St. Thomas More’s true relevance for our time

An excellent exhibit on St. Thomas More at the John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C., suggests that More was a martyr for religious liberty. Here’s why that misses the most important point of More’s actions.

Detail from "The meeting of Sir Thomas More with his daughter after his sentence of death" (1872) by William Frederick Yeames [Wikipedia]

The John Paul II Shrine’s exhibit on St. Thomas More argues convincingly that he is more relevant now than ever. But is that because he was a martyr for religious liberty, as the exhibit implies? Certain facts brought forth by the exhibit itself undermine this conclusion.

If you have not already seen the exhibit—which will close at the end of this month—I highly recommend that you do so if you are able as it is both intellectually and spiritually edifying.  The exhibit contains over sixty historical artifacts from More’s time, including several first-class relics from More and St. John Fisher.  Moreover, after painting a vivid picture of More’s background and the age in which he lived, it focuses on the events leading his martyrdom by King Henry VIII.

As is well known, the trouble began when Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When the pope denied his request, the King declared himself the Head of the Church in England, granted himself the annulment, and proceeded with marrying his mistress Anne Boleyn.  Rather than publicly oppose the King’s marriage, which would have endangered his wife and children, More decided to resign his office as Chancellor of England and keep silent. Determined to have More’s approval on account of his reputation for learning and holiness, the King had Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy, which required all of Henry’s subjects to acknowledge his headship of the English Church.  More of course refused, and was consequently imprisoned, convicted of treason, and then beheaded.  More’s final words before ascending the scaffold—“I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first”—are echoed in the exhibit’s title: “God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More.”

But what is that legacy? The exhibit’s answer to this question is made evident from the start with a quote from St. John Paul II: “the life and martyrdom of Saint Thomas More . . . speaks to people everywhere of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience.”  But the full import of this answer only becomes clear at the end of the exhibit, which is devoted to discussing how More’s example has influenced the spread of religious liberty in America and around the world.  After briefly summarizing the history of anti-Catholicism in America, the exhibit ends with a suggestive quote from G. K. Chesterton: Thomas More “is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death . . . but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years time.”  Thus, though not explicitly stated, the main point of the exhibit that More is relevant to our times because he was a martyr for religious liberty, which is now endangered by efforts to force Catholics in the U.S. to go against their conscience on issues such as contraception, gay marriage, and transgenderism.

The exhibit is certainly not alone in describing More as a martyr for freedom of conscience. Before coming to the exhibit, the relics of More and Fisher were venerated during the commemoration of the American bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom campaign. One even finds a version of this attitude in the atheist Robert Bolt, who wrote the screenplay for A Man for All Seasons, the celebrated film about More’s death.  As George Weigel observes, in Bolt’s mind More is a sort of existentialist martyr who dies out of fidelity to his sense of self.

But this portrait of More as a martyr for liberty of conscience is cast in doubt by certain details of his life.  As the exhibit acknowledges, More played an active role in suppressing the spread of Protestantism during his time as Chancellor of England, and even oversaw the burning of six men at the stake on charges of heresy.  (Although death at the stake was horrific, the point was probably not to inflict pain but to insure a measure of modesty; the famous jurist William Blackstone stated that women, for instance, were burned instead of being beheaded or quarter as “the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publicly mangling their bodies”.)

Capital punishment was, of course, common for a wide range of crimes. Nevertheless, non-Catholics have pointed to More’s participation in these executions as proof that he was not the saint that the Church proclaims him to be, but rather the bloodthirsty fanatic portrayed in the PBS series Wolf Hall.

The exhibit explains More’s involvement in the execution of heretics with another quote from St. John Paul II: “in his actions against heretics, [More] reflected the limits of the culture of his time.”  But this interpretation is not entirely satisfying. If there is one thing that we know about Thomas More, it is that he was more than willing to go against the culture of his time—even if he had to die for it.

There is thus, I think, only one explanation for More’s actions against heretics: he sincerely believed such actions were justified.  More evidently saw heresy as a serious crime, endangering both the souls of the citizens and the peace of the commonwealth, and therefore deserving of death. In this view, he was joined not only by the vast majority of Catholics through the ages, but even by a number of other Catholic saints, such as Thomas Aquinas.

