By: Laura Carroll, Notre Dame
Every person will be required to choose a side in a conflict many times in their life. It may be over something simple, like which Jonas Brother is their favorite or whether pineapple belongs on pizza or not. However, at least once in your life, your beliefs will be tested when having to pick between different sides in an argument. The ordinary world may tell you to choose one path, and that path may seem tempting since you wouldn’t have to go against the status quo. Even so, the faith you have practiced over the years could be telling you to choose another path, one that will cause many to disagree and turn away from you. In these situations, you will seek a neutral path so that you do not have to reconcile the world and your faith to one another, but ultimately, a choice must be made. St. Thomas More was placed in this exact position during the early sixteenth century when King Henry VIII called on him to declare the king as the leader over the Church in England and the king’s new wife as the legitimate ruler instead of his recently divorced wife. St. Thomas More’s life is an example of courage for all those struggling to stand by the truth.
St. Thomas More was born in England to Agnes and Sir John More in 1478. Following in his father’s footsteps, More became a lawyer in 1502 after studying at the University of Oxford and the Inns of Court. Shortly after this, More confided in his close friend Erasmus of Rotterdam that he was seriously considering becoming a monk due to the influence a Carthusian monastery had had upon him when he was in London. However, because he chose to remain a layman, More was elected to Parliament in 1504 where he fought against the corruption of King Henry VII. Later, in 1505, he married Jane Colte and had four children with her. When she passed away in 1511, More married the widow Alice Middleton who helped him raise his four children as well as two adopted children.
After rising through the ranks of the English government from an Undersheriff in London to a Privy Counsellor, St. Thomas More gradually earned the trust of King Henry VIII and became his secretary and personal advisor around 1521. In 1529, More became the Chancellor of England, and one of his duties was to enforce the English anti-heresy laws. This role made him unfavorable among the Protestants. However, he was patient with the people charged with heresies, and throughout his tenure as chancellor, only four people faced the supreme penalty for heresy.
However, early in 1530, King Henry VIII released his decree demanding all clergy declare him Head of the Church in “as far as the law of God will permit” after having the annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon denied by the Pope. Shortly after, More turned in his resignation, but it was not accepted. He rejected what the king was teaching on divorce, papal supremacy, and the laws against heretics. Due to his constant rejection of these decrees and the sense of betrayal the king felt, More lost favor with the king. After holding the post of Chancellor for less than three years, More was allowed to resign in 1532.
In the following months, More remained out of the public eye and tried to be neutral on these issues. However, in March 1534, the Act of Succession was released which required all people to declare Henry and Anne Boylen as the true heirs of the English throne and to deny the authority of any foreign power, including the Pope, if they were called upon to do so. On April 14, 1534 More was asked to take an oath to declare his allegiance, and he refused. He could not, in good conscience, accept Anne Boylen as the rightful Queen of England nor declare King Henry VIII as the Head of the English Church. He was sent to the Tower of London and by November 1534 had been charged with treason.
More never denied that he was loyal to the king, but he would not take the oath that would place the king’s authority above the Pope’s and, in conjunction, God’s. On July 1, 1535, within fifteen minutes of the start of his trial, More was found guilty of high treason and he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Even though More had denied the legitimacy of the king as the Head of the Church, Henry VIII showed an act of mercy to More by changing his execution to beheading. Five days later More was beheaded. Before his death, More made one final statement declaring himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” His feast day is celebrated on June 22, and he has been made the patron saint of lawyers, adopted children, politicians, and difficult marriages.
St. Thomas More exemplifies the courage it takes to choose between one’s faith and country. He did not seek to hurt the king, but he refused to betray his faith by taking the king’s oath. His first instinct to remain low and out of sight and to avoid a public confrontation is a natural human instinct. No one seeks confrontation, but when they are forced to declare their allegiance, what one swears before the world shows where they truly place their faith. More could have chosen to have a long, easy life on earth as a trusted advisor to the king, but he placed his faith in something more, in someone who is outside time and who has control that extends beyond the limitations of any human ruler. For St. Thomas More, his faith was in God.
The famous motto from the University of Notre Dame, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” is inscribed above the east doors of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. The reason this motto carries a great significance for me personally is that it shows the order in which one should choose to place their loyalties. God appears first because He is the one in whom we must trust first. We can try to make it through life without God’s help, but when we have died and are faced with life after death, we will want God to know that pleasing Him was our primary focus in our life. St. Thomas More knew that God was and is his first King and that the king he served on earth was second. He lived his life according to this knowledge. He sought a peaceful way of showing the king that he disagreed with his actions, all while never acted out of hatred or spite. He did not seek martyrdom, but when he was faced with death, he embraced it and accepted it with a statement for all to live by. In this world, let us try to live as a good servant, but remember that we are “God’s [servant] first.”
Edited By: Rachel LeMelle