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Beyond the Fictional Thomas More Print E-mail
By Gunnar B. Gundersen   
Sunday, 24 August 2014
 

I would like to raise a warning about the fictional Thomas More, the More who comes to us most notably through Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. I have read the play and watched the movie, but the real St. Thomas More is not completely found in either place. Something of his shadow appears in these works. But not the man. To take an old line, the More that Bolt offers us in this story is not More “as he understood himself.”

What Bolt gives us is a More made more palatable to our own time, because his mind is furnished with familiar clichés. The telling moment comes in an exchange with the Duke of Norfolk on the meaning of the Apostolic Succession, and therefore the authority of the Church. Bolt presents More as saying:

What matters to me is not whether it [Apostolic Succession] is true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it. . . .I trust I make myself obscure?

The question of conscience is put subtly to the side and transmuted: The truth of the Succession is replaced first by a “belief” in that truth, not the truth itself, to be tested and sustained on its own terms. And then, in turn, belief is given its standing only because it is More himself who holds it.

The key to understanding the problem is that this attitude runs so strikingly counter to the foundation of both “conscience” and human dignity set forth by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor:

To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

[But] once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation. . .[32-3]

The Family of Sir Thomas More by Rowland Lockey (after Holbein the Younger) c. 1594

Well, what difference did that make in More’s collision with the law in his confrontation with Henry VIII? The Parliament had prescribed a new order of Succession that would nicely cover the new order of things that came along with Henry’s divorce. And along with the law would come an Oath of Allegiance to this new order. More stood firmly in his refusal to take the oath. But he did not claim an exemption for himself from the laws binding on others, an exemption based on his personal beliefs. He refused to take the oath, because it was a wrongful law, properly binding on no one.

In making that case he appealed first to the fundamental positive law, closer to our constitutional law. He invoked both the Magna Carta and the Coronation Oath of King Henry VIII to establish that the “indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament, directly repugnant to the laws of God.” The Oath was repugnant to the “Holy Church. . .[and] it is therefore in law. . .insufficient to charge any Christian.” But his argument ran even beyond the Church to something closer to what More understood as a version of the natural law: “no more might this Realm of England refuse obedience to the See of Rome, than might a child refuse obedience to his own natural father.”

More saw no conflict, then, between his refusal to take the Oath and his duty to his King. In holding to the deeper law, he was calling into question the lawfulness of the Act of Parliament, and no duty to the King could entail the obligation to perform an unlawful act. And so More could truthfully claim that in going to his death, defending the law, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”  There is no “but,” no conflict for More between his obligations under law and to God.

It marks the most serious inversion, then, to offer More as an exemplar of “conscience” standing against the commands of the law. He did stand against the commands of a corrupted positive law, but what he never did was assert a claim for an exemption for himself, or for like-minded people, from a law rightly binding on everyone else – an exemption that could hinge on sincere beliefs of any kind.

It was only the fictional Thomas More who was willing to resist law on the basis of his idiosyncratic beliefs.  And what is conspicuously missing from that account was St. John Paul II’s understanding of “conscience” as the “knowledge of a universal good,” brought to bear on the case at hand, a case of practical judgment.

What Robert Bolt gave us, in the fictional Thomas More, was a man of an Age – but of our Age, or our epoch. What he screened out was the man connected to the enduring laws, the one who truly was a “Man for All Seasons.”

Gunnar B. Gundersen, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is a lawyer at Latham & Watkins LLP in Costa Mesa, California. His practice focuses on intellectual property litigation. The views expressed here are his own.

 
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Comments (27)Add Comment
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written by Lee Gilbert, August 23, 2014
Gunnar, you write, "He did stand against the commands of a corrupted positive law, but what he never did was assert a claim for an exemption for himself, or for like-minded people, from a law rightly binding on everyone else. . ."

So then, instead of our claiming religious exemptions from draconian government mandates, what course would you see St. Thomas More laying out for us? Simple defiance and let the chips fall where they may? In all seriousness, would it be more just, more pleasing to God, more saintly and for that matter more patriotic to acquiesce in institutional annihilation as More did in personal (this worldly) extinction? That, it seems to me, is where your argument leads, and frankly it is hard to disagree.
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written by James Low, August 24, 2014
Great article, Gunnar! I think we could all benefit from trying to be more like the real St. Thomas More.
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written by Eriugena, August 24, 2014
"[But] once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation. . ."

