by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I was 17 years old in 1966 when “A Man for All Seasons” — a film adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play — won recognition as the best picture from the American Academy Awards, British Academy Film Awards and the Golden Globe Awards. The movie depicted the final years of St. Thomas More’s life, when he went from being appointed Lord Chancellor of England by Henry VIII to being beheaded for treason.
I cannot imagine, because of the subject matter, such a film even being produced today, much less being awarded best motion picture. If you are looking for an action film in the genre of “The Terminator” series, this movie will disappoint. Even though the illicit love affair of Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn is a central part of the plot, you also will not find any graphic and sexually explicit scenes that are seemingly mandatory for contemporary films.
However, if you are looking for superb acting, clever and witty dialogue, beautiful photography and a plot that celebrates the virtues of integrity and courage, you will thoroughly enjoy “A Man for All Seasons.” The historical accuracy of the film’s plot as well as much of the actual dialogue is verified by “The Life of Sir Thomas More,” written by William Roper, More’s son-in-law.
Thomas More is a fascinating historical figure, a man of incomparable abilities. He was considered the best legal mind in England. He was a gifted author and maintained a large volume of correspondence with intellectuals across Europe. He had an incredible capacity for friendship.
Next to God, Thomas More was devoted to his family. He and his first wife Joanna had four children. After Joanna’s untimely death, he married Alice, a widow, and adopted her daughter Abigail. He and Alice also adopted the daughter of a member of his household, who had died. He became a foster parent for two other children.
More was a firm believer in education and essentially established a home-school academy for his biological, adopted and foster children. He was a pioneer in England for the education of women, insisting that his girls receive as rigorous an education as the boys.
Thomas More, as a young man, had spent some time discerning the possibility of a religious vocation. Throughout his life, More kept a very disciplined prayer life that was the foundation for his wisdom and virtue. He also made certain that his family and household observed a well-ordered prayer routine. They prayed several psalms daily as part of their morning and evening prayer. For meal prayers, one of the children always read a passage of Scripture with a brief reflection on its meaning.
Robert Bolt, the author of “A Man for All Seasons,” saw Thomas More’s fidelity to conscience as making him a “hero to selfhood.” From Bolt’s ideological vantage point, More was not a hero because what he believed was necessarily true.
More is to be admired because he remained true to his convictions in the face of powerful opposition. Bolt reflects the bias of modernity — namely, that there can be conflicting truths. I can have my truth and you can have your truth, even if they contradict each other.
In his recent biographical portrait of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, Judge Robert J. Conrad gives a very different perspective of Thomas More’s adherence to conscience — one that I believe is actually much more accurate to what More himself held.
Conrad describes the mindset of More and Fisher as not self-confident, but Christ-confident. Conrad portrays Fisher and More not as followers of self-will, “but servants of the one true God who spoke through his word and his church. Their strength of conviction was rooted in their shared belief that God was truth and that his church was a truth-telling institution.”
Their confidence in Christ and his church was not based on a naive or blind faith. They saw clearly the weakness of many of the individuals who were entrusted with the leadership of the church. Still, they were confident it was Our Lord’s church. No matter the frailty of some of its leaders, More and Fisher were confident that Jesus would not abandon his church. Conrad asserts: “The centrality of conscience is not located in the supreme self but rather in submission to eternal truth.”
Ironically, Anne Boleyn was executed less than a year after Thomas More’s execution. Thomas Cromwell, who prosecuted the case against Thomas More, was executed by Henry VIII a couple of wives and years later.
Queen Elizabeth’s recent death brought all of this back to mind. In the coverage of her life that was exemplary in many ways, reporters reminded viewers that she was not just the queen but head of the Church of England. I appreciated the spiritual messages that Queen Elizabeth communicated and the Christian virtues that the late queen attempted to exemplify.
However, Henry VIII’s claim to head the Church of England, in order to accommodate his desire to dispose of his wife and eventually marry seven others, as well as to take over the church’s properties and lands, never seemed to me to bear the marks of an act of the Holy Spirit.
Several centuries later, we are witnessing the fruits of this hostile takeover by a political figure of church authority in the chaos created by the Anglican Church’s evolving moral teaching that is not based on the Bible or Tradition but on popular cultural trends.
When I was in college, I went to bed many nights listening to a cassette tape of the final scenes of “A Man for All Seasons.” After being falsely convicted of treason and sentenced to death, Thomas More eloquently articulates the rationale for his refusal to take an oath that not only proclaimed Anne Boleyn as queen of England, but bestowed upon the king the title Head of the Church. More declares the Oath of Supremacy to be contrary to the Magna Carta and English law that guaranteed religious freedom, but, more importantly, a violation of the authority of the church as instituted by Jesus.
I listened over and over again to More’s courageous defense of marriage and the church, hoping that somehow I would absorb the saint’s wisdom and virtue. Indeed, Thomas More is a man for all seasons and times. He witnessed to the truth even when it cost him position, prestige, financial security, personal freedom, and, eventually, his life in this world.
Amazingly, he expressed gratitude to the king for his imprisonment, because it gave him time for prayer and reflection. While physically confined, he remained free in the much more important sense to witness to truth. Thomas More approached his execution serenely, because he was confident it was hastening his entrance to the heavenly kingdom.
As we face attacks on marriage, the family, the sanctity of life, the church and her moral teaching in our own time, let us beseech this saint for all seasons to pray for us until, in his words, “we merrily meet in heaven.”