On a Small Point of Doctrine

Illustration credits (left to right): Portrait Study of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527); Henry VIII of England, by unknown artist after Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1537-57); Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo (1526).

He (Sir Thomas More) gave up life itself, deliberately; he accepted violent death as of a criminal, not even for the Faith as a whole, but on one particular, small point of doctrine—to wit, the supremacy of the See of Peter. (Hilaire Belloc, “The Witness to Abstract Truth”)1

Saints die for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Some are thrown to the lions or crucified; others die in bed. Some affirm the Real Presence, others the Trinity. We sometimes think that it might be nobler to die upholding the truth of the Incarnation than in upholding, say, chastity, as Maria Goretti did. But the truth is that Catholic teaching is a whole; the denial of any one of its teachings, when logically stretched out, undermines the whole order. And someone will always be found to stretch it out. Not only is this teaching of the coherence of the whole true on the revelational side of Catholicism’s content, it is also an integral whole on its philosophical side. Both reason and revelation belong together in one coherent whole. Indeed, we can say that if even one central doctrine, taught or understood as infallible, is, in fact, clearly untrue, the whole edifice falls. Belief would be no longer feasible.

In fact, men like Thomas More died for upholding a specific teaching of revelation. Today, if we are not in Muslim lands where doctrine is still the public issue in persecuting Christians, we are more likely to be discriminated against or persecuted for issues that are, at bottom, of reason. We have come to a point where the issues troubling the public world about Catholicism have little to do with the side of the faith that concerns the Mass, the Holy Spirit, grace, or the existence and structure of the Church. Except for the permanence of sacramental marriage, the main public problems concerning marriage and family, virtue and vice, are issues of reason. Revelation may confirm reason, but the issues themselves—be it contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion—are based in reason.

The modern world now understands that the best way to attack the Church is, not through its supernatural claims and positions, but through its natural groundings. The Church does not claim to have an official philosophy. But it maintains that any philosophy that does not acknowledge or reach the objective reality of the world cannot be compatible with Catholicism. This latter position is based on the fact and affirmation that the Second Person of the Trinity, true God, became man in this world at a given time and in a given place. If we cannot be certain that the world exists or that our minds have a coherent relation to it, we cannot be certain that Christ dwelt amongst us. All, thus, becomes doubt or illusion.

This concern about reason, we might note, is the exact reverse of the original Catholic approach to evangelization, to how to present itself to the world. Pope Benedict XVI spelled it out in his “Regensburg Lecture.” Generally, it has been thought that all men had in common, not faith, but reason. The Greek philosophers—and not just as Greeks—more than others, provided philosophic clarity to which revelation was addressed. Revelation, moreover, did not deal with everything. It was assumed that most things could, and should, be figured out by man himself in reason and experience. Thus, if the rational foundations or presuppositions to the faith could be explained, a common basis would be provided for speaking with, and living among, peoples of different persuasions, most of which had never heard of Catholicism. At the same time, on this basis, the logical coherence of specific Christian revelational doctrines could be presented in such a way that the content of revelation would not seem to be alien or strange, even in spite of issues like the gratuity of grace. But this position assumed a philosophia perennis that was itself open to reason in all times or cultures.

Thus, when modern philosophy, post Descartes and Nietzsche, became relativist and voluntarist, the rational foundation to the faith that is represented by natural law or a philosophy that knows what is, that knows truth, is undermined. If no order exists in nature or man, if everything can be otherwise than what it is, no position can be more valid than another. Truth and falsity, good and evil, disappear. Catholicism is left holding to reason in a world that denies its validity. This turn in philosophic background has the unfortunate consequence of making revelation stand by itself, rather like what happened in the Reformation with Luther’s position on Aristotle and Aquinas. When the link of reason and revelation was broken, sola fides became the only alternative, faith dependent on nothing but itself. Yet, revelation, even if philosophy is relativist and, therefore, of no use to it, has its own inner coherence. That is, its tenets are not themselves contrary to classical reason. They accord with, and balance, other revelational truths with inherent consistency.

In this sense, I would call all aborted children, like the Holy Innocents, martyrs—not to the faith, but to reason. Marriage is, and can only be, of one man to one woman. They are bonded to what is begotten between them. All good social and political order flows from these essential natural truths. Their violation will always lead to personal and societal disorder. It was proposed that contraception and abortion were good for development. Their result turns out to be a ruthless killing of girl babies and a decline in population. When we see the figures on these results, we cannot help but see the “logic” that carries out false philosophical positions to existential disorders in family and state.

