Statesmen and Women

When he wanted to send a message to politicians worldwide, John Paul II declared Saint Thomas More the Patron of Statesmen and Politicians (October 31, 2000). He listed various reasons for making this choice. Fundamentally he spoke of “the need felt by the world of politics and public administration for credible role models able to indicate the path of truth at a time in history when difficult challenges and crucial responsibilities are increasing.” His key phrase refers to men and women who can “indicate the path of truth.”

The pope went on to say that: “What enlightened [Thomas More’s] conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.” In Church teaching there is a profound sense of truth that even embraces politicians and statesmen — like it or not — and which is both grounded in God and orders the moral behavior of men and women, both the public servants themselves and the people whom they represent. This is to say that faith in God is eminently necessary. In Thomas Aquinas’ words: “the gift of wisdom presupposes faith, because ‘a man judges well what he knows’ (Ethic. i, 3).” (ST II II question 45) This comes from the Summa’s section on human actions.

Both Aquinas and John Paul II do not speak of knowledge in the narrow sense, where someone knows a few isolated facts about something or who forms an opinion and confuses that with a fact. Aquinas and the pope speak instead of the special all encompassing gift of wisdom. The Book of Wisdom explains that wisdom “reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well.” (Wisdom 7:1) There is that governing again! Statesmen and politicians merely participate in governance guided by that order. Notice that wisdom takes in the whole complex of reality. She sees the part and its relation to the whole. So when the Second Vatican Council reflected on politics, the Council Fathers brought out the concept of the whole by teaching that: “the political community and public authority are founded on human nature and hence belong to the order designed by God, even though the choice of a political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free will of citizens.” (Gaudium et spes, 78)

In his motu proprio on Thomas More, John Paul explained that “whenever men or women heed the call of truth, their conscience then guides their actions reliably towards good.” But of course they can choose the opposite course. The council itself said that: “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (Gaudium et spes, 16)

So with John Paul we can understand that “government is above all an exercise of virtue.” It is being spiritually “clear” enough to learn God’s order. Then “laymen should . . . know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city.” (Gaudium et spes, 43) Statesmen and women are uniquely placed and so have unique demands placed up on them by their role in government.

Further in the discussion of Marriage, the council taught that the spouses “must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.” (Gaudium et spes, 50) But here there is also the more fundamental point that the Church does in fact authentically interpret the divine law.

Thomas More’s fidelity to the Church’s teaching of the divine law produced some wonderful effects that John Paul listed in his letter: “Throughout his life he was an affectionate and faithful husband and father, deeply involved in his children’s religious, moral and intellectual education. His house offered a welcome to his children’s spouses and his grandchildren, and was always open to his many young friends in search of the truth or of their own calling in life.” More had a good and wholesome effect on those who surrounded him family and non-family alike. Moreover: “Family life also gave him ample opportunity for prayer in common and lectio divina, as well as for happy and wholesome relaxation.” He lived an ordered life.

Interestingly he also did a lot of penance: “Thomas attended daily Mass in the parish church, but the austere penances which he practiced were known only to his immediate family.” This mode of life and his frequent contacts with the Franciscans at Greenwich and the Charterhouse in London meant that as a knight, a member of parliament, Speaker of the House and finally Chancellor of England, he continued to lead an ordered life and became a saint. Could there be another goal for a Catholic politician?