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The legal and moral genius of St. Thomas More

A new book examines the life and mind of a man who is today much revered—and misunderstood.

"Sir Thomas More" (1527) by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Image via Wikipedia)

The tension between Church and state is never fully and finally resolved, and in fact, never can be. When conscientious citizens must stand with the Church against the worldly exigencies of the state, invaluable guidance is found in the transcendent example of Thomas More. His life, and especially his conflict with King Henry VIII, are always worthy of careful consideration. Louis Karlin and David Oakley, two practicing lawyers, examine More’s life and work with insight in their taut volume, Inside the Mind of Thomas More: The Witness of His Writings. They illumine, with masterly concision, the legal mind and exceptional moral core of one of the defining figures in all of Western history.

Born in 1478, More was baptized into the Catholic Church and the thoroughly Catholic world of late medieval England, which was perhaps the most Catholic country in Europe at the time. This world of Christendom is where More flourished. It was of course a world that was shattered in the early 16th century, first by Martin Luther and then by a flood of Protestant revolutionaries. In response to what he viewed as a moral and civilizational catastrophe, More became a ferocious polemicist against Protestantism and a prosecutor of its adherents. Oakley and Karlin add invaluable perspective for the modern reader on More’s conduct and thinking in this area. Heresy was rightly seen as a menace to the social order and a threat to souls; More’s conduct toward heretics was in conformity to the law that required suppression of heresy. Any notion of religious liberty as we see it today was nowhere to be found in More’s age.

More’s rise and fall under Henry formed the central drama of his life. A trusted, extraordinarily competent counselor in Henry’s court—indeed, More ultimately became Lord Chancellor of England—he broke with Henry over the King’s “great matter,” that is, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. More’s ingenious, nuanced defense of his position was maintained until all room for maneuver was eliminated. His conscience would not finally submit, in the form of the Oath of Succession, to Henry’s usurpation of the authority from what More had always referred to as the “common knowen catholyque church” and the truth and tradition it incarnated.

Karlin and Oakley are especially lucid in their explanation of More’s legal defense and his ultimate reliance on conscience. More was of course a very learned and competent lawyer, and he adroitly used the law to protect himself throughout his conflict with Henry. The civil law was relentless in its pursuit of More’s submission to Henry’s supremacy over the Church, and More was able effectively to use silence to resist its reach—until silence would not suffice.

That left conscience as his bastion of what became an essentially solitary resistance. Karlin and Oakley clarify that conscience rightly understood has objective and subjective components. In our time, the subjective aspect is all that seems to matter—a common error embodied in Robert Bolt’s very fine play, A Man for All Seasons. But as the authors rightly argue, conscience “is not simply an exercise of personal autonomy.” Conscience objectively seeks to conform to the truly just and good, and subjectively must be the working of individual judgment in a particular situation. Only with both aspects can it function as what John Henry Newman would later call the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” It is this understanding that Karlin and Oakley have in mind when they write the plain truth that “More died for conscience.”

Karlin and Oakley astutely identify the source of More’s heroism:

So how did More achieve this freedom and courage of heart? The short answer is that More was a saint—or, more accurately, struggling for holiness—before he was a martyr. He ordered his loves; he cultivated one love above all others, the love of God. To achieve this state of ordered loves, he maintained a robust spiritual life—prayer, penance, and sacraments—which aimed at constant growth in love of God. He practiced daily meditation, attended daily Mass, and went to weekly confession. At Chelsea, he constructed New House, which included a chapel. His penitential practices followed those lived in the strictest monasteries of his day, which included a hair shirt that he discreetly wore under the clothes befitting his high station in life.

In light of the distortions introduced into popular culture about More by Hilary Mantel’s fictional depictions of the period, such a portrait brings the true More of history back before us.

In their suggestions for further reading, which include excellent editions of More’s own works, Karlin and Oakley list Gerard Wegemer’s 2012 study Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage and Peter Ackroyd’s magisterial 1998 biography The Life of Thomas More, both of which animate this absorbing new work. It is a deeply satisfying introduction to More, who serves as an exemplar obviously for Catholics but also for all principled citizens who seek to limit the state’s ability to direct consciences. With this book, we are reminded that More was (as Erasmus famously called him) “omnium horarum“—”a man for all seasons.”

