On Sunday, as we were being bombarded with robo-calls, advertisements, television news segments and special programs focused on Tuesday’s elections, a significant commemoration quietly took place: the tenth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s declaring St. Thomas More the patron of politicians and statesmen. As those who were elected on Tuesday change their focus from campaigning to preparing to serve — and as citizens form concrete expectations of how they should exercise the offices to which they were elected — the figure of the former Chancellor of the Realm can serve as a concrete guide.
It was not without irony, or by coincidence, that John Paul II named Thomas More patron of politicians a decade ago on Halloween. It’s true, of course, that many politicians wear political masks, pretending to be other than they really are, often leaving citizens wondering whether what they promise is a trick or a treat. The real reason, however, why the Pope chose October 31 is because it is the vigil of the Solemnity of All Saints. By publishing his motu proprio on the vigil of that feast— rather than, for example, on More’s feast day in June — the Pope was dramatically emphasizing not only that politicians are called to holiness of life and heroic virtue in public service, but that it is in fact possible for them to become saints. The terms “saint” and “politician” are, sadly, rarely able to be juxtaposed. But they are meant to go together and John Paul II proposed Thomas More as a vivid illustration of how they do.
“There are many reasons,” the Pope wrote, “for proclaiming Thomas More Patron of statesmen and people in public life. Among these is the need felt by the world of politics and public administration for credible role models able to indicate the path of truth at a time in history when difficult challenges and crucial responsibilities are increasing. Today in fact strongly innovative economic forces are reshaping social structures; on the other hand, scientific achievements in the area of biotechnology underline the need to defend human life at all its different stages, while the promises of a new society — successfully presented to a bewildered public opinion — urgently demand clear political decisions in favor of the family, young people, the elderly and the marginalized. In this context, it is helpful to turn to the example of Saint Thomas More, who distinguished himself by his constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions precisely in his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice. His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue.”
John Paul II praised More above all for his testimony to “the inalienable dignity of the human conscience,” which with “inflexible firmness” he never compromised. Though a lawyer, parliamentarian and eventually Chancellor in an age rife with bribery, intrigue, and compromises on principles for the sake of particular political ends, More never capitulated. It was a time when King Henry VIII thought he could get away with proclaiming himself Supreme Head of the Church in England, declaring his own marriage dissolved, and despotically forcing his subjects to take oaths before God that he was right. But More refused to swear to something he knew in conscience to be a lie, even when it meant his resignation, the impoverishment of his family, his arrest, imprisonment, conviction by perjured testimony and beheading. His “passion for the truth” and his “sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality,” John Paul II noted, was what enlightened his conscience and made him capable of being faithful to the God who speaks in that interior sanctuary.
Visiting Westminster Hall, the site of More’s spurious trial, this September, Pope Benedict addressed this critical theme of conscience before four former prime ministers and hundreds of parliamentarians and diplomats. He remarked that More is “admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first.” The truly conscientious public servant, the Pope implied, always serves God first through listening for and heeding his voice whispering in conscience. The dilemma More faced, the Pope stated, is the “perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.”
More’s witness to conscience, giving God and the truth what is owed even to the point of personal suffering, is particularly important today, when many politicians misunderstand or manipulate the meaning of conscience as a justification for cowardice rather than courage, for disobeying rather than following the moral law, for serving the desires of powerful lobbies rather than God. When More followed his conscience, it meant surrendering his job, pauperizing his loved ones, and ultimately losing his life. When many politicians today cite their conscience, it’s often as a pretext for ignoring the truth God has revealed in order to keep their jobs, to please interested parties, and generally to enrich their families. They cite conscience while at the same time compromising it out of fear of losing their positions or otherwise suffering out of fidelity to God’s voice. Nowhere is this seen more than with Catholic politicians who preposterously say they’re following their conscience in publicly supporting the so-called right to abortion, as if God himself would be commanding them — rather than to defend the lives of innocent human beings made in his image and likeness — to champion the right of others to kill them. As More’s life shows, faithfully following God’s voice in conscience will regularly lead to persecution and suffering from those who seek to impose their will without regard to the truth; it will rarely lead to campaign funding, vociferous support and plaudits from abortion providers and other purveyors of evil.
In a letter published on Sunday celebrating the tenth anniversary of John Paul II’s declaration, the bishops of Pennsylvania suggested that More’s example is more vital now than ever. After citing G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 assessment that “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying, but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time,” they observed, “We are now in the age of Chesterton’s prophecy and there can be little question that Chesterton has been proven correct.” The prelates of the Keystone State noted that when Chesterton wrote his words, “totalitarianism was on the march with Nazis, Communists and Fascists all arguing that people owed their highest loyalty to the state and its beliefs.” More stood as a “powerful beacon of hope and inspiration, … a light in the darkness,” not just to believers but all citizens, precisely because he “refused to place the demands of the state before the requirements of his conscience and … insisted that there were objective truths that governments could not legitimately seek to override.”
We are now living in an age when many are tempted or even expected to compromise their consciences, when various state legislatures compel doctors and nurses to dispense abortifacient “morning after pills” in emergency rooms, when pharmacists are coerced by governments or employers to dispense contraceptives, when justices of the peace are forced to preside over same-sex “marriages,” when taxpayers are obliged to pay for abortions, and when medical students are required to participate in abortions as a mandatory part of their training. It’s a time when many politicians and citizens routinely compromise their consciences for personal advantage or out of fear of the consequences. It’s an age in which politics seem to be governed by power rather than principle. That’s why, the Pennsylvania bishops say, we need more than ever “examples of moral integrity,” showing all of us how “our consciences should stand for objective truth and not bend and shift to fit the changing fashions of the day.” That’s what St. Thomas More does.
As Pope John Paul II reminded us ten years ago, if a politician doesn’t become a saint — if he or she doesn’t get to heaven — ultimately his life has been a failure. Let us turn to Thomas More and ask him to intercede for all our public officials, that they may prove worthy not just of the title of “honorable” they receive here on earth but of the prefix “saint.”
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