interest and even ahead of their very lives. Gandhi, a lawyer, brought the empire that executed More to its knees through non-violent civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, Jr., died in fervent witness to the equality of all.
Nelson Mandela endured 27 years of imprisonment on the charge of sabotage, while seeking to call a nation to reconciliation, not revenge. To the point of jail, Jesuit Father Daniel J. Berrigan confronted, as a matter of conscience, the injustice of war and nuclear weapons by doing what all saints do, making the abstract visible.
More recently, Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who raised her voice for the right to be educated, play, sing, talk, go to the market, spoke out against the totalitarian ban on the education of girls, and was shot by the Taliban for her audacity of conscience against absolutism. St. Thomas More said, “erudition in women was a new development, but that there was no reason why women should
not acquire learning as well as men.”
Closer to home, a public defender representing a capital client faced the tyranny of a senior judge while trying to present evidence to insure a fair decision, and Wendell Berry spoke out for the preservation of God’s creation. St. Thomas More’s quiet conscience lives with deafening influence.
While a saint, St. Thomas More possessed the prominent human frailties we all share. Like many, More was a man of nuance, contradiction and paradox.
As Speaker of the House of Commons, More worked to establish parliamentary privilege of free speech but died steadfastly maintaining his silence. A champion of speaking one’s mind and following one’s conscience, he nonetheless, as chancellor, enforced the anti-heresy laws against Protestants who were following their consciences and approved their burning for their differing beliefs.
He did not seek his own death to advance a value. Instead, More maneuvered to avoid the deadly wrath of Henry. He did not say he opposed the divorce and remarriage of the king. Never did he say the king was not the head of the church. Rather, he refused to swear the oath of affirmation that Henry was the supreme head of the church. More refused to give any answer beyond declaring himself a faithful subject of the king, who saw More as a heretic.
St. Thomas More wanted to live, enjoy his family, escape an anguishing death. He tried, by his careful words and refusals, to respond to questions and to avoid being legally guilty of treason. But a court that did not allow him to call a witness — the essence of tyranny — convicted him.
His silence in the face of raw temporal power towers over us today. The patron saint of lawyers became a lawyer only because of the command of his father and then used his sophisticated legal skills to try to find a way out of his beheading.
The irony is profound.
A prayer of St. Thomas More expresses his complex spirit. “Lord … Grant me a heart that knows nothing of boredom, weeping and sighing. Let me not be too concerned with the bothersome thing I call ‘myself.’ Lord, give me a sense of humor, and I will find happiness in life and profit for others.” Does it capture our spirit?
As we meditate on St. Thomas More, what do we make of his final words on the scaffold? “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Monahan is public advocate for Kentucky’s statewide public defender program