Monday, February 2, 2015

Dismantling The Virtuous

Two English bishops have reacted to the depiction of St Thomas More in BBC's series Wolf Hall, an adaption of author Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both of which have won the Booker Prize. [See article here] Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury and Bishop Mark O'Toole of Plymouth have severely criticized Mantel and the BBC's depiction of More as a scheming villain, an unenlightened, humourless and severe man: a characterization very much in opposition to contemporary accounts where even his enemies recognized a singular good and learned man.  He is even being portrayed, Bishop O'Toole points out, as anti-woman when in reality he was far advanced in his attitude towards women for this time, making the education of his daughters as much a priority as for his son.

Given that Mantel's books, and the BBC's adaption are centred on Thomas Cromwell and really represent a panegyric for Henry VIII's most loyal and faithful servant in the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishing of his new church, it is probably to be expected that one of the foremost men who stood in the way should be demonized. As you read Mantel's books and watch the series you have to bear in mind that we are not dealing with objective or good history, we are dealing with a particular view which is profoundly anti-Catholic and every event and every character is to be seen in the light of that prejudice, most especially the sainted men and women who could not consent to Henry's schemes. 

In recent years some historians have been looking again at More, and in their revised histories the renaissance man of letters and virtue disappears to be replaced by a bigot who took pleasure in burning heretics. Such an approach to history takes modern attitudes and developments and apply them to the past rather than seeks to study and understand individual figures as they actually were in their own time. When this hermeneutic is adopted you do not discover history or historical figures as was, but rather events and figures distorted by modern prejudice. This hermeneutic does not shed light on past events or people, but rather lionizes the idiosyncrasies of the present. 

As explained in the article, St  Thomas, as Lord Chancellor, did some things we would not have done, or at least we think we would not have done them. One of his duties was to protect the integrity of the state, and according to the law of the time heresy was seen as an action against that integrity (it was not seen then as simply a religious matter) - in the eyes of civil law it created dangerous divisions and corrupted the subjects of the king. It had to be dealt with, and the punishment for those convicted of heresy was a mandatory death sentence. 

The death sentence remains on the statute books of many countries today and, agree with it or not, it is still carried out for crimes considered heinous enough to deserve it. There are good people opposed to it and there are good people who see it as necessary for certain crimes. The Catechism tells us that the state still has the competence to use the death penalty for serious crimes, but given developments in security and incarceration etc, it is probably no longer necessary, but it still leaves the option there. That is what we have come to understand, St Thomas More, as a man of his time, lived in another age with a different understanding.  He did not take pleasure in the execution of heretics - at one point he did say that the state and the people were safer now that a particular individual was gone. And lest we feel we can judge him let us not forget that we live in an age where we are told the mutilation and killing in utero of innocent human beings is not only permitted, but should be a right protected by international and state law: we cannot be throwing stones at anyone in another age. In the sixteenth century a few heretics were burned, today we wade through the blood of tens of millions of children. That is an awful reality many of our contemporaries are quite happy to ignore while trying to silence those who are working to stop it.

There was a time, not that long ago, when people respected others regardless of their point of view. In that age Thomas More was regarded by most people as a man of integrity and conscience and he was respected for it, even by those who disagreed with him. Indeed there are many in Anglicanism who admire him even though he was deeply opposed to the founding of their church because it constituted a break with the Church founded by Christ to facilitate a king who wanted rid of his wife to marry his mistress. Agree or disagree with him on that, he was admired for his commitment to what he believed. Today, however, such a man of integrity is no longer admired. Relativism and secularism have rendered those who stand by their sincerely held faith and views as dangerous, as bigots: integrity is no longer admired because it usually stands in the way of progress.

Thomas Cromwell is now the model, a man who shaped his views and opinions to facilitate the prevailing opinion, he could see when the winds were changing and from where they were blowing at any given time, so he changed too. In that Cromwell may well be a fairly modern figure, but a model? A man to be admired? No. However we can learn one lesson from the life of the real Cromwell - you may twist and turn to keep up with the fickle winds, but one day you will not be quick enough to change and before you have time to squirm the axe will have fallen. St Thomas stood his ground, lost his head but preserved his integrity and, we believe, won the crown of martyrdom and eternal life. Cromwell just lost his head.

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