The Great Statesman Protects Marriage

by Carl Anderson

Today Thomas More is recognized as one of the great defenders of human dignity and the rights of human conscience. More had gained considerable fame and fortune as a lawyer in Tudor England. He became a great favorite of King Henry VIII, who bestowed generous grants of land on him and made him chancellor of England in 1529.

But More’s tenure on this pinnacle was short-lived, coinciding as it did with Henry’s break with the Catholic Church. Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, but their union produced only one daughter. Henry, preoccupied with securing his own successor through a male heir, wanted his marriage to Catherine annulled. For this, he needed a papal dispensation,which the pope refused to grant.

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The next five years were marked by a widening rift between Henry and the Catholic Church, which culminated in Parliament’s passing of the Act of Supremacy in March 1534. The act asserted that “the King's Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England.”  The measure also required English subjects to take an oath acknowledging the offspring of Henry and his new queen, Anne Boleyn, as the legitimate heir to the throne – thus acknowledging the legitimacy of Henry’s divorce.

During this period, More, while making every effort to avoid a confrontation with the king, remained firmly on the side of the Church. The Act of Succession imposed a fatal choice on him: he could either take the oath or risk indictment for treason. Choosing the second option, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in April 1534. While in prison, More was subjected to pressure from all sides to change his mind, but he steadfastly refused. Finally, on July 1, 1535, he was formally charged with treason. He was promptly found guilty and was beheaded on July 6, 1535. Exactly four hundred years later, More was canonized by Pope Pius XI.  Simply yet profoundly, More set the standard for all those of the Christian faith who serve in government when he said just before his execution, “Tell the King, I die the King’s loyal servant, but God’s first.”

Everything we know about More tells us that he cared deeply for his family. One reason he sought so desperately to avoid a confrontation with the king was to protect them. Yet finally More was to sacrifice both his life and his family’s security for a principle that gave an eternal meaning and an eternal unity to his family: the sacramental nature of marriage. For in agreeing to the dissolution of the king’s marriage, there was also an implicit agreement to the possible dissolution of any marriage. This was a point that could not have been lost on a lawyer of More’s brilliance. Thus one of history’s great statesman and men of conscience went to his death for a principled defense of the sacramental unity of marriage.

Excerpted from A Civilization of Love (HarperOne, 2008) by Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.