St. Thomas More: Role Model for Modern Politicians

Gerard Wegemer on the Saintly Statesman’s Legacy

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DALLAS, Texas, JAN. 12, 2004 ( Politicians today could learn a lot from their patron saint, Thomas More, by looking to his mastery of self, rhetoric and moral issues.

So says Gerard Wegemer, a dedicated student of More who has written two books on the 16th-century statesman: «Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage» (Scepter) and «Thomas More on Statesmanship» (CUA Press). The former focuses on how More understood and lived the virtues in family and political life; the latter looks at More’s understanding of human nature and the elements needed for statesmanship.

Wegemer, a professor of literature at the University of Dallas and the founding director of the Center for Thomas More Studies, is editing a paperback series of More’s major works.

He shared with ZENIT how modern statesmen must follow in the footsteps of More.

Q: How is St. Thomas More a portrait of courage, particularly for politicians?

Wegemer: St. Thomas More, made patron of statesmen and politicians by Pope John Paul II in 2000, held the highest office of England under King Henry VIII, but gave up that office and eventually his life to defend fundamental principles of justice.

Although More ingeniously sought to avoid imprisonment and death — after all, he had a growing family to care for and a deep love of life — his love of truth and conscience eventually led to martyrdom.

More is a «portrait» of courage, instead of a mere sketch, because he lived courage in every aspect of his life: in the diligent attention to his family members and their education, in the diligent study of the issues in his professional and political work, in the diligent care for his neighbors and friends, especially God, the first of his friends, etc.

Courage for More was constant and he gave cheerful attention to duty in whatever forms that duty took.

Cheerfulness and good humor are the qualities for which More is most famous, even in his own lifetime. To maintain cheer in all circumstances, even on the scaffold, takes a remarkable courage from which any politician can profit.

Politicians are always under pressure and always face opposing and contentious views, so contentious that hatred and war can result. More mastered himself, rhetoric and the issues of his day to such a degree that he became the spokesman of his country and of his Church — his conscious objective was to allow the light of reason to reign, rather than the heat of emotion. Towards this end, he knew that humor played an essential role.

More was also a genius, yet nevertheless he trained himself for 15 years after law school before accepting a position in King Henry’s court. By that time, More was 41; his marriage with his second wife was settled — his first wife had died after the birth of their fourth child; his children were older; and he was prepared for the emotional, moral and political challenges that arose immediately.

It might be said that More is most useful to politicians today because he shows how one must educate oneself to be a genuine statesman.

For example, how do politicians train themselves not to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others?

According to More, the primary objective of education is the «inner knowledge of what is right» — «recti conscientia,» a right conscience — knowledge that does not depend «on the talk of other people.» Otherwise, as More put it: «A mind must be uneasy which ever wavers between joy and sadness because of others’ opinions.»

Here again we return to the centrality of More’s cheerfulness and good humor as a mark of his balanced statesmanship.

Q: How did More integrate his interior, spiritual life with his exterior life in politics?

Wegemer: As More is the first person to use the word «integrity» in the English language, your question goes to the heart of his attractive personality and of the reason that he was so trusted and beloved by his fellow citizens.

In the 16th-century play «Sir Thomas More,» written in part by Shakespeare, Sir Thomas is described as «the best friend the poor ever had» and he is shown to be so well admired that he stops a riot by his presence and his persuasion. As politicians know, their reputation is their most important human asset, and this is shown in More’s life as well.

More started every day in prayer and study, even — or rather, especially — during his busiest days as Lord Chancellor. He was convinced that God works through conscience and is present in conscience, but that the voice of conscience whispers only after sufficient study and attention.

As Pope John Paul II put it in his proclamation of 2000, St. Thomas More «demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience which is ‘the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul.'»

More relied regularly on the sacraments. He attended Mass each day; he had a lifelong devotion to the Eucharist; and he frequented the sacrament of penance, especially before making any major decision. He also led the family prayers when he was at home, which included the rosary.

Q: What are the differences between, say, John F. Kennedy’s position on his faith and public duties, as compared to Thomas More’s?

Wegemer: More studied so deeply that he saw how politics could be lived so that there need be no conflict between temporal and spiritual duties. That is why his last words were «I die the King’s good servant and God’s first.» That «and» is highly significant.

When Henry VIII insisted on manipulating the laws of England to achieve his own will, More took every possible opportunity to remind the King of the demands of justice. History has proved that More was right and that Henry was a tyrant.

Politicians today need the same broad historical and philosophical and theological perspective that More achieved through years of study.

Q: Recently, Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse appealed to Catholic politicians in Wisconsin to vote more in line with the faith they profess. What responsibilities do Catholic lawmakers have to vote in accordance with Church teachings?

Wegemer: Revelation gives light and clarity to principles that are needed to solve the complex issues of any age. This gift gives the Catholic politician an even greater responsibility to be a genuine statesman, that is, to find real solutions that take into account all factors and views but without sacrificing essential principles. As the example of More shows, the light of Revelation is a help for real progress, not a hindrance.

Q: The U.S. bishops recently called for more Catholics to get involved in politics. Why should Christians participate in civic life? How can the example of Thomas More guide Catholics who want to enter the modern political scene?

Wegemer: As I mentioned earlier, More formed and attended carefully to his conscience, and conscience reveals to each one the natural duties of real life. One of those duties is citizenship, the exciting and challenging endeavor of working with one’s neighbors for the common good.

More was a great citizen, a great friend, a great father and a great husband who was born in the heart of London, in a family that had been active for generations in every aspect of civic life. The character of St. Thomas More, in other words, did not simply happen, any more than the character of Pope John Paul II simply happened by chance.

The Pope’s strong and cultured personality, as well as his deep and learned piety, was rooted in generations of Catholics refined by extraordinary sufferings. And St. Thomas More’s exceptional statesmanship and human elegance were rooted in generations of a devout Catholic family immersed in London’s long tradition of self-government.

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