Inside the Mind of Thomas More: The Witness of His Writings
By Louis W. Karlin and David R. Oakley
Scepter Publishers, 2018
130 pp. $11.95.

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About Gregory J. Sullivan 17 Articles
Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in New Jersey and a part-time lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He has written for First Things and The Weekly Standard.


  1. Karlin and Oakley identify the basis of good conscientious deciding saying “Conscience objectively seeks to conform to the truly just and good, and subjectively must be the working of individual judgment in a particular situation”. G Sullivan specifies objectivity as the difference from today’s primacy of subjectivity. Now “individual judgment in a particular situation” is perceived in light of the objective. The quandary here is its similarity to the “concrete circumstances” in Amoris subject to “individual judgment”. So we’re left with a vicious circle of return to subjectivity. Aquinas noted this problem in the thought of Aristotle, viz if desire determines the activity of reason which is to will. Aquinas adds it is reason that determines its end. The end of a human act must be deliberated in context of the conditions of the act which in Karlin Oakley’s description is the “situation”. Conditions encompass all the moral composites not simply a particular circumstance or situation. That includes natural law and divine law known by reason and revelation insuring that the act is ordered to God. What Thomas More had is what Henry abandoned. Faith. The bedrock of right reason.


    Since the advent of Obamacare and the U.S. Supreme Court decision establishing gay marriage as a right, Thomas More has been brought up again and again as the patron saint of Religious Liberty.

    Just one little problem: Thomas More did NOT believe in or practice Religious Liberty!

    Or, to be more exact, Thomas More did not practice or believe in the notion of Religious Liberty that was established in the U.S. Constitution and later adopted by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council.

    Okay, to be more exact, the concept of Religious Liberty in the U.S. Constitution and the concept of Religious Liberty found in the documents of the Vatican II Council are not exactly the same. But they are quite similar. And both are dramatically different from the concept of Religious Liberty held by Thomas More and the whole of the Roman Catholic Church in those days.

    So much has been written about the alleged or real controversy regarding Vatican II and Religious Liberty that it seems like a sin to say or write anything more about that. Yet, I have. Forgive me.

    But my Catholic conscience just cannot bear to see Thomas More brought out again and again as a champion of something for which he was never a champion. That’s just intellectually dishonest.

    In this article, Gregory J. Sullivan does mention what I’m talking about when he writes:

    “More became a ferocious polemicist against Protestantism and a prosecutor of its adherents….Heresy was rightly seen as a menace to the social order and a threat to souls; More’s conduct toward heretics was in conformity to the law that required suppression of heresy. Any notion of religious liberty as we see it today was nowhere to be found in More’s age.”

    Okay, if, as Gregory J. Sullivan writes, “Any notion of religious liberty as we see it today was nowhere to be found in More’s age,” why then are Catholics and others using Thomas More as an exemplar of today’s conception of Religious Liberty? Isn’t that like reinventing George Washington as an abolitionist?

    Thomas More is an exemplar of moral courage and political courage, and courage is never out of date.

    But there are literally hundreds or thousands of Catholic saints who exemplify moral courage or political courage.

    So why then pick Thomas More as an exemplar of courage in the political context, when he’s such a profoundly complicated and contradictory character on the matter of Religious Liberty?

    That makes me wonder. How about you?

  3. The Mirrors And The Smoke
    by Richard Rex
    First Things, August 2020

    A review of The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

    The article begins:

    The arrival of this final installment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, penned by “one of our most important living writers,” has precipitated an avalanche of adulation for its author and her great work, already decorated with two Booker Prizes and no doubt in the running for a third. The Mirror and the Light concludes a project that began a decade ago with Wolf Hall and continued in 2012 with Bring Up the Bodies. The attention these three books have commanded now compels a summative assessment of the project, which occupies disputed ground between history and fiction. Of course, it is ultimately fiction (it has won the Booker Prize, not the Wolfson). But it is not classic historical fiction.

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