Church Scandal Through the Eyes of St. Thomas More

And he said, “Sit down here while I go over there to pray.” And he took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with him. He began to feel sorrow and grief and fear and weariness. Then he said to them, “My soul is sad unto death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:36-38, Mark 14:32-34).

The image of Christ in prayer, wracked by sorrow, grief, fear, and weariness, inspired Thomas More’s final work, which is often referred to as The Sadness of Christ. As More awaited his own trial and execution, he addressed “the story of that time when the apostles were sleeping as the Son of Man was being betrayed.” Astonishingly, More claimed that this scene in the gospel was “a mysterious image of future times.” More justified a figurative and even prophetic reading of Christ’s betrayal for a single reason. He believed that Christ was “betrayed into the hands of sinners” whenever “an imminent danger” threatened “the mystical body of Christ, the Church of Christ.” As a result, More intended to provide his readers with a universal, perennial message that could be applied to any age.

More’s profound assertion raises several questions. If correct, should we understand today’s crisis in the Church as an imminent danger to her? Or, in terms of More’s tropological claim, are we witnessing in our own times a reenactment of Christ’s agony? Or, by way of historical parallel, is the current situation grounds for another schism of the kind More encountered? Finally, in a personal sense, if Christ’s agony is under way once again, what is our part in the story? This is the question I would like to discuss.

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Buried in Sleep
More applied the story of sleepy apostles to the Church in England. In the Sadness of Christ, he compared Peter, James, and John, who were “buried in sleep,” with Judas, who remained wide-awake. More asked his readers: “Does not this contrast between the traitor and the apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image (as it were), a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times even to our own?” The mirror image was sharp because the apostles represented negligent bishops while “other governors and other caesars,” like Cromwell and Henry, sought the destruction of the Church in England.

More asked a second question, “Why do not bishops contemplate in this scene their own somnolence?” More wished “that they would reproduce their virtues just as eagerly as they embrace their authority and as faithfully as they display their sloth and sleepiness!” Sleep, thus, becomes a metaphor for placing the faith in jeopardy. For many bishops “are sleepy and apathetic in sowing virtues among the people and maintaining the truth, while the enemies of Christ, in order to sow vices and uproot the faith (that is, insofar as they can, to seize Christ and cruelly crucify him once again), are wide awake—so much wiser (as Christ says) are the sons of darkness in their generation than the sons of light.” The sons of darkness are “wise” because of their energy, cunning, and daring in their assaults upon the Church, while the sons of light, Christ’s representatives through apostolic succession, remain disheartened, perplexed, and fearful.

Perhaps More’s critique of the bishops in England will convince you that the agony of Christ is under way in the current Church crisis. The abusers possess the energy and wiles of “sons of darkness” while those who remain complacent about a culture of corruption fit well with More’s account of sleepy apostles. We now know that some in our leadership failed to see Christ’s presence in the victims of abuse, and his suffering in their trauma. More would recognize the irony.

Yet bishops were not the only ones inclined to sleep during a time of crisis. More warned how ordinary Christians, too, can become “so fast asleep” in their vices “that even the calls and stirrings of divine mercy” will not “rouse” them to “wake up to virtuous living.” Others are so lost in worldly pleasures that they sleep “in a drugged sleep watching the dream-visions induced by mandragora.” And those who pray, the best of the group, often do so with minds “wandering miles away” from the God they address. In contrast to wandering minds, More was struck by the image of Christ lying prostrate on the ground “in humble supplication.”

More elaborated that feelings of weariness, fear, and sadness are temptations for all who struggle to be good and to remain close to Christ during times of crisis. Everyone who is “concerned (as they ought to be) about their souls,” More advised, “has sufficient grounds to be afraid that they may grow weary under his burden and give in.” Thus, More’s point about self-knowledge returned to the theme of Sadness: don’t fall asleep during times of temptation!

More’s message about sadness could be a lesson for us as well. Some may be overwhelmed by the crisis because they prefer the “drugged sleep” of denial, ignorance, or the onrush of daily concerns and activities. Others will acknowledge the trouble, but the emotions of sadness, shock, and outrage will numb them into keeping a distance from the Church. Yet More would urge us to grieve without falling into despair or neglecting our own religious duties.

A Question of Reform
Indeed, More witnessed a crisis as grave as the one we face. Recall that the English Schism and the Reformation were not simply matters of theological dispute but of clerical misconduct. In addition to heresy, More dealt with faked miracles, superstitious pilgrimages, and cases of licentious behavior, and was known for condemning clerical corruptions.

Even so, More and Erasmus believed reform should come from within the Church itself, and not from Martin Luther’s denunciations of “Antichrist papists” and “the vilest dregs of men, the papists.” Luther cheered those who were “utterly destroying the abominations and scandals of the Roman pestilence” and claimed that Christ had called him “to torment the papist monsters.” Luther’s campaign was successful enough in England that, despite Henry’s opposition, More’s own son-in-law, William Roper, left the Church and advocated Luther’s teachings.

