St. Thomas More and the tribulations of our time

Will today’s Catholic, fed husks instead of the fruits of faith, clothed with felt banners rather than the armor of Christ, sheltered in ugly churches rather than beautiful ones, remain steadfast against persecution?

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher (CNS composite photo/Public domain)

State-imposed lockdowns, suspended sacraments, locked churches, city riots, vandalized statues, “cancelling,” educational upheavals—these tribulations rippling from COVID-19 have rocked Catholics and the practice of our faith. As the pandemic gripped the country and the months marched on, religious freedom came under attack from two directions: from state governments that curtailed the free exercise of religion and from the ascendant cultural left repressing the right to free speech, particularly on matters of sexual morality. It can seem that dark forces are gathering, soon to fall fatally upon our Church and upon ourselves.

Under this shadow we begin Religious Freedom Week tomorrow, June 22, on the feasts of two martyrs who refused to allow the evils sweeping through England to subsume their faith: St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. To find comfort, strength, and hope in this precarious time, we would do well to turn to St. Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.

Composed in the Tower of London as he awaited his execution, More’s fictional dialogue pairs a young man Vincent, who is panicking over the “the Great Turk” and his imminent invasion of the land, and Anthony, his dying uncle. The Turk, of course, is King Henry VIII, who imprisoned More for refusing to acknowledge his majesty as the head of the Church of England. The spiritual plight of the English people that Henry caused was remarkably similar to what the ever-expanding secular riptide caused this year. “What we fear the most,” laments Vincent, “is already happening: many of our own people are falling prey to him, or have made an alliance with him, joining him ahead of time as a way of keeping him from ravaging the land.”

Now this secular riptide demands that we become “woke” in acknowledging the false gods of our age, or be swept away, as happened recently to Virginia elementary school teacher Tanner Cross for speaking out—and alluding to St. Thomas More in the process—against his school district’s “pronoun policy.” To Cross, and to others facing “cancellation” for adhering to the moral law of God, More offers this encouragement, one that he also offered to himself:

A man who suffers in the cause of justice, who chooses to defend the right even to his own hurt, can gain comfort in the clearness of his conscience. Especially one who has been falsely accused of a crime and has had false witnesses rise against him, and who is punished and shamed before the world for it. He may have a hundred times more consolation than pain in his heart. Such are the consolations of a man who abides by the truth and is persecuted for justice during a time when white is called black, and right is called wrong.

Like many Catholics today, young Vincent shudders at “being cancelled,” that is, at losing his job and status in the king’s persecution, and he seeks his sagacious uncle’s advice in how to grapple with the attendant temptations and fears. More, speaking through Anthony, is stoic before his death, at equal parts gentle and uncompromising. “We can only think of suffering as a gracious gift of God that he gives to his special friends.” Whoever remembers this will suffer patiently because he “remember[s] that God allows his suffering for his own welfare, and he will be moved to gratitude. The grace of suffering will then increase, and he will find great consolation in it.”

Vincent and Anthony acknowledge that, when tribulation arrives, many of their contemporaries will chose their wealth or status over their faith. Such was the case then, and so it is today, when religion has been privatized as a personal commitment rather than a means to eternal salvation. Will today’s Catholic, fed husks instead of the fruits of faith, clothed with felt banners rather than the armor of Christ, sheltered in ugly churches rather than beautiful ones, remain steadfast against persecution?

For More, persecution separates the wheat from the chaff, and there can be no middle ground. “Christ will not take your service by halves; he will have you love him with all your heart, or not at all.” Nor can Catholics compromise portions of the faith—the moral teachings, for example—and still remain faithful: “Forsake one point of the faith, and you forsake them all, and you will get no thanks from Christ for keeping the rest. If you begin by setting up conditions with God…you will find that you are only making an agreement with yourself, and Christ will be no part of the transaction.”

More could speak so starkly because of his profound faith that the only thing of consequence in this life is God. The man locked in the tower can be more free than a king because the ruler is consumed by the things of the world while the prisoner abandons the world for God. The prisoner, in other words, is free to offer God the highest form of worship: his life.

Short of real imprisonment, Catholics require religious freedom because through it we show our love for God over the things of this world. By willingly leaving aside work to worship our Creator, we put the gods of our age in their place—one they never accept, for they are jealous gods. The temptations to renounce God and His Church will increase as secular Mammon engulfs more of our country and our fellow citizens.

As we celebrate and fight for religious freedom, let us call upon St. Thomas More for fortitude and inspiration, as there are few texts more moving than the closing pages of his Dialogue. We need not despair under pressure, the saint tells us, for if only we consider the kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ in His passion for us, “our cold hearts would become inflamed with the fire of his love, and we would not only be willing, but would be glad to suffer death for the one who endured such a death for our sakes.”


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 7 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

10 Comments

  1. If the secularist- and cancel-culture no longer even understand the vocabulary of Christianity or sanity, the advice of Thomas More (below) might still offer at least some encouragement. But, when the gangrene has settled into the Church itself, such “indirect approach and covert suggestion” probably will no longer serve the still-Catholic bishops now intent on maintaining/enforcing(?) “Eucharistic coherence.”