But how is the "universal knowledge of the good" attained to in the first place? Presumably, since it is knowable by human reason, it is attained to through the application of reason. But this begs the question: what is it that reason applies itself to in order to attain to the universal knowledge of the good? I would have thought belief; either naturally occurring, or supernaturally bestowed, belief, which reason then ponders to attain knowledge of the good.

Put another way: the "idea of a universal truth about the good" must precede any knowledge of that good; and this "idea," in Newman's sense, is encountered first as belief, before subsequently being pondered by reason to yield knowledge. And how do we know that the knowledge so arrived at through reason is true? Because it is judged to accord with the original idea; and this act of judgement is what conscience is.

Conscience is the faculty that relates a man's faith to his reason, and as such cannot be wholly reduced to either.
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written by Mack Hall, August 24, 2014
Very well said. Thank you.

What is remarkable is that Robert Bolt, a nonbeliever, got so many things right in his respectful consideration of St. Thomas.

Please consider also Charlton Heston's film version, which retains the very important role of The Common Man from the play.

Again, thanks for a very thoughtful essay.
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written by Sam Schmitt, August 24, 2014
Your scenario does not follow from what the article says.

The key is that More never claimed an "exemption from a law RIGHTLY binding on everyone else" - i.e. a just law - something which can hardly be said of the HHS mandate. More acquiesced to martyrdom only as a last resort, after all his morally acceptable options had been exhausted.

If it comes to that, yes, the Church should let itself be crushed in this world rather than follow an unjust law, as has happened many times in history. But until that option is unavoidable, She is required to do everything She can to save even her worldly patrimony, short of scandal or sin.
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written by Ann, August 24, 2014
Robert Bolt makes his revisionist perspective clear in the introduction to the published play. He wished to make More a sort of hero of selfhood (I believe those were his exact words) for a modern audience. Hence, the stripped-down vision of his life, with only one daughter and one wife (his household was huge, with children, stepchildren, wards – and of course he had remarried after the death of his first wife.)

Bolt also presents More as a man who loved his family and his life, and was pursuing any legal loophole to save both (family members were forced to emigrate after his execution). Therefore, More only fully reveals his mind after his condemnation at the trial. That part is largely taken verbatim from the 16th century accounts. I think it gives the emphasis you want, Mr. Gunderson.

I'm not sure that the "historical" More would be all that palatable to moderns – look what Hilary Mantel has done to him. More was deeply embedded in his time – his attacks on the reformers in various tracts are repugnant to us today, though they fit the literary conventions of the time. Few people in that era objected to the torture and execution of heretics, though they disagreed about who those heretics might be.

In any case, the film helped bring this woman to the Church, many decades ago.
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written by Myshkin, August 24, 2014
@Mr Gundersen
Um ... So a dramatic representation in play (and film) isn't the same a scholarly history. Not really news is that? Ever read any of Shakespeare's historical plays? They are crappy as scholarly history. Doesn't stop them from being stupendous works of art. Ditto with Robert Bolt's work ...

@Eriugena
Like your namesake, you think from an Idealism which, although commendable for a 9th century Irish monk (the depth of his learning was limited to only a portion of Plato's Timaeus in the translation of Calcidius), is today pretty much been abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church for over 700 years. Why do you think that is? I commend Leo XIII's encyclical "Aeterni Patris" as well as the first volume of Jean Pierre Torrell's "Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Person and His Work." One quick clue and I'll write no more: knowledge comes primarily from the senses, and only in a secondary way from reason. Belief plays a minimal (and contingent) role in the process. This comes from a basic Aristotelian Realism that has been at the foundation of almost all Roman Catholic theology since the High Middle Ages.

Okay, I'll say one more thing: another book that would help you is Jacques Maritain's "Degrees of Knowledge" (and as an extra, I'd recommend John Deely's book "Intentionality and Semiotics: A Story of Mutual Fecundation" as an advanced supplement to the Maritain text). Happy reading!
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written by Sue, August 24, 2014
Sam,
I think what the author meant was that those hiding behind the skirts ofconscience today (eg on Obamacare) are implying that the law rightly binds on everyone else bit themselves, or catholics. Another way of saying "personally opposed but. .." If these people had just stood up for the truth in the first place we wouldn't have abortion Obamacare odd a host of otherevils that could be just as noxious to the atheist.


Kudos to the author for calling out the useful idiots of conscientism.
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written by Sue, August 24, 2014
I should add the most offensive bUT regrettably common case of catholic conscientism regarding Obamacare is the defense of employer's right to exemption but not protecting the individual from the individual mandate. The Amish protect their own individuals because they don't subscribe to the concept of insurance , and they are right in so many ways about this including the fact that third party payment skyrockets the costs for everyone. Would that our own usccb have provided the same out for its flock.

