Robert Bolt put those words into the mouth of Saint Thomas More in his play “A Man for all Seasons,” later adapted into the film of the same name. The script depicts the tribulation and final passion of the towering, but humble, figure of Sir Thomas More, a man whose life, example, and death, earned not only canonization, but was named the patron saint of politicians and lawyers.
The cathedral in the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, where many Senators and Representatives keep a residence, is dedicated, pointedly, to St. Thomas More. Would that more politicians and lawyers came to know the man rather than praise their own folly.
But it turns out that former U.S. senator from Connecticut and new CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, Chris Dodd, considers A Man for All Seasons one of his favorite movies.
Irony isn’t dead, just well hidden.
I’m very familiar with A Man for All Seasons. Probably watched it two dozen times. I’ve seen the play and read Bolt’s script. Slowly.
Dodd, and other Mario-Cuomo-esque, “personally opposed, but…” Catholyc politicians are just about the antithesis of the saint, Thomas More, but they can be found finding themselves in the character Thomas More whom they find on the screen in A Man for All Seasons.
Consider that for playwright Bolt, who was not Catholic, More was admirable because he had “an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and where he left off.” The drama of his life and eventual death was that “he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.”
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An apt description of More’s very admirable adherence to his conscience. Indeed, many who have admired the play and the film have left it at that: they see a man who stuck to his guns, took a principled stand on conscience, and would not yield even unto false conviction and execution.
Another line Bolt puts into the mouth of More, which probably inspires such Catholycs more, is what More says to Cardinal Wolsey in explaining why he will not support Wolsey’s effort to secure a divorce for King Henry VIII because it violates his conscience: “I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
Conscience is sacrosanct. We are obliged to follow our conscience, to be sure. However, we have a preceding solemn duty, and that preceding solemn duty constitutes the point at which More and the likes of Dodd, Durbin, Leahy, Pelosi, and the late Ted Kennedy part ways.
See, More understood that standing upon a conscience that is firmly convinced of error constitutes vice, not virtue. Before our stand upon conscience is virtuous and laudable, we must have a well-formed conscience: one that is formed by an intellect and will docile to Truth. If we are Catholic that means especially by adhering to the clear and indisputable teachings of the Church.
Bolt’s script does not touch on this point at all, though it was central to the “I” of Thomas More.
Thus the point of More’s martyrdom. Sir Thomas More did not resign from the chancellorship, submit to the Tower, and accept execution out of a solipsistic adherence to his own conscience, but out of love of Christ and an unbendable adherence to the Church which Christ established. He located his conscientious stand in the Bark of Peter.
King Henry, through Parliament, had ordered all subjects of the Crown to swear that the King was the absolute and supreme head of the Church in England, thus denying the authority and supremacy of the bishop of Rome. To deny the King this title constituted treason. Bishops took the oath. Nobles took the oath. Most everyone took the oath. And then there was More. (Nota Bene: There also, notably, was Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, who also endured martyrdom, but he was not the topic of the play and film.)
More, though history indicates he never had a driving ambition for higher office, had been raised to the lofty heights of Lord Chancellor of the Realm by King Henry VIII. He was one of the most important and powerful figures in England. He would not take the oath. He did not deny the King the title, but simply said nothing on the subject one way or the other. For his refusal and silence he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Eventually, he was tried and found guilty of high treason through dubious means.
Chris Dodd ended his time in Congress with a 100% positive rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League. There are other charges to level against him, but pause on that a moment.
Dodd made a “conscientious” stand on the right of a woman to forcibly end the life of the human being growing inside of her. But on what basis? The Church to which he claims fidelity has repeatedly, clearly, unequivocally indicated that abortion is intrinsically evil. His “conscientious” stand on this issue cannot in any way be contrived to be upon Catholic foundations; thus not in any way like Thomas More’s.
More would have recoiled, dumbfounded, at the notion that a Catholic statesman accepted the legitimacy of abortion. Even if not because of the facts what abortion is, but because the pope has clearly said it was beyond the pale, and therefore should not be considered as a viable option by any Catholic statesman.
And yet, Dodd, and other Catholycs still in the Congress, claim the Catholicism of Thomas More while adhering to a conscience that accepts abortion.
Dodd ended his Senate career after it came to light that he received sweetheart mortgage loans from Countrywide, a mortgage lender on the ropes and heavily reliant on the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac system. Dodd was charged with oversight of Fannie/Freddie as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, even while Fannie/Freddie contributed mightily to the bursting of the mortgage bubble which brought our economy to its knees.
