When the Devil Turns Round

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.

ALICE            Yes!

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

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Legge
6 years 8 months ago
     I always loved the play about Sir Thomas Moore, The Man for All Seasons.  I first saw it on Broadway in New York when I visited in 1961.  Paul Scofield (Moore) was in England for the summer but his replacement, William Rodrick, was wonderful!
     Fr. Klein introduces Robert Bolt's play and the character of Thomas Moore as Moore refuses to judge (arrest) Richard Rich prior to his proving himself disreputable.  Klein makes a very good argument about our concern to follow our conscience which tells us when we are right and conversely when those that disagree with us are not.  This, as Klein continues, means that what the "moralists," (conservative Catholics, traditionists, etc.), for example, say & advocate should be viewed as based on their perspectives & beliefs-that they shouldn't be judged on where there're coming from.  "Question?  Yes!  Often & with alacrity.  Pass judgment?  Slowly & with reluctance."
     I'm thankful I read this at this time & agree that like Moore I need to become more reluctant to pass judgment on those that don't share my convictions.  Where to prune?  In many, many places over time, prayerfully & patiently.  In the meantime, I need to support myself by my service, effort & faith on the personal and social issues I have always been interested in focusing on-like Dorothy Day.
Kang Dole
6 years 8 months ago
"These days, the American Catholic Church would do well to imitate Thomas More."
Hopefully not to the point of having people burned to death!
Bill Collier
6 years 8 months ago
Yet another thoughtful reflection from Fr. Klein, seamlessly weaving the lessons of last Sunday's Gospel with one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies. The give-the-Devil-benefit-of-law scene of course also prefigures More's ultimately unsuccessful use of the law in his so-called trial, during which Richard Rich provides the false testimony that dooms More. There's sometimes nothing that can be done when the Devil fails to honor the legal protections that More would extend to him.


The latest from america

An extraordinary minister of the holy Eucharist distributes Communion during Mass at Transfiguration Church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
According to a report released by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University on Jan. 22, just 33 percent of bishops in the United States think the church “should” ordain women as deacons.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 22, 2019

When the poet Mary Oliver died last week at the age of 83, my social media feeds blossomed into a field of tributes.

Lisa AmplemanJanuary 22, 2019
Most of the undocumented immigrants who are in the United States have overstayed a visa and did not cross the border illegally, according to a new analysis from the Center of Migration Studies.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 22, 2019
The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019