In one of the opening scenes of Robert Bolt’s majestic play A Man for All Seasons, the respected Catholic lawyer Sir Thomas More finds himself standing before the seated and quite truculent Cardinal Wolsey. It was not by accident that Sir Thomas was called before the Cardinal at such a late hour. The summons came as an exercise in power and a peevish sort of punishment. Why? Because Thomas disagreed with the Cardinal’s attempt to gain the pope’s blessing for King Henry VIII’s cynical divorce.
It was a move to massage and manipulate the Truths of the Church to achieve a “satisfactory” political end: The king divorces, marries his paramour, and has children to continue the dynasty. But Thomas More, a man of integrity, saw through this crafty attempt to satisfy appetites at the expense of God’s Law. And the irritated Cardinal huffed:
You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.
Sir Thomas responds:
I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties. . .they lead their country by a short route to chaos.
This exchange got me thinking about “that horrible moral squint.” Where has that gone?
Today, we are witnessing the most profound crisis within the Catholic Church in modern times. It is the loss of the moral squint. Descriptions of vile debauchery, cynical manipulation and shameless sacrilege have been splattered over newspapers, websites and cable news tickers.
In one state alone (and not even in all of its dioceses), hundreds of priests were found to have sexually abused over a thousand children over the course of decades. At the same time, a Cardinal was revealed to have an “open secret” of abusing seminarians for years while he rose in prominence and influence. And we’ve seen an increasingly disturbing pattern of certain bishops shifting an abuser here, obfuscating there and ultimately sheltering themselves behind a veneer of respectability and plausible deniability.
The result? Violations of the trust and physical well-being of children, young men, and future priests. Violations of the oath of celibacy. Violations of the priestly or bishop’s call to be servants of the servants of God.
You may grimace over Cardinal Wolsey’s malleable approach to the Truth, but you ought to be sickened by this modern raw and diabolic indulging of appetites. These “men of God” have lost their moral squint.
But what is a “moral squint?” It is a worldview that does not simply put Christ at the top of the list of priorities. Rather, it makes Christ THE priority, or rather, the lens through which one looks at all priorities. It is the essence of the Lorica of St. Patrick:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.
Immersed in Christ, our selfish desires and petty schemes dissolve. Our priests, our bishops and cardinals, our pope – and we ourselves – are called (required) to cultivate the moral squint.
Sir Thomas More did just that. In his early years, he embraced medieval piety as he prayed regularly with the monks of London’s Carthusian charterhouse. The rigors of prayer and fasting concentrated his mind on the manifestations of God’s Will in his life. But it simultaneously reminded him of his duties.
After prayerfully deliberating whether he was called to the priesthood, he decided against it. As a priest friend of mine once told me “There are two callings essential to becoming a priest: the calling to ministry and the calling to celibacy. You cannot be a priest without answering ‘yes’ to both.” And as Sir Thomas’ friend Erasmus of Rotterdam once observed, “Thomas chose to be a chaste husband rather than an impure priest.”
In the face of cynical posturing by a Cardinal in his Church, by priests in his diocese, and by the secular world around him, Sir Thomas couldn’t relinquish his moral squint. He refused to compromise his Conscience in the name of pleasure, expediency, and worldly success.
As his friend Lord Norfolk implored him to “do what I did,” make the compromise (approving the King’s annulment and accession to self-professed Head of the English Church) and come along with his friends “for fellowship,” Thomas tersely spat back, “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?”
In the name of Conscience and its guiding light, Truth – with the aid of his moral squint – Sir Thomas would lose his honored title of Lord Chancellor, his livelihood, his home, access to his family, his health, his freedom, and his life. A moral squint is what made Sir Thomas More into a Saint. He died “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Recently, some in our Church have lost their moral squint. Terribly.
Now, it is time to pick up our cross and recover it.
Now is a time for Saints.
Now is the time.
*Image: Thomas More Defending the Liberty of the House of Commons by Vivian Forbes, 1927 [St. Stephen’s Hall in Parliament, London]. “Sir Thomas More as Speaker of the Commons in spite of Cardinal Wolsey’s imperious demand refuses to grant King Henry the Eighth a subsidy without due debate by the House 1523.”