But that wasn’t the only ethically dubious real estate deal. He also acquired, through a series of eyebrow-raising deals, a 10-acre estate on the island of Inishnee in Ireland’s Galway Bay, valued initially at $160,000 and worth much more when he paid a comparatively paltry sum to finalize the acquisition.
Another quote from the script.
Cromwell: I have evidence that Sir Thomas, while he was a judge, accepted bribes.
Norfolk: What? Goddammit! He was the only judge since Cato who didn’t accept bribes! When was there a chancellor whose possessions, after three years totalled £100 and a gold chain?
Dodd has a little more than that.
Dodd also pledged not to become a lobbyist when he left the Senate. Well. He is now the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, which makes him the chief lobbyist for Hollywood. Because Hollywood needs a louder voice in the public sphere. Or something.
This latter point makes the consideration of Dodd’s public career through the lens of A Man for All Seasons that much more apropos.
The truth of the matter is, I can see Dodd and his Catholyc fellow travelers in a few of the main characters in A Man for All Seasons. None of them Thomas More.
Take the Duke of Norkolk for instance. He was a close friend of More and tried to convince More to “come along, for fellowship.” An exchange Bolt wrote between the two when Norfolk tries to press More to accept the King’s oath:
Norfolk: You’re dangerous to know!
More: Then don’t know me.
N: I do know you.
M: I mean as a friend.
N: I am your friend. I wish I wasn’t, but I am.
M: What’s to be done then?
N: Give in.
M: I can’t give in, Howard. Our friendship’s more mutable than that.
N: The one fixed point in the world of turning friendship is that Sir More won’t give in.
M: To me it has to be, for that’s myself. Affection goes as deep in me as you, I think, but only God is love right through, Howard, and that’s my self.
N: And who are you? A lawyer! And a lawyer’s son! We’re supposed to be the proud ones, the arrogant ones, we’ve all given in. Why must you stand out? Goddammit man! It’s disproportionate!
M: You and your class have given in, as you rightly call it, because the religion of this country means nothing to you one way or the other.
N: Well that’s a foolish saying for a start! The nobility of England–
M: The nobility of England would, my lord, have snored through the Sermon on the Mount! But you’ll labour like scholars over a bulldog’s pedigree. … What do you value in your bulldogs? Gripping, is it not?
M: It’s their nature?
M: It’s why you breed them?
M: It’s so with men. I will not give in, because I oppose it. Not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites, but I do, l. Is there, in the midst of all this muscle, no single sinew that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s, but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!
M: Because as you stand you’ll go before your Maker ill conditioned!
N: Now steady, Thomas…
M: And he’ll have to think that, somewhere back along your pedigree—a bitch got over the wall!
The “but I do, I” sounds good to one seeking justification for a solipsistic stand. Dodd can say “I support a woman’s right to choose. I do, I.”
But, again, when understood in the context of locating one’s “I” in the Mystical Body of Christ, headed on earth in the bishop of Rome, it means something more pointed and important than a principled stand upon one’s conscience, and establishing one’s “I” in a stand contrary to Church teaching becomes that much more tenuous.
Norfolk stood upon seemliness among the elite of England, the bishops, the nobles, the upper class in general, and could not understand why More could not come along.
Then there’s Richard Rich. He sought prestige, position, power, and the spoils of achievement through whatever means necessary. He would have preferred the more noble path of employment by Thomas More, since being associated with a man of More’s well-known integrity would have meant more for him personally, but he was willing to sell his self to Cromwell for power, advancement, and spoils whenever and however he could.
Eventually, in the script, he delivered the perjured testimony that condemned More in exchange for being named attorney general to Wales.
And then there’s King Henry. He had written a book on the seven Sacraments for which the pope had named him “Defender of the Faith.”‘ But when the Faith got in the way of him having his way, he jettisoned the Faith and sallied forth standing upon his determinations and his conscience, because he believed he knew better.
When the Faith was convenient for him and his duties as King he gladly oberved it. But when the two came into conflict, the Faith was rationalized away.
There are so many quotes from the movie that apply to the case of Dodd and his fellow Catholycs that I did not bring into this post for sake of brevity. Share your favorites in the comments and how they put the lie to the “conscientious stands” of Catholyc politicians.