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St. Thomas More: the King’s good servant but God’s first

By Father Woods

Many Catholics struggle to reconcile their faith with patriotism. It is consoling to know that this is nothing new for citizens of the United States or other nations. When civil conventions or laws run contrary to the teachings of the Gospel, we wonder what we should do personally – but even more we wonder where society is headed. Even more dangerous, often civil laws and society can seem more rational than the teachings of Christ and His Church. Imagine how the faithful and hierarchy were scandalized when divorce was first legalized! Not only was this the legal breakdown of marriage and family, but what was the culpability of Catholic lawyers or judges who participate in obtaining civil divorce? That’s just one example of the ways Church and State have parted company. We need to look to the saints for guidance. They lived Jesus’ Gospel throughout their lives, in all circumstances, and made it to the reward of Heaven.

In the early 1520’s in England, King Henry VIII ruled as a devout Catholic in a devoutly Catholic nation. Britain remained loyal to the Roman Church as Martin Luther’s popularity took many in Europe away from the Catholic Church. In 1529 King Henry appointed his good friend and faithful servant Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of the kingdom – the second most powerful person in the country. Thomas was a good Catholic family man. As early as 1525 Henry had become frustrated that his wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, had not produced a male heir to the Throne and he was working to have this marriage annulled by Pope Clement VII so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In the ensuing years Henry grew more frustrated with the delays and the Pope’s eventual refusal to grant the King his annulment. Henry VIII concludes that the King rules by God’s design and consecration which makes him sovereign even over the Church – therefore he no longer has to obey the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth. Furthermore the King declares that any English subject who obeys the Pope over the King is guilty of treason.

Sir Thomas More loved the King and his country. He remains a loyal subject but refuses to acknowledge that the King has sovereignty over spiritual matters. Thomas remains a devout Catholic who expresses his conviction that the Pope is the visible head of the Church on earth. This places Sir Thomas on a collision course with the Monarch. Henry begs Thomas to acknowledge the King as head of the Church in England, Thomas refuses and is put on trial, found guilty and beheaded.

Thomas More had to decide between his faith and his country; between his King and the Pope. Thomas became a victim when the government tried to usurp the legitimate authority of the Church and interfere with the Church’s life, worship and practice. The King took it upon himself to decide what people could believe, who was in compliance with that belief, what religious practice should consist of. St. Thomas More was brave, but not belligerent. He wanted to be loyal to King Henry but he simply could not violate his conscience. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher were in the minority. Most of the clergy and people left the Catholic Church and acknowledged Henry as head of the Church – a Church which now separated itself from Rome.

We have similar choices to make in our own day. May these great saints be models for us and may they pray for us. Their example is simple: the way we become good and faithful American citizens is by living as good and faithful Catholics.