In Belloc’s 1929 lecture on Thomas More, he sought to pinpoint the exact reason, in More’s mind, for his death. Belloc pointed out that More had no particular love of the papacy at that time. His family and friends did not see why he did not follow the rest of the English hierarchy into the Anglican Church. He did not deny Henry’s political powers. What he died for was the truth of the Primacy of Peter. But this primacy, as such, was not so much the question, as the primacy deciding on a marital case. Catherine was validly married to Henry, in spite of her previous non-consummated marriage to his late brother. Pope Clement VII himself had no authority in revelation to dissolve a valid marriage. His judgment was the rule that More followed. The pope qua pope, not the king qua king, was empowered to render the decision. More was given a choice between pope and king.

Henry, of course, had his way. He never sought to reconcile himself in his later marriages, as he could have, had he wished. He disposed of Catherine, and, subsequently, of a few other noble ladies by the same theory and route. Henry became the head of the Church in England, a title subsequent monarchs in England still claim. More had every worldly advantage to gain by yielding to Henry’s wishes. The only thing he had to lose was his soul, along with, of course, his head. But the drama took place in the head of Sir Thomas. Belloc pictures it as a starkly lonely decision that More had to make. This solitariness is why the lecture is entitled: “The Witness to Abstract Truth.” More, not unmindful of Socrates, died for a proposition, for an abstract truth. But it was a truth that upheld the good and dignity of what human life was about. Its violations are concrete, not merely abstract.

This title is strikingly contemporary. Boiled down, it is the issue that comes up over allowing the divorced to receive Communion, that is, whether true divorce can be acknowledged in the Church, whether it is a “right” or a wrong. It is not about the scribes and pharisees, not about Moses, but about Christ and his authority as passed down. No doubt, many initially invalid marriages may have occurred because of lack of consent or understanding. That just means that it is difficult to know in some instances. But this difficulty is not the issue. The issue is always, even today, Henry’s issue, though Henry later claimed that the invalidity of his marriage to Catherine was due to a later scruple about marrying one’s brother’s wife.

More, for his part, was concerned, not with the marriage, so much as with who had the power to decide. Divorce has become part of the culture. In this sense, Henry won control of the culture. But divorce remains also the greatest scourge of modern society, the root of so many disorders. The sequence of divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, artificial insemination, designer babies, separation of sex and reproduction, and euthanasia are logical regressions from Henry’s victory. More stands there, alone in his cell in the Tower, affirming the Primacy with his life.

The modern world has waited for and expected the Church, through someone in the Chair of Peter, like most other Christian denominations, eventually to agree with it and accept these aberrations as “normal,” as acceptable to God. The fact that it has not done so is, not just an affirmation of More’s witness, but a proof, as it were, of the connection of reason and revelation. Even what seem to many as unimportant teachings turn out to be part of the cornerstone on which the Church was erected. That we have “witnesses” to “abstract truths” is precisely the function, not only of a pope, but also of the scholars. More was a scholar who saw the intimate connection between mind and reality. He saw that the function of the Successor to Peter is to uphold clearly, wisely, and compassionately, the truths handed down to be explained and affirmed in every age. He saw that he must “witness” to this “abstract truth,” even if he must stand alone, and lonely, in an obscure cell to do so. Had his “witness” not been so firm, Henry might well have laid claim to rule, not only the city, but the mind.

  1. Hilaire Belloc, “The Witness to Abstract Truth,” in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More, Being Addresses Delivered in His Honour in Chelsea, July 1929 (London: Sheed & Ward, 1929), 54.
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.


  1. In his “Characters of the Reformation” Belloc also comments that More had come late to appreciate how essential to Catholicism the authority of the Pope was. Henry VIII had been more convinced of its Divine institution (in opposition to Martin Luther) than More. Since More was so dedicated to the reform of the Church, Belloc says he might have upheld the authority of the Councils above the Pope.

  2. Avatar GuestPriest says:

    Beautiful, thank you!

  3. Very good article. We have to take a firm and heroic stand for marriage.

  4. “… More, for his part, was concerned, not with the marriage, so much as with who had the power to decide. ”
    My wife was suggesting that she might buy into the newest definition of marriage. That’s when i told her that when she redefines marriage I get to redefine fidelity. She is OK with the old definition of marriage (and fidelity).


  1. […] The redoubtable Fr. James Schall, SJ, on the “one small point of doctrine” that St. Thomas More was willing to by martyred for — and why it matters today and always. […]