Even if Lenin didn't say it it remains ever so true that socialized medicine is the keystone to the communist state.
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written by Eriugena, August 24, 2014
@Myshkin

"One quick clue and I'll write no more: knowledge comes primarily from the senses, and only in a secondary way from reason. Belief plays a minimal (and contingent) role in the process."

But what inclines us to believe the evidence of our senses to begin with? What disposes the infant to believe that that first mother's smile is comforting and not threatening? What disposes the infant to smile back, and not cower?

Does not the infant believe that the smile is not threatening even though he has not sensibly encountered it before? And is not a coming to knowledge of the nature and meaning of this smile nothing but a rational affirmation or disaffirmation of this belief?
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written by Fr. Victor Feltes, August 24, 2014
"A Man for All Seasons" is my favorite movie, but I share the view of this article. Another example of the "primacy of the self" theme Bolt wrote into his Thomas More comes out at the trial. At the end of his statement to the court, he declares with a raised voice: "Nevertheless... it is not for the supremacy that you have sought my blood... but because I would not bend to the marriage!" Thomas More did not suffer because he was unwilling to bend, but for principled obedience to God's laws.
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written by Myshkin, August 24, 2014
@Eriugena
Short answer to your questions:
We do not believe the senses. They provide input (species impressae) which are processed through the human intellectual system: the intellect abstracts species expressae, then judges through an act of separation as to the content of the abstraction. So belief/disbelief may arise only at the very end of the intellection process through an act of separation, i.e., a judgment. That's the "standing on one leg" version of Aristotle. However, it's genuinely more complicated than this when completely explained in detail. That's why you need to read a book like Maritain's to understand the process, not a combox snippet like this.

As for children's knowledge of their environment, most research seems to confirm that they learn through this kind of process. Earlier in the last century, some Idealists ( such as Piaget and Chomsky) floated theories of innate intellectual structures (for Piaget they were the classic Kantian "pure concepts of the understanding," while for Chomsky these were some kind of phrase-structure grammars). No one has ever experimentally verified their theories, and in the case of Chomsky, it has mostly been debunked.

One thing to note, is that Roman Catholic theology has in all but a very few cases, followed the hylomorphic realism of Thomism. Even those who sought to utilize Heidegger, usually did so from a Thomistic starting point. Just something to think about. I truly hope you will pick up Maritain's book and give it a read.
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written by X Contra, August 24, 2014
Good article. I did some reading a few years ago of More's own words. I was always amazed that he taught Henry VIII astronomy and math, among other things.

However, you make a point about the word "but" vs. the word "and" that is not so solid. The two words are equivalent, in terms of logic. Take a sentence with the conjunction AND in it, substitute the word BUT, and it still holds together, though perhaps with different connotations above the logic of the sentence.
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written by pgepps, August 24, 2014
Bolt's work does, indeed, privatize the conscience in a way that would have been quite alien to More's way of thinking. You're quite right that Bolt is trying to grasp the larger significance of More's action, only doing so within an inappropriate frame of reference.

I am a bit uncertain as to the either/or you seem to see with regard to "claiming exemption" under the law of the land as written and appealing to natural law, i.e., to the real metaphysical underpinnings of that law of the land. I cannot see why we would not do both.

I hope you mean to argue that we ought to do both, but only insofar as our claims under the law of the land do not rest on our abandoning the truth that makes that law viable.

It seems to me that More, who relied on every legal means to avoid actually refusing the Oath before finally being required to make a defense, would say that we should make any claim under law which permits us to continue to testify to the Truth that makes peace and justice under law possible.
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written by Eriugena, August 24, 2014
My dear Myshkin,

"We do not believe the senses. They provide input (species impressae) which are processed through the human intellectual system: the intellect abstracts species expressae."

But this still begs the question: what constitutes the "input," or, as I had put it, the evidence of the senses?
Young girls at Fatima might see the same image in blue as their non-Catholic neighbours do, or indeed as their dog does; but they "process" what they see differently, for they come to different judgments about what they do see. Why should that be so?
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written by Sam Schmitt, August 25, 2014
@Sue

Simply refusing to obey the law, as you say the bishops should do, is exactly what More did not do in his case. Like him, the bishops are claiming an exemption from an unjust law.

To my knowledge no bishop considers the HHS mandate to be just or binding on anyone, any more than More thought the Act of Supremacy to be so. In fact, a number of bishops have said that they will close down hospitals, etc. rather than obey an unjust law - if it comes to that.

