St. Thomas More: Defender of Christendom
by Stephanie A. Mann
Although Thomas More was beatified and canonized as a martyr, reading his apologetic works demonstrates that while he lived he was a confessor and defender of the faith.
On July 6, 1535, St. Thomas More spoke briefly on the scaffold, proclaiming himself “the King’s good servant and God’s first.” He was echoing the direction his king, Henry VIII, had given him when he entered his service: “Look first to God and then to King.” More lived and died according to that priority, using it to guide his public and private life with integrity and grace: that’s why he continues to fascinate us. There is more to More than his martyrdom, heroic as that is. More, not Henry VIII, who gained the title by defending the Seven Sacraments of the Church against Martin Luther’s teaching, was the true Defender of the Faith. He mounted a defense of Christendom that is still relatively unknown and definitely misunderstood.
More dedicated the last ten years of his life to defending the unity and the integrity of the Catholic Church in England because as Richard Rex states in an exploration of More’s campaign against heresy in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More, he saw the threat of heresy to the common good—dividing society—and feared that these new heresies from the Continent, as opposed to the old Lollards, might succeed in their efforts. He saw that they would not reform the Church but fundamentally change and deny the established teachings of the Church founded by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Once we explore More’s defense of Christendom, we can see that his campaign against heresy is integral to his refusal to swear the oaths of either succession or supremacy. More may not have envisioned all that would happen once Henry exerted absolute control over the Church, but he knew England would lose its connection with the great cloud of witnesses from the Apostles to the Fathers and the Councils of the Church, that community of conscience he called upon at his trial.
Thomas More defended Christendom and the Catholic faith on as many fronts as one man could:
- At home, saving his son-in-law Will Roper from dalliance with Lutheran doctrines;
- In London, raiding warehouses to find illegally smuggled heretical books;
- As Chancellor, enforcing England’s heresy laws and fulfilling his oath to assist the Church in preventing heresy from influencing the Body of Christ;
- As an apologist and polemicist, stealing hours from sleep, writing tracts in response to Luther, Tyndale, Fish, and others;
- And finally as a prisoner and martyr, refusing to consent, when all else failed, to the dividing of Christendom in England.
We are so used to having lay apologists that we may not fully appreciate More’s achievement in this defense of Christendom. He was a pioneer.
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