Sunday, October 26, 2008

The King's Good Servant

I've just finished a re-read of James Monti's The King's Good Servant But God's First--really the most excellent biography of Thomas More I have read as well as a beautiful history of the Protestant "Reformation."

Thomas More is a man for our season: the right balance of muscular Catholicism with deep humility, masculine fortitude with a childlike dependence on God, loyalty to king and devotion to the Church, the ability to see clearly the "first things," and an irrepressible merriment that--counter-intuitively enough--arose directly from his preoccupation with the Last Things.

Here is Monti (and More himself) on More's trial. The jury has just found him guilty of high treason and "malicious bent." Before sentence is passed, More speaks plainly his conviction of the relationship between God's justice and the justice of Parliament. Listen carefully.

"The time had come for him to give the conscience of his country a living voice--a voice that would shake the rafters of Westminster Hall:

'...Forasmuch as this Indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his Holy Church, the supreme Government of which, or of any part whereof, may no temporal Prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual pre-eminence by the mouth of our Saviour himself, personally present here on earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, Bishops of the same See, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law, amongst Christian men, insuffcient to charge any Christian man.'"

Let's unpack that a little.

More asserts that no temporal power, be it Congress or Parliament or a dictator, has the authority to make any "ecclesiastical" law in opposition to Rome. In other words, government cannot dictate matters of doctrine or morals; if it does, its laws are not binding on the conscience of men. Matters of faith and morals can only be decided by Christ himself, who gave that authority to Peter, his successors, and those in direct communion with them.

Then, the presiding judge challenges More, saying that "his obstinact and 'vehemnt' words against the Treasons Act were much to be marveled at, in virtue of the fact that he stood alone in his views against all England's 'Bishops, Universities, and best learned men.' There was lurking in this statement a non sequitur that so many learned men could not possibly be wrong."

More counters by appealing to a much more universal consensus:

"If the number of Bishops and universities be so material as your lordship seemeth to take it, then see I little cause, my lord, why that thing in my conscience should make any change. For I nothing doubt but that, though not in this realm, yet in Christendom about, of these well learned Bishops and virtuous men that are yet alive, they be not the fewer part that be of my mind therein. But if I should speak of those which already be dead, of whom many be now holy saints in heaven, I am very sure it is the far greater part of them that, all the while they lived, thought in this case that way that I think now. And threfore am I not bound, my lord, to conform my conscience to the Council of one Realm against the general Council of Christendom. For of the aforesaid holy Bishops I have for every Bishop of yours, above one hundred, and for one Council or Parliament of yours, I have all the Councils made these thousand years."

Hot diggity. The conscience of the Catholic is bound and beholden, not to the precedents of its nation's courts or to its laws and systems, but rather to the mind of Christ on earth: the Councils of his apostles, the constant teaching of their doctors. His hope is in heaven, not in some imminent eschatology.

Three more points on More's seasonability:

1. He died not only because he would not put a king before Christ's vicar, but also because of a "social teaching": the inviolability of marriage.

2. It was only because he put the authority of his king in its proper place--and he never denied the king's power to put him to death!--that he was in fact "the king's good servant." Had he placed the king above the pope, the king himself would have suffered.

3. He was terribly merry about the whole thing. He was a jolly martyr because, after all, the affairs of state are small things in light of eternity.


e said...

Your unpacking is so lovely, darling. Thank you.

Aaron said...


Great post. Monti's biography of More is truly the best. It's helped me focus my attention properly while in law school.

I wish we could all be "happy martyrs." Sad to say, the day might be here soon when the overarching power of our State crushes any vestige of a "right of conscience" in our constitutional structure. Indeed, the same social teaching–marriage–that led More to the guillotine is leading Christians throughout the country to lose their rights.

A few churches have already lost tax exempt status over the definition of marriage. But what is the next step? Is this a broader problem? Have we lost a sense of the need to adhere to a certain base level of morality? Sometimes I wonder.

I think More's example applies to all believers today more than ever, not just those involved in the law. All of us will be asked to account for our belief, and we need to be ready to explain our positions to the world. While we may not suffer a full martyrdom (although I suppose that is not an outrageous possibility), the little battles will leave us scarred and torn.

Efforts like yours to make people think on a different plane and to make them see a deeper aspect of our lives and to bring that newfound (or renewed) knowledge into the public square are what we need. We need people to speak intelligently about the "permanent things" like faith and family.

Please pray for this budding lawyer that I may live my life more like St. Thomas More. Best to you all.