Of St. Thomas More – and Us

Where in the United States of America are today’s followers of St. Thomas More? As we know, More was martyred for his faith after resisting Henry VIII’s co-option of the Catholic Church for his personal and political ends. For this resistance unto death, More received an eternal reward. In October of 2000, to Catholics in our contemporary civic struggles (which loom particularly large for Americans in this election year), St. John Paul II proclaimed him as the heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.

In his proclamation, St. John Paul identified as one motive for his action “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.” The pope specifically singled out “the need to defend human life at all its different stages,” given that today’s novel situations “urgently demand clear political decisions in favor of the family, young people, the elderly and the marginalized.”

Not long after that proclamation, I joined forces with Gerard Wegemer, a professor at the University of Dallas and a top expert on More in the United States, to produce a 13-part series on EWTN, Mother Angelica’s global Catholic network. (The series remains available from them in DVD form with the title “St. Thomas More: Faithful Statesman.”)

Professor Wegemer had a hand in prompting that proclamation by the Holy Father, as it happens. In the intervening years, surely if anything, the urgent need for St. Thomas More’s intercession and for his adoption as a role model has increased. As I write, we Catholics (I hope) are following the primary races and closely screening the men who are running for the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the governorships of many states. If we take the model of St. Thomas More seriously, we will be looking, in the pope’s description, for a candidate who will “[distinguish] himself by his constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions precisely in his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice. His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue.”

Sir Thomas More and Descendants by Rowland Lockey, c. 1594 [Victoria & Albert Museum]
Sir Thomas More and Descendants by Rowland Lockey, c. 1594 [Victoria & Albert Museum] Click image to expand

One example of such a life just recently ended is that of the faithful Catholic and brilliant Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a man greatly devoted to St. Thomas More for his faithfulness to the Catholic Church, clear thinking, courage, and integrity. We have a great need of such men and women in public life: people who, in the words of Thomas More, know that, “The times are never so bad but that a good man can live in them.”

As we know from what happened to More (and what he knew from history had happened to a great many Christian martyrs in a great many difficult situations), a good man may be required at some point to give up his life. That doesn’t contradict what he said. We all live and we all die; it’s the way we do both and the decisions we make along the way that will determine whether we make it into the category of good men and women (and, God willing, maybe even saints!) or instead fall into the tragic category of people who have failed to make the kind of choices God calls us to make.

Such people can still repent and be saved, of course, while they live and breathe. But the wrong they have done and the good they have failed to do still affect the course of history, including the condition of their own country.

Our country and its political institutions need fine, faithful men and women who are loyal to our Constitution and who also realize the importance of the natural law. Thank God we Catholics have received in a special way the teaching that comes down to us from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church related to civic duties and the just state.

But in addition, it is up to us to intervene in the particular issues of our time, especially those concerning the value of human life from conception to natural death, and the primary role of the family in transmitting life, religion, morality, and culture.

Along those lines we should pray every Sunday in the prayers of the faithful that our country will become ever more aware of the dignity of human life, the beauty of God’s plan for marriage, and the significance of an authentic religious liberty. We also should pray for married couples, that God assist them in living their matrimonial vocation. And we should ask that the rights of individuals to act according to their religious convictions be respected by the state and its agents.

In addition, all Catholics should pray that we may have statesmen and politicians who will work for the good of society – and be ready to give their life if necessary, knowing what is ahead for us in our heavenly home. So in these challenging times for those who wish to be truly faithful to Our Lord Jesus Christ, let us ask the intercession of St. Thomas More, the patron of statesman and politicians.

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.