Thomas More, a man for whose season?

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Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

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Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

What to make of the portrayal of Thomas More in the PBS adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s best-selling novel Wolf Hall? George Wiegel sees it as the latest manifestation of British (or Anglo-American) anti-Catholicism, especially when set against the revisionist transformation of More’s antagonist Thomas Cromwell from amoral fixer into honorable promoter of social harmony.

No doubt, the More of Wolf Hall is a far cry from the More of Robert Bolt’s play and film, “A Man for All Seasons,” which portrays the Lord Chancellor who refused to go along with Henry VIII’s divorce as a modern martyr who valued the individual conscience above everything else, including truth.

Cambridge University historian Eamon Duffy, who’s no anti-Catholic, offers this assessment: “Bolt projected on to his hero opinions More would have indignantly repudiated; Mantel’s starker portrait has sixteenth-century warrant, and far greater plausibility.” That starker portrait stresses More’s well-attested role as a persecutor of Protestants — though he denied torturing them. “More was neither blood-soaked nor a hypocrite, but he was a man of his times, not of ours,” writes Duffy.

The only problem with this view is that there were many men of his times, just as there are many men (and women) of ours. The fact is that the kind of liberty of conscience for which Bolt celebrated More was celebrated by More himself — until it wasn’t. In his most famous work, Utopia, he created a vision of an ideal society that was notable for its establishment of religious liberty:

This law was made by Utopus, not only for preserving the public peace, which he saw suffered much by daily contentions and irreconcilable heats, but because he thought the interest of religion itself required it.  He judged it not fit to determine anything rashly; and seemed to doubt whether those different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire man in a different manner, and be pleased with this variety; he therefore thought it indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true.  And supposing that only one religion was really true, and the rest false, he imagined that the native force of truth would at last break forth and shine bright, if supported only by the strength of argument, and attended to with a gentle and unprejudiced mind; while, on the other hand, if such debates were carried on with violence and tumults, as the most wicked are always the most obstinate, so the best and most holy religion might be choked with superstition, as corn is with briars and thorns; he therefore left men wholly to their liberty, that they might be free to believe as they should see cause.

More wrote Utopia  in 1516, a year before Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation by writing his 95 Theses protesting the sale of indulgences. A decade later, with Europe torn apart by sectarian conflict and himself in a position of increasing political power, More behaved altogether differently — in contrast to his friend Erasmus, the greatest humanist of the age, who counseled tolerance and moderation.

More is widely held responsible for the capture and execution of William Tyndale, the brilliant ant-Catholic translator who has given us much of the language of the King James Version of the Bible. The two men, “so deeply divided in religion, were united in the conviction that truth was worth dying for,” Duffy writes. “Both believed that society must be rooted in truth, and that God’s truth had to be defended against brute power and political expediency – even if it cost the defender their liberty and their lives.”

We have a such men (and women) in America today, which is to say, those who are more interested in promoting God’s truth a la the later More than in religious liberty a la the earlier one. What’s confusing, in the current season, is that some of them do so under the “religious liberty” flag.

A few years ago, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission declined to join an amicus brief supporting the right of Muslims to build mosques. Or consider the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that says it’s “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty.” So far as its advocacy is concerned, religious liberty is exclusively about the right to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.

History is rich with examples of religious communities that advocated for religious liberty when they were oppressed, and did away with it when they were in charge. Today, we’ve got religious communities who were less than devoted to religious liberty when they had things their way but have embraced it now that they are on the losing side. I expect More would be standing with them.

  • opheliart

    Mark, where is everyone? No comments yet? I will comment, but I may have arrows thrown at me. UTOPIA, excerpt … it does not marry with More’s beliefs, and it does not coincide with his position (as history dictates). I do not believe it was written by Thomas More. What if another wrote Utopia? What if William Tyndale wrote it and gave it to More to persuade his thinking, and More translated it into Latin and … How are we to know all the facts on this? What really went on? It would not be the first time ‘Rome’ took writings and claimed them as their own. Is their a way to find the truth on Utopia? I believe there is.

  • opheliart

    *there* a way

  • James Carr

    Moore’s “Utopia” is considered satire on the state of Europe in the 16th Century, not a profession of his beliefs.

  • opheliart

    James,

    you fail in your indulgences on this. Read between the lines 🙂

  • James Carr

    Oh, I forgot that Rome has revised all of history and just now the truth is coming out. Whatever, not really interested anyway.

  • So how exactly is the quoted passage a satire on the the state of Europe in the early 16th century, as distinct from an expression of More’s own sentiments (at the time)?

  • James Carr

    More looked at the state of civilization in Europe, its constant wars, its religious battles, etc., and imagined with others a utopian ideal…..utopia being a state of perfection that is humanly impossible. His sentiments were philosophical, a game we may all play ourselves. It was not a goal of his to achieve for man is basically incapable of reaching a utopian state because of his very nature. His ideas more or less describe heaven, where man will be perfect. He never questioned his allegiance to the Catholic Church, and spurned those that did……the implication being that even he is as human as the rest of us on earth.

  • I’m not suggesting that he ever questioned his allegiance to the Catholic Church, but the passage in question precisely advances a legal regime for dealing with religious differences in the world he knew — so that “the best and most holy religion” would not be “choked with superstition.” If applied at the time he was writing Utopia, Lollards would not have been burnt at the stake for heresy.

  • Re: “History is rich with examples of religious communities that advocated for religious liberty when they were oppressed, and did away with it when they were in charge.”

    True enough. And as a result, this in turn means history is rich with examples of Christians … who are forbidden, by explicit order of the founder of their faith ever to be hypocritical … being quite clearly hypocritical.

  • Elledra

    Applying the idea of “Religious liberty” to More’s situation just seems off to me. “Utopia” after all, was an imaginary place. It may have had religious liberty, but More didn’t mistake Utopia for the society he was actually living in. In that society there was one state religion, period, and it had been Roman Catholic for centuries. You weren’t allowed a choice. This was an absolutist monarchy, not a republic with rights (like religious liberty) guaranteed to the governed and laid out in a constitution. In Western Europe at the time, religious pluralism existed only in fiction like Utopia. People then were not just like us, only wearing funny clothes.

  • It’s really not as off as you think, Elledra. Europeans in More’s time were very familiar with non-Christian societies — including ones around the Mediterranean where communities of different faiths lived in close proximity — as, in fact, were the Jewish communities in many parts of Western Christendom. And the New World had just been discovered. In addition, humanists like More were very familiar with accounts of the Ancient World and its religious variety.

  • Elledra

    I see your point, Mark. Surely many Europeans knew about societies where differing religions lived in close proximity–but were Europeans yet interesting in emulating them in 1535 (when More died)? The Reformation eventually led to greater religious diversity as a matter of necessity, to stop all the religious conflicts going on (I’m thinking of the Treaty of Westphalia here). But for all his considerable knowledge of the world, I’m seeing More as someone who followed what he believed to be the “one truth” of the Roman Catholicism of his day–he didn’t believe other approaches within Christianity should be allowed to exist. (You’ve now made me curious about what he may have written about other faiths.)