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St. Thomas More: A Statesman for All Ages

I am by no means the most informed citizen, yet I doubt that I am alone in observing that there is a problem with modern politics. In the recent presidential election, Americans were subjected to unnecessary and offensive language from both major parties, scandals and subsequent cover-ups, and a general lack of integrity and common decency—all among contenders for the highest elected office in our country. And so we wonder, are there any good politicians left? 

As Catholics, we question specifically whether any good Catholic politicians remain. After all, despite the presence of plenty of Catholics in government, the laws coming out of Washington in recent years have not been friendly to Catholics, nor to other groups who uphold basic moral principles and the integrity of the natural law. Why are our Catholic politicians failing us? Can a Catholic even be a politician today?

Of course a person can be both Catholic and a politician, but only insofar as he upholds the moral teachings of the Catholic Church in his public, as well as personal, life. Too often, our politicians claim to hold certain personal beliefs, which are contradicted by their statements or actions in public; they then attribute this (ostensibly necessary) incongruity to the separation of church and state. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops refutes this misconception well in its brief publication, Catholics in Political Life: “The separation of church and state does not require a division between belief and public action, between moral principles and political choices, but [rather] protects the right of believers and religious groups to practice their faith and act on their values in public life.”

As Catholics, this means that these politicians (and the rest of us) have an obligation to act in accordance with Church teaching. As lawmakers, they have “an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.” Herein lies the biggest stumbling block for so-called Catholic politicians: They cannot claim to be part of the Catholic Church, yet simultaneously distance themselves from—or flatly reject—its teachings. In other words, they cannot support actions that contradict Church teaching, and they especially cannot make such actions legal, while still identifying as practicing Catholics.

Unfortunately, this type of political posturing is ubiquitous among the majority of our politicians today, whether Catholic or not. Thus, we now face a situation in which fundamental teachings that should be defended by Catholics have instead been trampled in favor of the legalization of grave evil. The Catholic Church has always upheld the intrinsic dignity of the human person and his right to life, beginning at the moment of conception and ending with natural death. Whereas this teaching was once recognized and protected in our country, abortion is now trumpeted (and defended) as the true right.

With the legalization of abortion in 1973, the Supreme Court condoned an action which constitutes a grave sin, and consequently more than 59 million babies have died in the forty-four years since Roe v. Wade was passed. And yet, even though the number of Catholics in Congress has been steadily increasing since 1961, and with as many as six Supreme Court justices in recent years who have professed to be Catholic, the decision has never been overturned, despite numerous voices—Catholic and non-Catholic—calling for such action.

It is too easy, however, to just blame the Catholics in government. After all, despite their failures, they are not all responsible for our current problems, nor are they the only ones who should be held accountable. What we are seeing in general in contemporary politics is a surrender of conscience, evidenced by an unwillingness to defend basic moral principles. We have too many politicians who lack integrity. What we need are statesmen who demonstrate inflexibility of conscience, as did St. Thomas More, a martyr of the English Reformation whose feast day is this Thursday, June 22.

Born in London in 1478, as a young boy Thomas became a page to John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. He went on to study at Oxford for two years before leaving to pursue law. After becoming a lawyer, Thomas lived next to a Carthusian monastery for two years and found himself drawn to the monastic way of life. Ultimately, however, he decided to marry and raise a family.

Thomas was first elected to Parliament in 1504 under King Henry VII, a position which he continued under the king’s successor, Henry VIII, eventually becoming the representative of London. As the king’s reliance on him increased in the next decade, Thomas was given posts with greater responsibility. He became a member of the King’s council, deputy treasurer, and was knighted, before being elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. Highly respected for his integrity and keen intellect, in 1529 he was appointed Lord Chancellor by the King, becoming the first layman to fill the post. Throughout his tenure he sought to promote justice and fairness.

Unable to condone Henry VIII’s schism with Rome after the pope refused the king's request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Thomas resigned in 1532. Later, when Thomas refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Anne Boleyn’s coronation as queen, as well as Henry’s self-accorded annulment to Catherine and his self-proclaimed authority as head of church and state, the king had him imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason. After an unjust trial, Thomas was beheaded in 1534, proclaiming himself with his final words, “the king's good servant, but God's first.” He was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

Today, as proclaimed by St. John Paul II in 2000, St. Thomas More is the patron of statesman and politicians, as well as lawyers, civil servants, adopted children, and difficult marriages. St. Thomas is remembered most for his unyielding defense of his faith and refusal to compromise his own conscience, as portrayed in the the film A Man for All Seasons. Truly, he is the kind of Catholic and political leader we so desperately need today: not a politician, who is experienced in holding public office, but a statesman, who skillfully guides the government according to a set of principles.

And yet, the problem is not just restricted to our political leaders: We too are responsible for doing our part to defend Church teaching by informing ourselves about our faith and our political candidates so that we may vote conscientiously and elect leaders like St. Thomas More. Following his example, may we all strive to be good servants of our country, but God’s servants first. St. Thomas More, pray for us.

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