A Man of Both Conscience and Prudence

The Church, in Her wisdom, gives us many great Saints to venerate and imitate, spread throughout all times, places, vocations, and professions so that the omnipresence and catholicity of God’s salvation might be shown to the world. One great example of this marvelous diversity of the Saints is the man whose feast day we celebrate today, an exemplar of both conscience and prudence, St. Thomas More.

Thomas More was a layman and a lawyer, who was married, then widowed, then married again, and who achieved great sanctity while living in the world but not of it. He was a philosopher, statesman, and Renaissance humanist, who was a trusted advisor to King Henry VIII and who was known for his great wit and integrity. But most of all, he was a faithful and holy Catholic whose love for Christ and his neighbor permeated everything he did. Even as King Henry sent him to his martyrdom on the execution block, for refusing to accept the King’s adulterous “marriage” to Anne Boleyn and refusing to acknowledge the King as “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” More maintained his great love for the King and his fellow man for love of Christ, saying, “my poor body is at the King’s pleasure; would God my death might do him good,” and finally, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

What St. Thomas More is most recognized for, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is his role as a champion for conscience. As virtually all of England went along with the King, swearing an oath declaring the King to be the Head of the Church in England, St. Thomas stood fast, refusing to forsake his conscience, which told him this was not so. What many of his secular admirers fail to recognize, however, is that his stubbornness, strength of will, and fidelity to conscience were not symptoms of some worldly self-confidence, but rather came from his great love for Jesus Christ, whom he would not forsake, even if it meant the loss of his own life.

This is what makes him a great saint for modern times. While our world preaches a gospel of self-confidence and self-help, St. Thomas shows us how to have confidence in Christ, even when our own strength may fail. While positivity is king in our modern society of political correctness and people-pleasers, St. Thomas shows us how to say “No!” to everything unholy and untrue, as he said “No!” to the King’s adultery and to the swearing of a false oath. While modernity condemns zealousness as the vice of the violent and irrational, St. Thomas shows us how to be zealots for Christ and His Catholic Church, as he zealously laid down his life in defense of the true Church’s authority and statutes.

In addition, St. Thomas More provides us with an excellent example of how to live the virtue of prudence in a complex and confusing world. Although Thomas gladly accepted his martyrdom when it came to him, he did not actively seek it out. Rather, he wisely and prudently discerned that in his case, God was calling him to use every power and capacity he had to avoid death without compromising his conscience. He had a great knowledge of the law, as well as a fantastic wit (He famously moved his beard to the side while on the execution block, saying, “This hath not offended the king”), both of which he used to maneuver his way around execution, at least for a time, and to defend himself in Court. His prudence, knowledge, and wit bought him extra time to be with his family, bear witness to Christ, and perhaps save a few more souls before he himself was martyred and taken to Heaven. We would all do well to imitate St. Thomas More in his prudence, so that we would not only stand up for the truth, but also do it in the manner that is most pleasing to God and His Providence.

As the Common Man quips at the end of Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” the play based on the life of St. Thomas More, “It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends – just don’t make trouble – or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected.” But much harder is the road that leads to martyrdom and sainthood, the road the camel takes through the eye of the needle, the road to Calvary. Nonetheless, it is only this martyr’s road that leads to Eternal life. Only the martyr, who makes trouble with his Eternal Rebellion against the world, can be said to have truly lived.

So, let us imitate St. Thomas More as he imitated Christ, laying down his life daily for love of Christ and His Church. Let us accept the daily martyrdom of the Christian life in everything we do, so that whether our lives end in a final martyrdom or a peaceful sleep, we may then be numbered among the Blessed in Heaven.

St. Thomas More, pray for us!

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