Whether or not More’s actions against heretics were justified, they do show that he was not a martyr for religious liberty, at least in the modern sense. What, then, was he a martyr for?

What all martyrs die for: Truth.  More refused to support Henry’s actions, not because they offended his freedom of conscience, but because they denied the truth about the sacrament of marriage, the teachings of the Church, and of papal authority.  It was for this truth, rather than for his own personal autonomy, that More was willing to die.

This attitude is especially evident in the speech that More gave at his trial just after being convicted of treason.  Since death was now inevitable, and silence no longer necessary, More at last revealed his reasons for refusing to support the Act of Supremacy:

For as much as, my Lords, this Indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the Laws of God and His Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which, or of any part thereof, no Temporal Person may by any Law presume to take upon him, being what of right belongs to the See of Rome, which by special Prerogative was granted by the Mouth of our Savior Christ Himself to St. Peter, and the Bishops of Rome his Successors only, whilst He lived, and was personally present here on Earth: it is therefore, amongst Catholick Christians, insufficient in Law, to charge any Christian to obey it.

Here More attacks the validity of the law he has been charged with breaking, not because it contradicts liberty of conscience, but because it contradicts the words of Christ himself.  As More points out, it was while God was “personally present here on Earth” that he entrusted the governance of his Church to St. Peter and every pope after him.  Thus, More is not insisting on his personal freedom, but on an objective truth about the nature of authority within Christ’s Church. In the words of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth’.” (par 8).

And this, I think, is why the exhibit at the St. John Paul II Shrine is ultimately correct about More’s relevance for our times.  For the persecution that threatens Catholics today is also fundamentally about truth and love for the truth.  Just as More faced death for refusing to support Henry’s denial of papal authority, so we face the possibility of ostracism, imprisonment, and financial penalties for refusing to support our society’s denial of other basic truths: that contraception is contrary to the nature of marriage, that marriage is between a man and a woman, and even that men and women are biologically different from each other.

I would therefore argue that, while we should continue appealing to More as a model and patron for our trials today, we should appeal to him as a martyr for truth rather than liberty, for three reasons.  First, casting More as a martyr for religious liberty when he was clearly nothing of the kind leaves us vulnerable to the charge of inconsistency.  On the other hand, even those who despise Thomas More cannot deny that he died for what he believed to be the truth.

Secondly, I believe that describing More as a martyr for truth will make us more likely to convince those who disagree with us.  Our opponents do not usually appeal to liberty of conscience, but to right and wrong, albeit a hopelessly flawed account of those two words, as they believe it is wrong to deny marriage to homosexuals, contraception to women, and opposite-sex bathrooms to people with gender dysphoria. By invoking liberty of conscience in our refusal to comply with these evils, we make it sound as if we have no objective reason for our opposition to them, when in fact our position is based on the natural law that God has inscribed on all men’s hearts. By contrast, if we argue against laws such as the HHS Mandate on the basis that they contradict “the laws of God,” just as More did, others will have to acknowledge that we have an objective argument for our position, however much they may reject or disagree with it.

Finally, appealing to More as a martyr for truth will give us greater strength to fight the battles we face.  John Henry Newman once pointed out that people do not die for mere products of reasoning, but for what they believe to be facts:

Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. . . .  No one, I say, will die for his own calculations: he dies for realities.

Newman’s words are vindicated in More, who did not die for so abstract a notion as “liberty” but for very concrete truths about the sacraments, morality, and Church authority. If we are to follow in his footsteps, then we should likewise be clear in our own minds about what we are fighting for: not mere freedom, but fidelity to God and to the moral order he created.

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About Michael J. Rubin 1 Article
Dr. Michael J. Rubin holds a master's and a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America, and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington.


  1. Rubin is in confusion concerning More and his time as Chancellor. Heresy was much more than a denial of religion. At the time it involved direct attacks on the government. It is obvious from reading the documents of the time that More was involved with only the death of two heretics….and further, he came them every legal out to the last minute. If anything, More was conscienciously lenient as Chancellor as far as the law and his duties would stand.

    It is easy to play armchair moralist and condemn in the context of our times.

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