Seventy-two years before the fifth of November became a day to remember, there was another, and radically different, response by a Catholic to the state of affairs in the English Church. Rather than an attempt at a grand act of death and destruction it was small, the act of one man. Yet it did more for the Church than Mr. Fawkes ever could.
One of the great mysteries of the Church is found in the differences between these two events. In the more famous case several men come together with a plan to bring about what God must want, namely the restoration of a Catholic England. Yet it is obvious that this did no good for the Church and one is hard pressed to imagine that it would have done good if it succeeded (Charles I, II, and James II suggest that a Catholic monarchy had little chance in post-Elizabethan England).
The counter case is not so much an event as a non-event. In May of 1532 Sir Thomas More resigned the Chancellorship of England. Henry VIII was at the peak of his Supremacy game and it was a prime job of the Chancellor to support him, a job More could not perform.
The act of leaving his position had little effect on England. Thomas Audley succeeded him (More was preceded by another Thomas, and fourth followed after Audley. Bracketing them were a pair of Williams) and the country moved on. For More and his family it was nigh cataclysmic. His income dropped by 75% and his family was forced to live on a much smaller scale. It also greatly aggravated the king. More had long been a close friend (Henry often “dropped in” for dinner) but from the beginning More said that, if “my head would win him a castle in France (for then there was wars between us) it should not fail to go.” His resignation was ostensibly on grounds of health, but Henry (and the kingdom) well knew it was because More would not swear an oath setting up Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. The king was a proud man and this state of affairs was intolerable.
Over the next three years Henry (and his new Queen) grew more and more angry at More. His refusal to attend Anne’s coronation was broadly seen as opposition to Anne’s queenship. Action was taken. After several spurious charges (bribery, conspiracy with the “Holy Maid of Kent,” etc.) Henry finally found a perfect solution: make it treason to not say what Henry wanted More to say, namely that Henry was Supreme Head and Anne was rightly married to him. Finally, Henry forced More to . . . do nothing. More remained silent and only an overly broad interpretation of the law landed him in the Tower and a simply act of perjury resulted in his death sentence.
(More’s words upon his being given a death sentence are worth repeating: “More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.”)
Throughout his life More was a highly visibly man; Guy Fawkes was almost utterly unknown. We know the latter for what he tried to do, the former for what he didn’t do. But More is also known for the little things; he was above all corruption, sought justice for all, was a family man par excellence, and had quite the wit. He is also the saint of the two. While he was canonized a martyr, one could imagine a canonization for a holy life as well. It was not his great acts that made him holy, but the small ones: the delight in his family, the words of comfort, the heart turned to heaven (when his wife accused him of playing the fool by not swearing and thus missing out on the comforts of home he replied “Is not this house as nigh heaven as mine own?”).
More and Fawkes both sought to influence the highest authority of their land. Both sought to make their country better by their actions. Both prayed “thy kingdom come.” Both died because of their belief. But only one sought the best for this authority; only one desired a better country of better people; only one expected the kingdom to not be of this earth; only one chose to die now rather than eternally. Only one is a saint.
St. Thomas More is a saint in the richest way; he is truly human, a rich and multifaceted individual. I leave the last words to (the Anglican) Jonathan Swift and William Roper, More’s son-in-law. Swift tells us More was “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced.” And Roper leaves us with a phrase that echoes to even our day: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
Justin Burgard considers himself a Theophilotitionist. He holds a BA in English Lit from Montana State University and is working on an MA in Philosophy and one in Theology. If you ask, he will regale you on the 37 novels he is planning to write.