by Gregory N. Weiler and Charles S. Limandri — On Friday, March 19, the Daily Journal [which describes itself as “California’s largest legal news provider”—ed. note] published a blistering and provocative article on St. Thomas More authored by San Diego trial attorney, Dan Lawton. St. Thomas More was the famous 16th Century lawyer, Judge and Chancellor of England, canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He was an iconic lawyer and statesman idealized by many lawyers and judges in this country both Catholic and non-Catholic. In 1999, St. Thomas was selected by a secular panel of British historians as the “Lawyer of the Millennium,” the greatest lawyer in England in the past 1000 years. In 2000, he was also named by the Church the “Patron Saint of Statesmen.”
While space does not permit an accusation by accusation rebuttal of Lawton’s over-the-top assertions, suffice it to say that the overwhelming historical record and scholarly analysis completely refute both Lawton’s factual allegations and his conclusions. Lawton’s intellectual honesty and motivation can be judged by his comparison of St. Thomas More with Adolf Hitler, James Wilkes Booth, Sirhan Sirhan and last, but not least, the 9/11 terrorists. Lawton uses the credible 1998 biography, The Life of Thomas More by Paul Ackroyd, as his source. Unfortunately, Lawton takes his excerpts from Ackroyd completely out of context, both historical and literal, and then leaps to his malicious conclusions.
In a nutshell, Lawton accuses St. Thomas More of being a bloodthirsty religious zealot, unchristian in the application of the law. He states that St. Thomas’ famous martyrdom was an act of egotistical stupidity and was “pointless.”
St. Thomas More dumb? His death pointless? The absurdity of such assertions is axiomatic.
The existence of hundreds of legal societies venerating the memory of St. Thomas More, his canonization, and the vast array of scholarship refute Lawton’s caricature of St. Thomas and belay Lawton’s conclusions.
So, what is the truth about St. Thomas More?
St. Thomas More’s life can only be understood and viewed in light of his deep-rooted Christian faith and personal formation—and his profound belief that actions have eternal consequences. Lawton’s complaint should not be with St. Thomas, but rather Jesus Christ himself, who commanded, not suggested, that we give up everything: father, mother, children, brother, sister and all worldly possessions, take up our cross and follow Him. Our Lord did not “suggest” to St. Thomas that he agree to Henry VIII’s divorce, take his loyalty oath with his fingers crossed behind his back so he could keep his Chancellorship, his estates, his title, his cushy lifestyle, the comfort of his family and indeed his life — no, the denial of all these things were REQUIRED of him.
The critical point in understanding St. Thomas, is that unless someone shares More’s deep and abiding faith and his love of God, it is difficult to understand why he felt compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice that he did. Moreover, it takes a well formed conscience and understanding of the natural law to appreciate the depth of conscience that St. Thomas represents and to see with stark clarity the difference between St. Thomas and the 9/11 hijackers.
With respect to Lawton’s allegation of More’s religious zealotry, there is no question that St. Thomas More played an enormous role in the political life of England from approximately 1504 until his execution in 1535. There is also no question that he was an ardent apologist for the Catholic Church against the Protestant reformers. His own writings clearly indicate that St. Thomas and the crown at the time viewed the Protestant reformers as revolutionaries, a severe threat to the stability of civil society. See Robert Bork, Thomas More for Our Season, First Things, 1999. Apart from the political and theological factors propelling the reformation, and the misconduct of those acting for the Church and for the reformers, civic strife in fact occurred and tens of thousands of persons lost their lives in Europe at the time.
During his 31 months as Chancellor of the realm, the evidence indicates that five or six reformers were found guilty of sedition and were executed by burning at the stake. While one may speculate as to St. Thomas’ personal views at such executions, or at the death penalty in general, St. Thomas administered the prescribed death penalty as the chief law enforcement officer of the realm as was his express sworn duty. Contrary to Lawton’s assertions, More neither tortured accused heretics nor presided over their trials. To accuse St. Thomas of relishing the implementation of the death penalty is completely unfounded and is akin to accusing Attorney General Eric Holder of relishing death penalty cases today. See Christopher Hollis, Thomas More at 168.
