“I am the King’s true servant, but God’s first.”
The last words of St. Thomas More at his execution on July 6, 1535
Welcome to the first monthly installment of the Grand Knight’s reflection entitled, “The St. Thomas More Corner.” Why St. Thomas More? The answer is simple: St. Thomas More is the patron saint of lawyers and your Grand Knight is an attorney. During this fraternal year, therefore, an attorney who actually was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church shall receive top billing. Indeed, a large framed print of the official portrait of Thomas More, Chancellor of England, adorns the wall in my law office.
As all members of the Knights of Columbus know, the fourth charism of our Order is patriotism. In St. Thomas More, the Catholic Church possesses one of the greatest examples of a man who understood both patriotism and its limits. Born the son of a lawyer and judge in 1477, Thomas More was a prolific Catholic humanist scholar, authoring the classic Utopia, became a judge himself and, demonstrating his considerable political skills, was named Chancellor of England by King Henry VIII upon the death of Cardinal Wolsey. As Chancellor, More was the King’s personal attorney, in a position which, later in America, developed into the office of Attorney General of the United States.
As Chancellor, More unquestionably was a patriot of his native England. And yet, there were limits. When King Henry VIII and his wife, Catherine of Aragon (who the King originally had obtained dispensation from the Pope to marry, inasmuch as Catherine was his brother’s widow) conceived several sons, all of whom died in infancy, the King became obsessed with the possibility that he might not leave a male heir to the throne. Thus, he sought the Pope’s permission to divorce Catherine so that he could marry the
rather younger Anne Boleyn, who appeared more suitable to Henry’s dynastic interests. Catherine, however, was supported by her nephew, King Charles of Spain, and the Pope denied the request for divorce.
Ultimately, to obtain public authority for the divorce, King Henry VIII had Parliament, through the Act of Supremacy in 1534, declare him head of the Catholic Church in England over and against the Pope. Refusing to recognize that a secular King could usurp the Pope’s position and authority, More resigned the office of Chancellor and retired to private life. Unfortunately for More, prominent citizens were required to take an oath recognizing the validity of both the King’s second marriage and the King’s title as head of the Catholic Church in England. It was More’s refusal to take this oath that resulted in his being beheaded, along with his friend, Bishop St. John Fisher of Rochester, in 1535.
How many non-ordained, lay Catholic men can you name who have been canonized? St. Thomas More, martyr, is one. How many Renaissance Catholic Saints are the subject of a movie that won Best Picture? St. Thomas More, in A Man for All Seasons, is one.
Having experienced the First Degree ceremony, all members of the Knights of Columbus have heard the virtue of integrity extolled, in addition to charity. By resigning his powerful governmental office and accepting death rather than swear a false oath, St. Thomas More exemplified the meaning of absolute moral integrity. He also demonstrated that true patriotism, the fourth charism of our Order, can never consist of a “my country, right or wrong” attitude. Rather, our love of country must always be leavened and informed by the doctrines and moral principles of our Catholic faith. And if our country, the United States of America, strays from central and fundamental principles necessary for the common good as reflected in Church teachings, true patriotism requires us to oppose such error as well as our fellow citizens, politicians and media who support it. We must do so for the good of our country. To give but one example, we must defend the sacredness of human life, whether that life be an unborn child, an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease or a convicted first degree murderer. So says our Church.
Gentlemen, we should be our nation’s true servants, but we can never forget, as St. Thomas More recognized, that we are God’s first. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and unto dust we shall return. One day, each one of us will enter a Catholic Church for the final time—in a casket. And when we enter the Church building for the final time, canon law prohibits the flag of any nation from being draped over the casket while it is in the Church. To the contrary, the cloth of Resurrection will be draped over our caskets instead. Make no mistake: God claims us first, ahead of the United States of America or any other nation on Earth.
St. Thomas More, true patriot of his country but patriot of Heaven first, fully understood that principle. May each Knight of this Council understand it as well.
Benard A. Smith, Grand Knight
July 15, 2011