What Has Changed Since St. Thomas More’s Time?

Professor Benjamin Wiker’s new book, Saints versus Scoundrels, introduces readers to some of the “greatest questions” in life and philosophy by imagining what two historical figures might say to each other if they happened to meet up in the professor’s study.

Wiker pairs up two such figures—a saint and a scoundrel—in St. Thomas More and King Henry VIII. Wiker concludes their dialogue with these reflections:

[W]e are inclined to talk of history as if it were some kind of magic force that has a life of its own and that men of such stature as Henry VIII were merely abstractions who act out a predetermined role. But when you come face-to-face with the actual man, you realize that history doesn’t have a life of its own apart from the lives of men and women. History is what happens when particular human beings freely choose to do one thing or another, the right or wrong thing, the brave or cowardly thing. …. I fear that our own democracy is becoming a different kind of tyranny, one that bids us to remain comfortable amidst growing chaos and moral disorder. In return for our acquiescence we are implicitly promised, as Henry promised Thomas, featherbeds rather than crosses. … What form would a saint like Thomas More take in our day?

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Yes, what would a modern day St. Thomas More look like? To answer that question, we need to ask what’s the same about his times and ours, as well as how do they differ.

More stood up against his king out of conscience and conviction. From the perspective of history, we think of him as “a man for all seasons.” Maybe the passage of history gives us that perspective. We know how the story turned out.

But in his day, More was probably as much a “sign of contradiction” as the all-seasons man. There were, of course, royal “yes men” eager to please the king, out of fear, to share the spoils, or both. It takes guts to say “no” to power, especially when that power can make your life miserable.

But we should also remember that Henry VIII lived at a time when the notion of “divine right of kings” was still strong: the confrontation leading to the beheading of Charles I was still 145 years in the future. The king believed, as a matter of state policy and not just personal opinion, that he held his position by Divine Providence and, therefore, was accountable only to God. His subjects, therefore, should expect the Divine Will to be communicated through their king. That the king might have to justify his decisions before God did not mean he had to justify them also before his people. While not defending it, one can see just how so exaggerated a notion of “divine right” could be but a small leap to the Act of Supremacy of 1534, making Henry head of the English Church.

We Americans look at the conflict between Sir Thomas and King Henry through two later lenses: the principles of checks and balances over governmental power and of separation of church and state. But a titular monarch governing “in parliament” was, in Henry’s day, still in England’s future.

Separation of church and state is a bit more problematic.

Henry’s seizure of ecclesiastical power made the church a royal lapdog. In sixteenth century England, where people took their faith somewhat seriously, the idea of the king’s interest in matters religious was not so implausible: God and Caesar might be distinct, but they should cooperate, assuming both have claims of real allegiances over everyman.

In our day, the situation is a bit different. The most simplistic might argue that a conflict like More v. Henry could not arise in our day, because the state does not claim authority over the church. Church and state are two separate domains whose fields never intersect.

Or so says the theory. The paradigm just described is, however, simplistic for four reasons.

First, in Henry’s day everyone recognized that church and state each had claims of allegiance over everyman, even if they disagreed where the lines of demarcation lay. Christ said to “Render onto Caesar the things that are Caeser’s and to God the things that are God’s,” but he did not leave a detailed map on what belongs to whom.

Our world does not share that vision. Separation of church and state in theory perhaps once admitted that the citizen owes allegiances to God and Caesar, but generally left the definition of what is due God to the individual (in keeping with the quasi-Protestant origins of the theory in Anglo-Saxon circles). Radical separation of church and state today means in practice that the state pays lip service to a possible allegiance to God if the citizen so feels, but really acts as if that allegiance is a concession to an illusion. That is why, in an American context, the state and law attenuates that allegiance to the realm of believing, not acting: you can think whatever you want in your head as long as you do not necessarily carry it out in action.

That is why our courts are far more congenial towards claims of denial of free speech than they are to denial of free exercise of religion. Consider Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court December 5, 2017: the case started on the basis of baker Jack Phillips’s religious objection to providing wedding cakes for ersatz marriages, but has transmuted into a “free speech” case, with the justices weighing whether cake decoration is “speech.” The lawyers in the case may think that the case might be more easily winnable on free speech grounds, but the relegation of Phillips’s free exercise claims to the background speaks volumes about just how tenuously protected religiously inspired action is in American society.