The question of what to do about it, however, is one of prudence. Using all the legal means necessary to avoid being subject to an unjust law (as More did) is not an illegitimate option.
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written by myshkin, August 25, 2014
@Dearest Eriugena

Since you ask, I will write just ONCE more.

The input to the senses is the object.

Each sense has the potentia for inputing the object in a particular mode. The sense of sight does the visual mode, the sense of smell does the odor, touch inputs haptic, etc. There is no "third man" between the object and the sense.

People may disagree in their judgments (at then end of the process of intellection) due to a variety of factors, memory being one of them. People may also make irrational judgments due to physical conditions (their own illness for example). Lastly, and rarely, the senses can misapprehend something due to physical conditions (angle of view, lighting, objects too close together, etc.).

Please read the Maritain book to understand more fully. Truly I was not begging any question in my last comment, just limited by the small space of a combox. Again, reading the Maritain book will answer all your questions. If the Maritain book seems a little tough, I recommend Benedict Ashley, O.P.'s, "The Way Toward Wisdom." It is less technical, but much broader in its scope.

One other book that you might enjoy to free yourself from British idealism/empiricism (which seems to be at the heart of your last comment) is John Austin's "Sense and Sensibilia," which beside being a seminal work of philosophy, is funny as well.
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written by myshkin, August 25, 2014
@Dearest Eriugena

Since you ask, I will write just ONCE more.

The input to the senses is the object.

Each sense has the potentia for inputing the object in a particular mode. The sense of sight does the visual mode, the sense of smell does the odor, touch inputs haptic, etc. There is no "third man" between the object and the sense.

People may disagree in their judgments (at the end of the process of intellection) due to a variety of factors, memory being one of them. People may also make irrational judgments due to physical conditions (their own illness for example). Lastly, and rarely, the senses can misapprehend something due to physical conditions (angle of view, lighting, objects too close together, etc.).

Please read the Maritain book to understand more fully. Truly I was not begging any question in my last comment, just limited by the small space of a combox. Again, reading the Maritain book will answer all your questions. If the Maritain book seems a little tough, I recommend Benedict Ashley, O.P.'s, "The Way Toward Wisdom." It is less technical, but much broader in its scope.

One other book that you might enjoy to free yourself from British idealism/empiricism (which seems to be at the heart of your last comment) is John Austin's "Sense and Sensibilia," which beside being a seminal work of philosophy, is funny as well.
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written by Peter D. Beaulieu, August 25, 2014
In Bolt’s treatment of More there is room to see personalism rather than subjectivism. Let me defend this different interpretation of More’s remark where he is made to say “…but what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it … I trust I make myself obscure”. (1960 Vintage paperback version, p. 53).

John Paul II approaches this sort of thing in his Acting Person. He does not deny but “brackets” objective truth to the side so as to get at his “personalism.”

Newman remarks on the situation of one caught in an erroneous conscience: “…still he must act according to that error while he is in it, because he in full sincerity thinks the error to be truth” (citing Cardinal Gousset’s take on the Fourth Lateran: “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul” The Essential Newman, Mentor-Omega, 270). Overall I take Newman to mean that one is not to balance one’s judgment against the magisterium as simply another bookend, and then choose subjectively, but rather if one is so invincibly mislead as to fear loss of his soul in following the magisterium, then he is bound to follow his conscience. In a parallel analysis Pope Benedict (Values in a Time of Upheaval) also concludes that for one laboring under an erroneous conscience a prior accountability does not simply disappear. One is still possibly grievously accountable for lapsing into habitual error (81). Bolt’s overall portrayal of More is possibly compatibme with these insights: “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me for fellowship?” (77).

I read the key line from More (…not that I believe it, but that I (!)believe it…”) in the context of the above and three other remarks Bolt also gives to More. More says that he cannot give in, and that this has to be: “To me it has to be, for that’s myself! Affection goes as deep in me as you think, but only God is love right through, Howard; and that’s myself” (70). Norfolk finds this (incarnational and personalist ?) tenacity in the truth to be “disproportionate.” Then, “I will not give in because I oppose it—I do, not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I…(to Norfolk) Is there no single sinew in the midst of this (read ‘you’) that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!” (71). And my favorite piece: “God made the angels to show him splendor…But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!... (if there is no escaping) … then we may clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where He only looked for complexity. But it’s God’s part, nor our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity” (73).