Did St. Thomas’ participation in the civic life of Great Britain in the 16th Century, with its brutal sentences, disqualify him from being a person to emulate today? No — sainthood does not equal perfection, but is rather a public pronouncement by the Church that a particular person’s life demonstrated heroic virtue worthy of emulation. St. Thomas More is such a man, as Robert Whittington first called him in 1520: “A Man for All Seasons.”
The reason that St. Thomas is remembered today, is idealized by Catholics in the legal profession and was named a Saint, is that he led a life in which his Christianity was fully integrated into his personal and professional life. St. Thomas led a prodigious life of personal prayer, he was a dedicated family man, even going so far as to educate his daughters at a time when such was unheard of; he cared for the poor, he had a profound respect for the common man in a Medieval time; and he was a brilliant expositor of the truths of the faith. (See Akroyd, supra; Gerald Wegemer, Thomas More, A Portrait of Courage; and John Guy’s Thomas More: A very brief history). He ultimately gave up position, power, reputation and even his life, rather than compromise the integrity of his conscience or primacy of his faith in the face of the enormous power of his tyranical King.
St. Thomas’ conflict with King Henry presented a climactic and stark collision of temporal and spiritual values. More cleverly parried such a collision for months, but when the final irreconcilable conflict arose, it posed no dilemma for the Saint. Infidelity to conscience was not a choice. The magnificence of St. Thomas’ choice is magnified by the level of his worldly sacrifice, the incredible amount of personal virtue which he demonstrated in response to his persecution, and the clarity and grace in which he made his final divine submission — his mortal life in exchange for eternity.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of St. Thomas’ martyrdom was that it so emulated Christ himself – St. Thomas not only willingly laid down his life, but like Christ, St. Thomas had the power to take it up again, at any time during his 15 month imprisonment, by recanting and taking the oath. Most martyrs, having made their life-sacrificing decision for Christ, are not granted months to reiterate their choice. More endured long months in the Tower of London, in which he had to resist the human temptation to avoid the excruciating death of a traitor, which usually meant being hung, drawn and quartered.
We can summarily dismiss Lawton’s assertions that More was a selfish egomaniac who did not care for the future of his family, as patently absurd and refuted by the entire historical record, even that of the reformers. (See books sited above and also listed below by Ackroyd, Wegemer, and Guy)
Well before Blaise Pascal and his great Wager, St. Thomas placed his bet on the right side. Alas, St. Thomas eminently logical and wise, was all about Eternity. One need only recall Robert Bolt’s quote from the movie “A Man for All Seasons,” when St. Thomas paraphrases the gospel to Richard Rich — the man who perjured himself to convict St. Thomas in exchange for an appointed position in Wales: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but Wales?” St. Thomas’ lesson for the legal profession today is prioritize, prioritize, prioritize – eternity with God, or our own personal “Wales.”
St. Thomas’ application of conscience to his personal and professional decision to resist Henry VIII, was a model for everyone, especially officers of the court. The $64,000 question for all of us in the 21st Century, and for all centuries, is “Are there governmental actions which cannot be tolerated, which are fundamentally inconsistent with our humanity?”
While St. Thomas was asked in the 16th Century to comply with legislation which compromised his faith, we lawyers and judges in the 21st Century are facing even greater pressures to compromise where forces are seeking to divorce the law from morality. Where St. Thomas wrestled with the role of church and state, we instead grapple with titanic forces of life and death, euthanasia, abortion, marriage, and attacks from every quarter on the very concept of God-created human dignity. See Thomas Jefferson, Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
G.K. Chesterton prophetically said in 1929: “Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying, but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.” We should not be surprised that a new and virulent breed of detractors of More would surface in these troubled times when his heroic example is needed the most.
Let us be like St. Thomas More in our prodigious prayer lives, our loving family lives, our compassion for others, and in our professional lives may we embrace a willingness to sacrifice our all for Everything. Saint Thomas, pray for us that we have the courage and wisdom to face our 21st Century Henry VIII’s with the same fidelity as you did.
Gregory N. Weiler, Esq., is president of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, and Charles S. Limandri, Esq., is former president of the St. Thomas More Society of San Diego.