Renaissance saint and scholar

A THOMAS MORE SOURCE BOOK.Edited by Gerard B. Wegener and Stephen W. Smith (The Catholic University of America Press, P.O. Box 50370, Baltimore, Md. 21211, 2004), xxxii + 395 pp. PB $34.95.

St. Thomas More is one of the few intellectual and moral giants of the second millennium. He was truly a Renaissance man, being outstanding as a poet, scholar, husband and father, lawyer, statesman, and in addition to all of that a saint of the Catholic Church who shed his blood in defense of the faith. To this very day, 470 years after his death by beheading, he is looked to for inspiration by many serious Christians, and not just Catholics.

The life and manner of Thomas More are well known today because of the popularity of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, and the powerful movie based on the play. In my opinion, the movie missed the main point about More’s objection to the Oath of Supremacy. For the film presents More as a hero because he made an existential choice, based on his conscience, in which he refused to sign the Oath. Bolt makes him a hero because he made a choice and stuck to it to the end. But he avoids the question of the truth of More’s conscience. The real Thomas More refused to sign because he believed it to be true that only the Pope is the head of the Church because he was made such by Jesus Christ himself. Therefore no king could replace the Pope as the head of the Church. Consequently, to sign the Oath would be to deny his faith and so go against the truth.

Thomas More was one of the greatest men in the history of the Church. This source book is an introduction to the thinking of More. The first chapter presents the three earliest accounts of the life of More by Erasmus, William Roper (More’s son-in-law), and a short play about More by Munday and Shakespeare.

The following five chapters offer some of the writings of More on these topics: friendship, education, politics, religion, and his imprisonment in the Tower of London. The letters reveal a man who is totally sincere and honest, who has great personal integrity, who loves his family dearly, who is a first-rate lawyer and philosopher. More was not a theologian, but he knew his catechism perfectly and had a profound grasp of divine revelation and the truths of the faith.

In his letters he comes back again and again to the matter of conscience. He is very astute in his analysis of the nature of conscience and he strove always to be faithful to his conscience. So there was no place in his life for lies, deception, bribery, kickbacks, flattery or vanity. It is no wonder that St. Thomas More is a model for modern Catholic politicians who want to serve both God and country.

This book is an excellent introduction to the thought and writings of Thomas More. It does not include his main and most famous book, Utopia. Rather it is intended as an introduction to that book and to his other well-known work, The History of Richard III. I recommend the Thomas More “Source Book” to students, lawyers and politicians who want to know more about the greatest Catholic lawyer of the second millennium.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey, N.J.

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