A Man of Enduring Conscience
by Jack Kenny
Most of us know little of St. Thomas More, whose feast day, and that of Bishop John Fisher, the Catholic Church observes annually on June 22 in the contemporary church calendar, on July 6 in the traditional calendar. Non-Catholics may know him only as Sir Thomas More, a great statesman of 16th century England. Indeed it is for his role as a statesman true to his Catholic faith that the Church canonized him in 1935, 400 years after his beheading by order of King Henry VIII, patron saint of serial monogamy, for which cause he was martyred by the disease of syphilis.
There are other great saints, including many who appeared far more eager for martyrdom, who deserve as much praise and honor. But none had the good fortune of having a play written about him by Robert Bolt, the gifted writer who gave us A Man for All Seasons. By his own account, Bolt was not inspired by religious devotion. He described himself as not a Catholic or even a Christian in any meaningful sense of the term. Rather his inspiration was one man's refusal to, as we commonly say, "go along to get along."
But let us not delude ourselves into thinking More's heroism is entirely of the playwright's imagination. The play is well worth reading, but more than that, the pages before the opening scene of Act One are worth the price of the book, which is widely available in both new and used bookstores for very little money. The playwright's preface gives an excellent historical background to the play. But before you get even that far into the book slender volume, you encounter these quotations:
"More is a man of angel's wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is that man of gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons." Robert Whittinton.
"He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced." Samuel Johnson.
Neither of these men, one a contemporary, the other a leading light of the 18th century, could possibly have been influenced by Bolt's magnificent play, published in 1960, or the movie that won the Academy Award for best motion picture in 1966. Nor could they have been influenced by the Catholic Church's elevation of More to canonical sainthood in 1935. Rather, it was the flesh and blood human being, not a hallowed saint nor a hero of celluloid that they were celebrating.
But Bolt must have captured him well, even if he did, perhaps, airbrush away some all too human frailties. I am no historian, nor scholar of any kind, but I suspect the real-life Thomas More was not quite so gentle as the hero of the play. But he was at least as gifted intellectually and as concerned about employing the wit God gave him to do his duty and to accept as tribulation only that cup which God in his wisdom and good purpose had declined to take from him. And, obviously, he had the courage to drink deep from that chalice when it finally came to him.
It is ironic that Bolt published this play in 1960 and its first performance was on November 22, 1961. In the White House at the time was America's first Catholic president, an urbane, witty, intellectual and active man of grace and courage who would suffer a different kind of martyrdom. We will never know if John F. Kennedy would have accepted a beheading rather than betray his Catholic faith and deny the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Were he alive today, he might very well do what his brother in the Senate has done, which is to subordinate faith to politics and be the kind of Catholic that Archie Bunker liked.
"He's a Catholic, but he's one of the good ones," Bunker once said of his neighbor, McNab. "He don't bother with it." Most Catholics in politics today, like men and women of other religious persuasions, "don't bother with it." More bothered with it and it bothered him. But he could not separate himself from it when his very life was at stake.
For More knew and understood better than most men that his eternal life was at stake as well. Most men are so constituted and so conditioned that they will choose nothing over their own advancement and position, wealth, and well being in this world. Virtually all the lines in A Man for All Seasons are timeless, but a few stand out. There is the scene in which prisoner More is urged by his longtime friend, the Duke of Norfolk, to sign the oath, expressing approval of the king's divorce and remarriage and proclaiming the King of England the supreme head of the church in England. After all, all of the nobility and all the bishops but one (Blessed John Fisher) had signed that very oath.
"Look at these names, Thomas," Norfolk pleaded. "Won't you come with us, for fellowship?"
"And when have gone to Heaven for following your conscience," More replies, "and I have gone to Hell for not following mine, will you come with me for fellowship?"
More clearly does not want the martyr's crown. He keeps to himself his reasons for not signing the oath. But his was a silence that went "bellowing up and down Europe," Cromwell complained. And the king must have More's blessing or he must have More destroyed. For, as the Master Secretary explained, the king is a man of conscience. And if he destroys someone, that proves that someone was an evil man, the kind of man a king should destroy and the kind of man whose blessing was not worth having. And the' king's conscience, the king's convenience and the king's voracious appetite (the three were often indistinguishable) must be served.
But Sir Thomas had his own ideas of conscience and said so at his trial, much to the anger of the aforementioned Cromwell. "The conscience, the conscience," Cromwell scoffs. Sir Thomas turns and regards him coolly.
"The word is not familiar to you?" he asks.
"By God, too familiar!" the Master Secretary roars. "I am very used to hear it on the lips of criminals."
"I am used to hear bad men misuse the name of God, yet God exists," More replies, as cool as ever.
They can find no evidence on which to convict Sir Thomas so they manufacture some. Sir Richard Rich, a longtime friend of the former Lord Chancellor, testifies falsely about what Sir Thomas allegedly said about the oath and the Act of Parliament that required it. The defendant realizes he is doomed. He asks only one question of the witness. He is wearing a medal of office. What is it?
"Sir Richard is appointed attorney-general for Wales," Cromwell proudly announces.
"For Wales?" Sir Thomas repeats with genuine pain and sorrow. "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!"
In our own time, we have seen men barter their souls for less. Many I dare say, most of today's holders of high office will sell their souls and the lives of countless unborn babies for the benediction of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League or the National Organization of Women or Emily's List. They will equivocate on natural law, on gay marriage, on sex education, on Darwinism taught as dogma in the schools. They will not let their consciences stand in the way of their political advancement.
Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons is a pathetic little man. So are so many today who seek the nation's highest office by making due obeisance to the demands of the sexual revolution. Any of them might wince at the sound of the word, "conscience." Of any of them we might ask, gently:
"The word is not familiar to you?"
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