By Hilaire Belloc
[An address given at the More Memorial Exhibition in July 1929, before the martyr's canonization]
I COME to speak to you to-day upon the Blessed Thomas More, and I come to speak of him under one aspect alone; for what one man can say in the few brief moments of a public address should not, upon such a subject, touch more than one aspect, lest his audience be confused. But that aspect is surely the chief one in connection with such a name.
I come to speak to you of the nature of his sacrifice; not of his life, its scholarship, its humour, its worldly greatness, his voluntary decline therefrom; the affection Mosaic of Blessed Thomas More which he gave and received; the multiple humanity which has endeared him to those who least understand his last and tremendous act. For we all must remember that it has become the fashion among those who least comprehend or least love the Catholic Church to make certain exceptions in her favour, inverted scapegoats as it were, and to cite in history one or two Catholics out of the great host of martyrs and confessors and doctors and plain saints, let alone of common Catholic men and women, whom they deign to praise; there is St. Francis of Assisi, because he was fond of animals; there is (for some of them) St. Bernard, because he stopped a riot against money-lenders; and there is Blessed Thomas More—because when you are praising Cranmer, Henry his master, and for all I know, Thomas Cromwell himself, you must have some counterweight in order to look liberal, and broadminded. And Blessed Thomas More is there ready to hand.
Now all that, I confess, I despise as it deserves to be despised; nor am I here to speak of those other excellences of him which we deservedly praise, and for the right motives—his love of justice and of the poor, his contempt of wealth, his self-discipline in life, his merry bearing of the burden of this world—but only the fashion in which he left it.
What I am here to-day to emphasize is this—the Blessed Thomas More died in support of one particular isolated truth, because it was the naked truth, and for no other reason. He did not make a sacrifice of this or that—he had made plenty of sacrifices—he did not give up, as heroic men give up around us day by day, position and income and the comfort of those who are dearest to them for the general Faith. He 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.
Now let me discuss the magnitude of this act. It is of sufficient greatness that it was performed for one isolated point of truth. But there was much more. It was a sacrifice not supported.
This it is that I desire to affirm, to reaffirm, to repeat, and to repeat again. This is that to which I desire to bear witness, and which, had I the power, I would make prominent in every history. Not that this unique man gave up much for his conscience; that, to the honour of mankind myriads have done and will do. No even that he gave up life itself in that cause. Not even that he gave it up for one detached article out of so many. But rather that he found it in him to so act without support: a triumph of the will.
Now consider how men are supported in their rare heroisms.
There is in the first place the support of those who, weaker than the martyr himself, wish him well; those for whom he is a symbol, and who turn to him secretly as a flag-bearer, and by whom they hope perhaps to be later reconciled with that which they know to be the truth, but which they have not the courage to proclaim. He was not supported by an ambient fashion; he was not even supported, properly speaking, by a tradition, and—the most awful thing of all—he was not supported from within by anything more than that supreme instrument of action, the Catholic Will.
Newman said very well that we all die alone; but this is to die alone indeed! To allow oneself to be killed, by one’s own choice, in full life, rather than to pay the price of yielding upon one dry, narrow, intellectual point; having to applaud one and to support one and to sustain one neither enthusiasm within nor the sense of agreement without.
Let me put before you those two points. They are essential to and understanding of the scale upon which the martyr acted.
First, I say, he was not supported from within.
He had no enthusiasm for the Papacy; he had fashioned for himself no tradition of defending it; no habit, no formed body of argument and action in its favour. He did not defend the Papacy (in a day when its rights were everywhere doubted) because it was second nature to him. No: just the other way.
All his life he had been—as indeed, was every man of intelligence, judgment, and heart, in the turning-point between the Middle Ages and the Modern—a reformer in the full sense of that word. He had been in his youth the English Erasmus, denouncing with contempt, as did a thousand others, not only in the manifold and crying abuses into which the clerical organization had fallen, but many things which are not abuses at all, rather honest devotions, if a little exaggerated. His enthusiasm, the flame of his thought, his memories of sharp emotion in those affairs were all in tune with that flame of reforming zeal, which can so easily in such a moment be deflected into rebellion against the unity of Christendom. About this particular point of Papal Supremacy he had never worried. He had come out of a generation profoundly shaken in the matter; its intellectuals, contemptuous of the state into which the See of Rome had fallen, full of memories of the Schism and of the Councils, far from admiring the temporal pomp and what was worse, the mechanical revenues of the Papal Court. Had Thomas More’s death been a death for the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar, for the Most Holy Mother of God, for the golden light which is thrown across the earth by the movement of the wings of the Faith, it would be quite another matter. He would have been engaged, and the whole man would have been at work. So it has been with great troops of martyrs. But not with him.