Roper was rightly indignant about instances of clerical corruption, but More cautioned him against the heretical belief that the Church should exclude sinners. Instead of a pristine Church, More proposed a “scabby” one, full of members—“some sick, some whole, and all sickly”—all of whom our Lord carried in his mystical body. The Church of Christ contains, “for the time being, good grain and weeds, till it shall on Judgment Day be purified, and all the bad thrown out, and the good alone remaining” (Matt. 13:24-30). For Christ himself tells his apostles, “Now you are clean, but not all” (John 13:10), and also, “Did I not choose twelve of you, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). More’s point was elementary, yet critics of the Church failed to grasp it at the time. Judas Iscariot was part of the Church, even though our Lord called him a devil, and these facts amounted to a Church with evil remaining in it. The Church never consisted merely of “good people as long as they were good,” More reasoned, because Peter was part of the Church—even its head—despite his denial of Christ.

More predicted that the Church would remain “as scabby as ever was Job.” Yet hope will remain because Christ, “her loving Spouse, does not leave her, but continually attempts by many kinds of medicine—some bitter, some sweet, some easy to take, some hard, some pleasant, some painful—to cure her.” More’s idea of curing the Church through purification constituted a paradox. For he took purification as a sign not of the Church’s separation from her Savior but of hope in his cure and care of her.

As the picture of a truly “scabby church” emerges in the news—in the Pennsylvania grand jury report of 300 “predator priests” over the last 70 years, and in similar reports that will follow in the days ahead—More’s point about how evil exists in the Church is evident. Yet these very same reports, we hope, will become what More calls a “bitter medicine,” a means of purification of the Church, and a challenge to each of us.

For More himself didn’t leave the issues facing the Church to the clergy alone to solve. Though he recommended prayer before action always and emphasized his own need to struggle for holiness, he worked for the Church’s purification. From 1523 to 1533, More’s writings on the Church and related issues comprised a writing campaign that addressed everything from doctrinal questions to disputes between church and crown. His example illustrates the power and potential for good that the voices of informed, pious, and loyal laypeople can make.

With respect and study, many of us might discern a path to genuine reform as well. Let it begin with an ongoing recovery of sound doctrine, the writings of Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Like More, we can launch our own writing campaigns, spreading good doctrine according to our given state and vocation in life. Like More, we might encourage those around us, to grow in their faith and to understand more clearly how Christ calls to them through the Church despite the failings of her members. We might share our concerns and calls for action with bishops, the Holy Father, or even our local priests.

Sadness, Fear, and Suffering
Sadness and fear, after all, are natural responses to crisis, which need not lead to sleep. According to More, Christ himself “chose to experience not only the pain of torture in his body but also the most bitter feelings of sadness, fear, and weariness in his mind.” Like all good people, the Son of Man experienced the struggle of the emotions. Because Christ “was no less really a man than he was God,” More summarized, “He had the ordinary feelings of mankind.” Indeed, “it was by his own marvelous arrangement that his divinity moderated its influence on his humanity for such a time and in such a way that he was able to yield to the passions of our frail humanity and to suffer them with such terrible intensity.” Christ did so in order to assure one and all that grace was available to us during bouts of anxiety, fear, and sadness.

Christ’s example returns us to the question with which we began: what part or role are we playing right now in “the story of that time when the apostles were sleeping while the Son of Man was being betrayed?” Though More knew himself to be tempted by sleep, he urged his readers to take the part of Christ. Not only should we stay awake and pray with our Lord, but we should suffer with him, learning from his sadness and fear how to treat and transform our own.

We will acquire such “genuine courage,” More urged, by contemplating Christ’s own feelings of inner turmoil. More was confident that if we “urgently beseech him,” just as “an angel brought him consolation in answer to his prayer, so too each of our angels will bring us from his Spirit consolation that will give us the strength to persevere in those deeds that will lift us up to heaven.” With prayer comes consolation.

As More awaited his trial and its inevitable outcome, he found consolation in the “mysterious image” of Christ’s agony. No doubt he asked himself what part he was playing in “the story of that time when the apostles were sleeping as the Son of Man was being betrayed.” In answer, More envisioned Christ speaking to fearful disciples like him, and fearful disciples in the future, people like us. And Christ’s message was this:

O faint of heart, take courage and do not despair… Trust me. I conquered the world, and yet I suffered immeasurably more from fear, I was sadder, more afflicted with weariness, more horrified at the prospect of such cruel suffering drawing eagerly nearer and nearer…. But you, my timorous and feeble little sheep, be content to have me alone as your shepherd, follow my leadership; if you do not trust yourself, place your trust in me. See, I am walking ahead of you along this fearful road.

Editor’s note: The above essay is a shortened version of a talk delivered on September 20 at Ave Maria University with the invitation of Mary Rexroat, President of Student Government, as part of an initiative of students to gather together in prayer and fasting for the current crisis in the Church. (Photo credit: Statue of St. Thomas More, Parliament House, Sydney)


  • Travis Curtright

    Dr. Travis Curtright is Professor of Humanities and Literature at Ave Maria University. Dr. Curtright is also editor of the journal Moreana: Thomas More and Renaissance Studies.

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