Dear John, Please write a letter

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Saint Thomas More (1478–1535), as we Catholics call him, was a man of principle. Confronted by King Henry VIII’s Oath of Supremacy (1534), in which the swearer of the Oath held that the king was

the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall

More knew that the phrase “in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall,” had finally boxed him in. As an observant Catholic he broke no sweat saying that a king was completely in charge in his country when it came to ‘temporal things’ (roads, bridges, the military, the funding of the government). But for that selfsame monarch to wrest away from the Pope all leadership of the Christian Church in his domain was simply not possible. The Pope was the Bishop of Rome, who as descendent of St. Peter the Apostle tended to spiritual and ecclesiastical matters in all of Christendom — one of which was Henry’s failed effort to divorce his first wife so as to marry a second. Thomas knew that he could not support or utter language that stole the Pope’s prerogative and handed it to Henry. So when commanded to take the Oath, he took a lawyer’s tack, and said nothing. Qui tacet consentire videtur: he who keeps silence appears to give consent.

Henry’s Act of Supremacy of 1534 (from which the Oath of Supremacy derived) effectively made the church and state in England to be one, and that same year’s Treasons Act made any conscious infraction of Henry’s religious supremacy to be an act of treason. So in a court trial flush with bad jurisprudence and perjury, Thomas’s silence was interpreted to be positive opposition to Henry’s Oath. He was convicted of treason and executed. A mercy: though destined to be drawn, hanged, and quartered, he was beheaded instead. After a month on a spike at London Bridge, his head was rescued by his daughter from being tossed into the Thames.

Thomas More was a man not only of principle, however; he was also a man of prudence, a different yet no less important virtue. He was an experienced human being, husband, father, and lawyer. He understood that, yes, at times life is lived on the firm ground of categorical commitments: always love your spouse, pay your taxes, follow the traffic signs, go to church. And never lie, cheat, steal, or be untrue to God. Always, always. Never, never.

Yet our rambunctious universe sometimes makes these commitments glance off each other, or collide. What does a husband do when his wife goes into labor on Sunday, when it’s time for church? It is prudence that lets us see how those categorical commitments can apply in complicated individual cases, how to detect narrow spaces between colliding big commitments, or even how to take advantage of those spaces. If you’re losing the game and are kicking off at the beginning of the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, never, never, start off with an onside kick — until the New Orleans Saints did just that, recovered the ball, scored a touchdown, and went on to win the game. More was no stranger to such cleverness.

Legislation prior to the 1534 Act of Supremacy did not yet have the fine-tuned language that would eventually cost Thomas his head. The 1531 Convocation of the Church, for instance, claimed that Henry VIII was “singular protector, supreme lord, and even, so far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the English church and clergy.” Thomas must have been relieved to find such language, as is dramatized in the following excerpt from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (act 2), where More is arguing with his son-in-law, Will Roper:

Roper: The Church is already a wing of the Palace, is it not? The King is already its “Supreme Head”! Is he not?
More: No.
Roper: You are denying the Act of Supremacy!
More: No, I’m not; the Act states that the King —
Roper: — is Supreme Head of the Church in England.
More: Supreme Head of the Church in England — (underlining the words) “so far as the law of God allows.” How far the law of God does allow it remains a matter of opinion, since the Act doesn’t state it.
Roper: A legal quibble.
More: Call it what you like, it’s there, thank God.
Roper: Very well; in your opinion how far does the law of God allow this?
More: I’ll keep my opinion to myself, Will.

Thank God for space in which to maneuver. Seizing upon the elasticity of the “so far as,” “the law of God,” and “allows,” More had room.

But not for long. In the interim between 1531 and 1534 Henry’s ministers continued producing legislation with ever tightening language, resulting in 1534’s Act of Supremacy, and its attendant Oath of Supremacy. In Bolt’s account (A Man for All Seasons [act 2]), More hears news of the Oath from his daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Will Roper, and is hopeful that he might be able to take it:

Roper: There’s to be a new Act through Parliament, sir!
More: Act?
Roper: Yes, sir — about the marriage!
More: Oh.
Margaret: Father, by this Act, they’re going to administer an oath.
More: An oath! On what compulsion?
Roper: It’s expected to be treason!
More: What is the oath?
Roper: It’s about the marriage, sir.
More: But what is the wording?
Roper: We don’t need to know the wording — we know what it will mean!
More: It will mean what the words say! An oath is made of words! It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it. Have we a copy of the Bill?
Margaret: There’s one coming out from the City.
More: Then let’s get home and look at it… Now listen, Will. And, Meg, you listen, too, you know I know you well. God made the angels to show him splendor — as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, Will, then we may clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where He only looked for complexity. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping, so let’s get home and study this Bill.

There was to be no escaping. The Oath of Supremacy was written in univocal, categorical language (“…the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall…”). No room, no shades of meaning. All More could do was stand silent. Having no control over the wording, he had to trust — to gamble — that the court would take his silence to mean consent. But in the face of a determined King and his ministers’ perjury, he lost the bet.

Thomas More had the entirety of the Oath handed to him, every word and phrase already given. What if he had had the opportunity to take some given words, add to them words of his own choosing, and the freedom to phrase things into a complete document? Could he not then have been able to speak for himself through language that did not slip the bonds of truth or common sense, and use his considerable skills in an effort to avoid a terrible outcome, surely for himself, in various ways for others, and even for the realm? He might have written with such persuasion that he could change the minds of those who oppose him, even those who imposed the oath-taking on him in the first place.

If only he had been in control of the wording.