More is Less

Here’s the Pope (speaking in London’s Westminster Hall last week) on Thomas More:

I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ”good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

And here’s an extract from the largely sympathetic biography of More by the British writer (and Roman Catholic) Peter Ackroyd:

[More] epitomized, in modern terms, the apparatus of the state using its power to crush those attempting to subvert it. His opponents were genuinely following their consciences, while More considered them the harbinger of the devil’s reign on earth. How could there be moderation in any confrontation between them? He was, in large part, successful; he managed to check the more open expression of heretical opinion and thereby prevented it from being accepted piece by piece or gradually condoned. He also disrupted the community of ‘newe men’ in Antwerp and helped to diminish the flow of banned books into England.

In assessing More, we should, of course be careful to see him within the context of the times in which he lived. That said, for the pope to praise him to a modern audience as some sort of fighter for freedom of conscience is, once again, to reveal Benedict XVI as a man with a very selective view of history.