He had in this matter of Supremacy closely examined the thing, as one might of any other historical problem: “reading it up” and thinking out the pros and cons. And at one moment—a man of very grave reading, an excellent lawyer with a brain like a razor for separating one category from another—he had hesitated whether the supremacy of the Pope over Christendom were man-made or not. He had inclined to think it a man-made thing. When he had thrashed the whole thing out fully and thoroughly, he came to his conclusion, as might a judge, without “affection,” without any particular movement of the heart. The Supremacy of Peter and his successors (he decided) was of divine origin.
So far so good. That one point being isolated—intellectual, not moral, in no way attached to the heart, nothing that could inflame a man—he kept it carefully segregated and clear. He was willing to admit the succession of Anne’s child; to take the oaths of loyalty of any degree and in any respect, save that one point of Supremacy. And did he run out to defend it with warmth? Far from it! He kept it in the background; he tried not to answer upon it; he followed the debates as a counsel for the defence, making all his points, reserving action.
All that is very cold and very disappointing. But he died—which is more than you and I would have done. And he died merrily.
Nor was this extraordinary man supported from without. I am not sure that such support is not of even greater value (though I admit that the idea is paradoxical) than support from within. Many a man and woman, I fancy, have died martyrs or have suffered some lesser inconvenience after having within their own hearts and intelligences suffered grievous assaults against the Faith, but consoled by the ambient atmosphere of Christendom. “I may through my own fault and negligence have lost my firm hold upon the Faith, but it is my duty to support others who are in better case. They all agree. They regard me as their standard bearer; and I will not yield.” Such martyrs, I fancy, will have a very high place; for to serve the Faith by an act of will is greater than to serve it without interruption from any human frailty. But at any rate, Thomas More was not of this sort. He was not supported from without.
After four hundred years we have to-day forgotten how the matter looked to the men of the early sixteenth century. The average Englishman had little concern with the quarrel between the Crown and Rome. It did not touch his life. The Mass went on just the same and all the splendour of religion; the monasteries were still in being everywhere, there was no interruption whatsoever. Most of the great bodies—all the bishops except Fisher—had yielded. They had not yielded with great reluctance but as a matter of course. Here and there had been protests, and two particular monastic bodies had burst, as it were, into flame. But that was exceptional. To the ordinary man of the day, anyone, especially a highly placed official, who stood out against the King’s policy was a crank.
We must firmly seize that or we do not understand the period at all. Kings had quarreled with Popes over and over again. In the matter of doctrine and practice Henry was particularly devout, and strenuously Catholic. Kings had been reconciled with Popes over and over again. For generations, the King of England had in practice been absolute master of his realm, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred papal action was but a formality. It would be bad enough to make oneself unpopular and to stand out and to look a fool in defence of one particular point of definition—which, after all, might have no meaning a few years hence, when Anne Boleyn should be dead, perhaps, and the two parties to the King Henry and Anne Boleyn quarrel might be reconciled again. That was the point of view (among other millions) of the Blessed Thomas More’s wife, and he was very much what is called a family man, tolerant of nagging. That was the point of view of pretty well all his friends. And it was the more difficult to resist because they loved him and desired to save him. Had they united in chorus to say, “This strong man is standing out; would we were of the same metal!” it would have been a support. But that was not their attitude at all. Their attitude was rather, “This imaginative and highly strung man, who has done more than one silly thing in his time, who threw away his great position as Chancellor and who in his youth published a Socialist sort of book, is doing it again! You never know what he will do next! Really, he is such a good fellow that somebody ought to argue him out of this nonsense!”
No, he was not supported from without.
Let me end by saying that he was not to be supported by posterity. There are men who can repose under the strain of an ordeal in the conviction that their suffering is a seed for the future. I will confess to the superstition that men like More have, in my judgment, some confused vision of the future. If he had, he must have known that his sacrifice was apparently in vain. Could he return to this earth to-day (and I am sure that it must be the least of his desires!), he would not find that he had sown a seed. He would not find—I do not say that he had saved the Faith in this country—even that the Faith had retained such a hold on English life as a reasonable man might have hoped for in 1535. Should the Blessed Thomas More return to life in this, his own country, to-day he would find the Faith an alien thing and himself praised as what I have called a “scapegoat the other way round,” a “scapegoat à rebours,” an exception which must be praised in order to give the more elbow-room for praising the vile spirits who served the court. At all this he would smile, being a man of humour; or more probably does now smile. At any rate, he has not the support of posterity.
If ever a man died alone, he died alone.
And the moral is clear. It is our business to give up all for whatever is truth, whether it appeals to our emotion or not; whether we have others with us or not; whether our mood concurs or repels. The intelligence is absolute in its own sphere. Intelligence commands us to accept the truth, and for the truth a man must lay down his life.
Let all those, therefore, who in defining the truth, though it be but in one corner and with regard to one arid thing, to them seeming dead, invoke the patronage of this very national Englishman. His fun, his courage, his scholarship will be of advantage to them; so also will his sanctity—if in such days as these I may speak of such a quality.
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Source: Hilaire Belloc: One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays, chosen by Patrick Cahill. Chap. XXI. Hollis & Carter, 1955.