Bolt possibly portrays More less as subjectivist than as a man of complex mind and still objective conscience who is compressed by "extremity" into martyrdom. (Objective truth is not displaced, but bracketed.) Benedict gets at this: “Newman agrees with that other great British witness to conscience St. Thomas More, who did not in the least regard conscience as the expression of his subjective tenacity or of an eccentric heroism. He saw himself as one of those timorous martyrs who reach the point of obeying their conscience only after hesitation and much questioning, and this is an act of obedience to that truth which must rank higher than every social authority and every kind of personal taste” (Values in a Time of Upheaval, 87). Every kind of personal taste, possibly as Bolt words it, “not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites”(?).

To summarize: I propose that, overall, if Bolt did not quite get it right with More, he did not get it wrong. Admittedly, Bolt's specific rendition of More’s remark re conscience leans pretty unambiguously in the direction of subjective conscience (your proposal). But, in broader context Bolt’s More in other parts of the script might also be read more or less (pun intended) as a nuanced case of legitimate and non-subjective personalism rooted still in objective truth.

Bolt’s treatment of More even seems in line with the new (restored) wording of the Liturgy where in the Creed all of us now say “I (!)believe”. More (so to speak) than the editorial “we”.
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written by Eriugena, August 25, 2014
If I felt that revisiting Maritain's Degrés du Savoir would profit me I would

Thank you so much for your indulgence Myshkin, and for allowing me the benefit of your sweeping erudition.

I have never before encountered a mind that had to ascend so soaringly to reach a position of absolutely naïve realism; and I am sure that the "intuition of being," so tentatively elaborated in Maritain's degrés du savoir, has, in the veritable crucible of your intellective process, been recast as rock solid brute substance of impenetrable denseness.

I salute you sir.
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written by Sue, August 25, 2014
More evidence today that USCCB is only about protecting employers, not individuals', conscience;

"Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has offered an initial response to the Obama administration’s new interim final rules implementing the HHS mandate, which requires health insurance plans to cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

“On initial review of the government’s summary of the regulations, we note with disappointment that the regulations would not broaden the ‘religious employer’ exemption to encompass all employers with sincerely held religious objections to the mandate,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “Instead, the regulations would only modify the ‘accommodation,’ under which the mandate still applies and still requires provision of the objectionable coverage.”

“Also, by proposing to extend the ‘accommodation’ to the closely held for-profit employers that were wholly exempted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the proposed regulations would effectively reduce, rather than expand, the scope of religious freedom,” he added."
===
What about his sheep who have to buy individual coverage?
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written by George Sim Johnston, August 25, 2014
Hilary Mantel, in her Booker Prize-winning novel "Wolf Hall" paints a very nasty portrait of Thomas More as a fanatical inquisitor, a lesser person than Thomas Cromwell, who is the focus of the novel. In the audio version, the reader uses a voice for More that would suit Dracula or Hannibal Lector.
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written by Chris in Maryland, August 26, 2014
To Sue re: USCCB...

I believe USCCB simply wants to square the circle, and appease the "right-wingers" who keep going to Church every Sunday and filling their schools, while going along with BIG BROTHER, because they get their juice (Catholic Charities) from BIG BROTHER.

USCCB = AMCHURCH.
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written by kevin, August 26, 2014
One may find St. Thomas More himself in his books at Scepter Publishers. And there are two biographies as well.
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written by Patrick B. Lewis, August 30, 2014
How about More's persecution of so-called heretics? Disgraceful, true saints do not engage in such behavior.
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written by Ronk, September 01, 2014
Fr Feltes, I don't think that More's words in the play (which I think were taken from contemporary accounts, " "Nevertheless... it is not for the supremacy that you have sought my blood... but because I would not bend to the marriage!" are an instance of Bolt's portraying More as "the hero of the Self". It was in fact quite true that Henry VIII regarded his supposed declaration of himself as "Supreme Head of the Church" as merely a means to grant himself a "divorce" (meaning a declaration of nullity) and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry didn't really care whether anyone privatekly disagreed that he was Head of the Church. But he sought out and exterminated anyone who failed to deny that henry was an adulterer and bigamist.
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written by Ronk, September 01, 2014
Patrick B Lewis, you refer to St Thomas' supposed "persecution of so-called heretics". Please give the name of any person whom St Thomas convicted and sentenced for heresy when a judge, or criticised for heresy as a writer, who was not actually a heretic. I have certainly never heard of any such person in real life and I have studied the history of England in this period quite keenly. In fact St Thomas was renowned and acknowledged even by his enemies as being scrupulously fair and just to all.

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