Our colleague Michael Davis is “proud to call St Thomas More my patron, my hero, and my friend”. I salute that, though my devotion – both as a cleric, I suppose, and as a Cambridge man – tends towards the comparatively overlooked St John Fisher.
But I do not share Davis’s objection that the American bishops, as part of their annual campaign for religious liberty, are presenting Thomas More as some sort of early advocate of “tolerance” as it understood today.
“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has no right to re-appropriate his cause – not even for the sake of good PR,” writes Davis at catholicherald.co.uk. Presenting More as a martyr for anything other than “dedication to Catholic truth” is such a re-appropriation, he contends.
“We can’t pretend he died for an abstract principle like ‘religious liberty’,” writes Davis. “He would have considered the very concept dangerous to the political and spiritual health of his country. In his own dealings with heretics, he made no allowances for the firmness of their convictions. Aside from being historically specious, the ‘martyr of conscience’ reading also cheapens his death. … St Thomas was very clear about the cause for which he gave his life, and it wasn’t his own peace of mind. No: it was God. He died as a witness to the inviolability of the Sacraments and the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff.”
Thomas More was executed on July 6, 1535. At that time the liturgical calendar marked July 6 as the octave day for Ss Peter and Paul. In his last letter, written on July 5, More hopes for a speedy death, and notes that it is already the “[vigil] of St Peter”. No doubt it brought him consolation to know that he was executed for his loyalty to the Successor of St Peter on a feast of Peter himself.
So we can agree that St Thomas died for the divine constitution of the Church and the Petrine office, and for the indissolubility of marriage. Yet to understand him as a martyr for conscience does not diminish that.
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