Second, modern understandings of separation of church and state incorporate an impoverished notion of human agency. As just noted, the state wants to limit the Church’s role to a matter of belief. Human integrity is maintained, in this vision of a liberal democratic order, by guaranteeing freedom of belief. You can think whatever you want. Josephism and Gallicanism tried to confine the Church to the sacristy, but secular liberal democratic polities attempt to restrict the Church to the believer’s head.

Plato, however, realized more than two millennia ago in the Gorgias that doing evil was worse than suffering it. What we suffer is done to us; what we do is done by us. The former in a sense passes through us; the latter becomes part of us, stains us. Karol Wojtyła reminds us of the same truths in The Person and Act: by action we not only get things done out there in the world, but we define ourselves.

Now it seems that the most basic norm of a society that professes to respect the dignity of the individual person is not to demand he do what he deems evil: primum non nocere. Note that this principle is about “doing,” not “believing.”

Third, the classic idea of separation of church and state is simplistic because it posits something unreal, i.e., that the realms of God and Caesar do not overlap. But they do, because the human person is both a citizen of the earthly and heavenly cities and so will come into contact with realities that concern both: like marriage; like childbearing and child-rearing; like the values that inform social life. And like speaking the truth about all of the foregoing.

Fourth, modern ideas of separation of church and state fail to provide an impartial referee when it comes to adjudicating the citizen’s claims (remember, he is a citizen of two realms) that his debt to God is not being given due weight. The “wall of separation” would leave the decision to Caesar (or at least his courts), i.e., one of the interested parties. Modern Caesar tries to avoid a conflict by claiming authority only over the earthly citizen’s actions, not his beliefs, but this evasion leads us back to the problem that Plato recognized over twenty centuries ago: doing is the distinctive thing that makes me who I am.

Thomas More faced this problem. Everything would have been all right if he just swore the Oath of Supremacy. Nobody was probably going to probe whether he did it with his fingers crossed or with “mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” Checking the action box would have sufficed to solve the problem and get More out of the Tower—at the price of his conscience.

So, has that much really changed? The soothsayers of the Obama Administration told the Little Sisters of the Poor that they did not have to pay for abortions themselves. All they had to do was to sign EBSA Form 700 to inform their insurance providers that they object to paying for abortifacients, which would automatically trigger the insurer’s mandate to pay for the abortifacients. The Sisters could not refrain tout court from paying for drugs that destroy a life after conception; they could only be exempted from doing a moral wrong themselves by agreeing to certify shunting it off to somebody else. But I do not cease to be morally responsible for something evil by willingly doing something that imposes the duty to do that evil on another party.

The Obama Administration pretended (as do the various Democratic attorneys-general challenging the Trump Administration’s rescission of that rule) first that the Sisters should be content with their internal convictions, irrespective of how that translated into their civilly mandated obligations and then, later, that recognizing what Caesar mandated, they should be content with Caesar’s deference in letting them pass on to others a mandate they deemed to be evil.

What has changed since More’s time?

Some things. More went to the chopping block. Today’s Thomas Mores are unlikely to be beheaded (the same Left ready to railroad their moral consciences generally does not like capital punishment). They are more likely to be bankrupted by punitive civil penalties that make their lives living hells. They might wind up in jail if they don’t pay (though the accommodations are likely to be less vermin-infested—at least the four-legged kind—than More’s Tower). They might simply be frozen out of occupations, like civil official, politician, doctor, nurse, teacher, social worker, etc.

But, like More, they will be tarred as “criminals” who defy a “law of general application” because of their quirky consciences. They will be told that refusing to play by Caesar’s rules (be they the fiat of a king, the enactment of a parliament, or the ukase of a federal judge) means they are in mauvaise foi or contempt. They will be told to keep their consciences to themselves, as long as their actions do what Caesar commands.

What will today’s St. Thomas More look like?

Perhaps the late Cardinal Francis George had an inkling when he reflected on the possible deaths of his successors.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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