    “Whatever play is being performed, perform it as well as you can; and do not upset it all, because you bethink you of another which has more wit. So it is in commonwealth with the deliberation of kings. Suppose wrong opinions cannot be plucked up by the root, and you cannot cure, as you would wish, vices of long standing, yet you must not on that account abandon ship of state and desert it in a storm, because you cannot control the winds. But neither must you impress upon them new and strange language, which you know will carry no weight with those of opposite conviction, but by indirect approach and covert suggestion you must endeavour and strive to the best of your power to handle all well, and what you cannot turn to good, you must make as little bad as you can. For it is impossible that all should be well, unless all men are good, which I do not expect for a great many years to come” (Thomas More, UTOPIA, 1516).

  2. Not a coincidence that Bader died when she did so Barrett could join the Supreme Court…as it turns out just 2 weeks before the beginning of these troubles. God controls history. Mark 8:14.

  3. Witness of the Martyr Saints, a reminder by David Bonagura well suited to this moment in history, is a rather forgotten dimension of knowledge of the faith within our Apostolic tradition. Bishop John Fisher wrote as a saint would in his praise of the martyrs in that witness presaging his own glorious testament. Perhaps the strongest testament of sanctity amid the many extant writings of chancellor of the exchequer Thomas More is a letter he wrote while in the Tower to his beloved daughter Margaret. Background is that his wife and Margaret pleaded with him to signature the heretical pledge to acknowledge the King as primate of the Church in England. More ruminates to her his thoughts of what might be, commending Henry VIII for his forbearance allowing him to remain unharmed in the dreaded Tower [dreaded indeed first visit cold dank morning black ravens suspicious onlookers, colorful Beefeaters manning their halberds, the Tower ominous]. He questioned himself whether he was up to the task if witness required death, placing trust in Christ, hoping for steadfast refusal to sign, presuming fear and possible moral collapse, envisioning prayer that Our Lord would forgive him as he forgave the betrayal of Peter. Acknowledging his sins of the past likewise his just decision, the injustice of his predicament. Thomas More ends pleading with his daughter not to be overwrought should he be martyred, that he would thus avoid purgatory and be immediately solaced by God. That whatever transpired the good Lord would elicit good from it. His honest trust forever a model for us and now especially during these Dark times.

  4. Working together to minimize the death toll of the covid pandemic was an act of love. Catholics were never denied the ability to practice their faith. We were always able to pray and obey the ten commandments and love one another as Christ loved us. St Thomas More practiced his faith while imprisoned. The sky did not fall when we didn’t attend weekly mass—we saved the life of a few priests from covid. This article is an example of fear mongering. Our number one priority should be spreading the Good News of God’s Kingdom and stop playing politics.

    • Gerald,
      I only wish that we could have worked together as a community to mitigate the effects of COVID.

      This didn’t happen, though. Instead of motivational speeches and good leadership from our political leaders, we instead got petty, dictatorial lock-downs, divisiveness, and censorship. Where’s the love in all of this?

    • When imprisoned in the Tower of London for fourteen months before he was beheaded, unlike many other prisoners, there was no bitterness in More’s soul, no groveling before the king, no complaints about his lot. Instead, he wrote his deeply moving book, The Sadness of Christ, revealing his meditation on the suffering and agony of Jesus.
      Looking At A Masterpiece, chapter 28, The Inner Lives of Statesmen

    • What planet were you on, Gerald??? We were indeed denied an ability to practice our faith. Protestants are no doubt mostly OK with watching worship on TV. For catholics however, being robbed of the Eucharist for months on end was NOT ok. We were seeing families denied the ability to give beloved dead a proper CHURCH funeral and burial, weddings and Baptisms “postponed” perhaps NEVER to be rescheduled, because life has moved on for them and for many the “moment” has passed…..Incalculable damage was done to the body of the church by the shut down. . At a friend’s diocese in Jersey, the churches were LOCKED for months. In my diocese, we were fortunate that even though mass was prohibited, the church was open for private prayer before the tabernacle. Even now, months after our church reopened, many congregants have NOT returned. Will they ever?? Our diocese is suggesting it will return to the Sunday obligation in 2 MONTHS. The further delay went unexplained. Possibly to be REALLY safe they should wait another two years??? Because the message they have managed to put forward very clearly is that the state of the body is more important than the state of the soul. I guess the Bishops don’t read the Baltimore Catechism anymore. How they would lead us during a real persecution is something I prefer not to think about.

  5. “Short of real imprisonment, Catholics require religious freedom because through it we show our love for God over the things of this world. By willingly leaving aside work to worship our Creator, we put the gods of our age in their place—one they never accept, for they are jealous gods. The temptations to renounce God and His Church will increase as secular Mammon engulfs more of our country and our fellow citizens.”

    This article is a definite “one-two punch” to wake up our sometimes wavering minds in this fight to hold our Catholic faith high in this time of intense persecution of Christians—abandon the felt banners for the banner of Christ, the One who was slain for our redemption. St. Thomas More, intercede for us.

  6. Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher’s situation in many ways does relate to the situation of the Church today. In a manner of speaking King Henry VIII was practicing his own version of synodality. He appears to have had his own interpretation of the marriage tribunal, which is a hot topic today. Today the saints would have probably have been called rigid, and of being insufficiently inclusive. One wonders if something like the China agreement would have been negotiated in today’s Church.

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