Robert Bolt’s play about the martyrdom of Saint Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, has seen a lot of them come and go since its premiere in 1960, perhaps because so much of its dialogue is worth the remembering.
Consider this scene. Richard Rich, the man who will betray him, has just left More’s home. More’s wife Alice and his daughter Margaret sense the treachery of which Rich is capable, but it’s More’s headstrong son-in-law, William Roper, who is the first to speak.
ROPER Arrest him.
MORE For what?
ALICE He’s dangerous!
ROPER For libel; he’s a spy.
ALICE He is! Arrest him!
MARGARET Father, that man’s bad.
MORE There is no law against that.
ROPER There is! God’s law!
MORE Then God can arrest him.
ROPER Sophistication upon sophistication!
MORE No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal.
ROPER Then you set man’s law above God’s!
MORE No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact — I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God.
ALICE While you talk, he’s gone!
MORE And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
ROPER So you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE (Roused and excited). Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
What made More a superb lawyer was his learning, and his respect for the lethargy of law. He understood that the devil himself must be fought with measure, lest we unleash still greater evil. Come the end, he would draw a line and stand fast upon one side, but, until then, he was reluctant to see adversaries everywhere.
As Americans we’re accustomed to politicians arguing that the other party doesn’t have America’s best interest at heart, and, sadly, we tolerate challenging the very patriotism of our opponents. Those aren’t qualities that we should import into our life as Church. The very word “Catholic” suggests that the partisanship that characterizes American politics has no place in our communion.
These days, the American Catholic Church would do well to imitate Thomas More. Even when our consciences insist that we are in the right, we should be reluctant to presume that we alone are the living branch of Christ’s vine, that those who disagree are not. “When the devil turns round,” we need each other.
Yes, one should worry that the bishops have judged American religious sisters too quickly, but — by God’s grace and our response to it — most of us aren’t vowed religious or bishops. The rest should be reluctant to pass judgement upon either. Question? Yes! Often and with alacrity. Pass judgement? Slowly and with reluctance. No one should coerce the mind, but everyone ought to corral the tongue.
Christ’s Church is a luxuriant vine; its shoots, hard to trace. Consider the reception that Saint Paul received in Judea. “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). The Jerusalem Church had good cause to be wary of Paul. He wasn’t given a hearing because he was a known enemy of the Church. And when they did listen, many could find reason to reject his vision of a Gospel open to Gentiles, one that no longer observed the rituals of Torah. It would radically transform the Church that they knew. And yet Paul was Christ’s vine, spreading further than pruners thought prudent.
Of course, Roper was right. Richard Rich was treacherous, but the man we call Saint Thomas More was also rightly reluctant to pass premature judgement. It’s not enough that our gut tells us that we are right and the other wrong, not when it comes to discerning the very purpose of Christ at work in the world. “For God is greater than our hearts and knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20).
Christ is the vine; we are the branches. Those who would counsel the Church where to prune, must attend prayerfully and patiently, because sometimes, when least expected, branches thought barren bear fruit. Fruit we will need, when the devil turns round.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein