The real Thomas More, relevant still

Around Christmas and Easter the mass media brings out of storage anything which has to do with religion — ABC airs “The Ten Commandments,” C-Span 3 runs an old Gary Wills forum taking questions and answers about Catholicism, NBC debuts “A.D.” and PBS brings from across the Atlantic, “Wolf Hall,” a revisionist history about the reign of Henry VIII.

Wolf Hall is based on a series of books (beginning with one by that name) by the English novelist Hilary Mantel. Unlike in the play and movie “A Man for All Seasons,” the hero by her telling is not St. Thomas More but Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell, who was the Protestant Lord Protector of England in the 1650s, after the beheading of King Charles I. Oliver was a descendant of Thomas’ sister).

In “A Man for All Seasons,” Thomas Cromwell is the villain working to get Thomas More either to affirm that the king is the ruler of the Church in England and that his Marriage to Anne Boleyn is legitimate or to deny those two items and thus be guilty of a capital crime. 

Mantel had a very negative experience of Catholicism as a child and is now an atheist, but she told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (in an earlier interview rebroadcast on Good Friday) that if she were to return to Christianity it would be to “the Church of England, founded by Henry VIII.”

Mantel told the Telegraph newspaper in 2012, “When I was a child I wondered why priests and nuns were not nicer people. I thought that they were amongst the worst people I knew.”

Gregory Wolfe, writing in the Washington Post, criticized Mantel’s work: “Questions about “Wolf Hall” have been raised not only by the Catholic faithful but also in the academy. Professor David Starkey, a historian and president of Britain’s National Secular Society, said there is ‘not a scrap of evidence’ for the narrative and describes the plot as ‘total fiction.’ Simon Schama, the respected Jewish historian and veteran television presenter, writes in The Financial Times that while he believes that historical novelists should have some leeway for invention and imagination, Mantel has gone too far.”

Defending More, Wolfe wrote, “Mantel demonizes More, turning him into a pinched, pedantic prig, ready to torture heretics at the drop of a hat. She seems to imply that he represents little more than religious violence and fanaticism. But the truth is that More and his fellow Christian humanists such as Erasmus were not only harsh critics of the Catholic Church but also ardent reformers. They were proponents of an educational program that relied less on abstract theology and more on great literature that renders the ambiguities and conflicts between competing claims to truth in experiential terms. The humanists of that era, including More, saw Europe succumbing to increasing polarization and ‘culture wars’ and held out a vision of dialogue and slow, steady change.”

In the “comments” section below his article, Wolfe responded to critics who claimed that More was a bloodthirsty tyrant when he was chancellor of England: “You asked the question: ‘Wasn’t Thomas More just as violent [as Thomas Cromwell]?’ The answer to that question is no, he was not, as the record shows. As to objective evidence for More using torture, the record is clear: there is none. [John] Foxe’s accusations [that More used torture] in an apologetic work do not constitute evidence. The book by [Richard] Marius, a reductionistic Freudian interpretation of More, has no standing in the scholarly community. And [James] Wood’s [who said that More would have been England’s Torquemada if Henry VIII had not broken with Rome] animus against More is a well-known adjunct to his larger animus against religion in general.”

It is understandable that Mantel bears a grudge against the Catholic Church due to the rudeness she experienced as a child and a young adult from the representatives of it. The bad examples of Catholics have often caused people to leave the Church or to give up believing in God entirely. In contrast to this, Pope Francis said on Easter Monday that the “most beautiful gift that a Christian can and must offer his brothers and sisters” is our “faith in the Resurrection of Jesus and the hope He had brought to us.”

The pope explained that we give that gift not just by our words, but by it “shin[ing] on our face, in our feelings and in our behavior, in the way we treat others.”

The Catholics that Mantel has experienced in her life apparently did not do that (or did not do so effectively, before she closed herself off to their witness). So, now we have an attack on one of our saints airing weekly on PBS.

Meanwhile in this country Christians who stand up for religious liberty are portrayed as bigots (see the article on page four for the Catholic/Southern Baptist response to the situation in Indiana and Arkansas). Again, like Mantel, many people in this country can recall negative situations they have been in (i.e., hatred, abuse, judgmentalism, etc.) when dealing with people of faith, with people who say that they speak for Christ. The Boston Globe (which had praised a similar law in Utah just a few weeks ago, which was mentioned in this space on March 27, but then joined in the lockstep against the Indiana law) ran a political cartoon on Good Friday in which an elephant (the Republican Party), threw a rock which bounced off the head of a man with a badge marked “gays,” while the elephant hid behind Jesus and claimed, pointing at Jesus, “He threw it.” At the bottom of the cartoon a smaller version of the elephant said to Jesus, “I was just expressing Your religion.”

Peter Steinfels in the article on page four warns against being quick to throw out religious liberty laws. His concern is similar to the lines that Robert Bolt places into the mouth of Thomas More, when arguing with his son-in-law, Will Roper, about the primacy of the law. 

Roper wanted More to arrest Richard Rich (who would eventually perjure himself so as to achieve Cromwell’s goal of convicting More of treason) on trumped up charges. Bolt has More say, “And go he should if he were the devil himself until he broke the law!” 

The son-in-law is incredulous that More would grant the devil protection of the law, but More explains, “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

One wonders if the politically-correct realize what danger they place themselves in by cutting down the Indiana law and others like it. 

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