Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thomas More Was Not "Unnaturally Fond of Torturing Heretics"

This past Sunday's NY Times Book Review includes a review of Bring Up the Bodies, the much-anticipated sequel to Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall about Henry VIII and his court. The hero, of sorts, in Mantel's novels about the period is Thomas Cromwell, whom Mantel sets off against Thomas More (depicted in Wolf Hall as an eager torturer of Protestants). The reviewer, Charles McGrath (former editor of the Book Review), writes: "In Mantel’s version, More is no saint, as he almost certainly was not in real life: he’s fussily pious, stiff-­necked and unnaturally fond of torturing heretics."

Let me be clear: Thomas More generally shared in the prejudices of his age and was complicit in practices (most especially the use of state coercion with regard to religious belief) that we would today regard as morally odious. That's just to say that he lived in the early sixteenth century and not the early twenty-first century, and we could have a lively discussion about how the Catholic Church should assess the sanctity of people with the benefit of historical and moral hindsight.

But a couple of further observations about the review:

1. McGrath's statement (characterizing Mantel's view) that More was "fussily pious" and "stiff-necked" is open to debate based on the contemporaneous accounts of More, though I'd simply make the point for now that More's canonization in 1935 was largely based on the manner of his death--the fact that More (alongside John Fisher and later joined by the 1970 canonization of 40 martyrs and the 1987 beatification of 85 martyrs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England) suffered martyrdom for the Catholic faith rather than acquiescing to Henry VIII's assertion of power over the Church in England.

2. It's another thing altogether to make the slanderous claim that More was "unnaturally fond of torturing heretics," for the scholarly consensus is that there is no historical evidence that More engaged in torture. As summarized by John Guy in The Public Career of Sir Thomas More (Yale, 1980), "Serious analysis precludes the repetition of protestant stories that Sir Thomas flogged heretics against a tree in his garden at Chelsea. It must exclude, too, the accusations of illegal imprisonment made against More by John Field and Thomas Phillips. Much vaunted by J.A. Froude, such charges are unsupported by independent proof. More indeed answered them in his Apology with emphatic denial. None has ever been substantiated, and we may hope that they were all untrue" (165-66). See also G.R. Elton, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Papers and Reviews 1946-1972, Volume 1, 158 ("It is necessary to be very clear about More's reaction to the changes in religion which he saw all around him. No doubt, the more scurrilous stories of his personal ill-treatment of accused heretics have been properly buried, but that is not to make him into a tolerant liberal.").

More was not, of course, a tolerant liberal and was an eager persecutor of heretics while Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. The number of heretics burned at the stake under More's chancellorship is generally agreed to have been six, with three cases in which More was himself involved directly. See Richard Rex, "Thomas More and the Heretics: Statesman or Fanatic?," in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More, ed. George M. Logan (Cambridge, 2011), 93-115. Obviously, we rightly regard that today as a gross injustice, but it's hard to see how that constitutes "unnatural fondness" for persecuting heretics, particularly in light of the many hundreds put to death under Mary I or Elizabeth I over the next few generations. Nor was More's involvement out of the ordinary for his time. As Elton writes (161-62), "There is every reason to think that among the purposes [More] hoped to fulfil when he accepted office he put high the protection of the Church against heretical enemies. In this, however, he was not at all out of step with the official policy of those years. At the time, in fact, both king and Commons repeatedly demonstrated their orthodoxy in order to rebut the charge that their actions against clergy and pope were equal to heresy. More was more zealous and almost certainly more sincere than most, but as an enemy of heresy he had, during his years as chancellor, nothing to apprehend from king or Council."


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"More was not, of course, a tolerant liberal and was an eager persecutor of heretics while Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532."

I'm not sure if being a tolerant liberal is one of the beatitudes. I used to be a tolerant liberal who thought it the height of insanity that Catholics would burn heretics at the stake, but when I heard some of the dangerous meanderings of Rev. John Hagee, I began to understand where the practice came from.

Posted by: CK | May 29, 2012 1:16:09 PM

The proposition that burning heretics would be viewed as morally odious cound be interpreted in either of two vastly different ways. I underestand that the "viewer" is one of us, in this day, what is it that is odious: 16th century burnings or 21st century ones?

Heresy in the 16th century meant something very different from heresy does today, so much so that one can view 21st century burning as odious and 16th century ones as necessary. A heretic in 1529 was the present day equivalent of an al Qaeda terrorist.
He was a man who set out to overturn the order of society, violently if necessary. And even with this translation, we have to understand that it was not an al Qaeda accused being tried for crimes in New York, but tried for crimes committed in, say New Delhi.

In some cases the treatment was hard to justify and in part it reflected Henry VIII's own insecurity rather than the evils of the victim. Most of that context is forgotten now. In any case, it is not necessary to speculate about More's character, as it is revealed by him in his book Utopia.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | May 29, 2012 2:33:42 PM

Joel Clarke Gibbons,

You say: "A heretic in 1529 was the present day equivalent of an al Qaeda terrorist."

I don't accept that. And even if I did, we don't burn Al Qaeda terrorists at the stake. (Although I am sure many people would love it if we did.) Joan of Arc was not a "terrorist," nor was William Tyndale. While in judging historical figures, we have to take into account the mores of the times in which they lived, there is no way to justify torturing people, impaling people, or burning people at the stake.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 29, 2012 3:18:43 PM

Shorter Moreland: "The important thing here is that More was totally mainstream in his eagerness to torture."

I guess it would have taken some kind of saint to abandon the bloodthirsty local customs in favor of more Christ-like behavorior. Er, some other kind of saint.

Posted by: WmBrennan | May 29, 2012 3:21:29 PM

WmBrennan: Not quite. More--so far as the historical record goes--did not engage in torture, and that's the precise historical claim in the review that I mean to contest in More's defense. He did oversee executions for heresy, the permissibility of which was (regrettably) a widely shared view.

Posted by: Michael Moreland | May 29, 2012 3:31:39 PM

I would like to hear More's thouths on the odious way in which the State of Norway condones mass murder of her citizens by Anders Breivik?

One function of the law is to reassure the citizens that it is on their side. John Paul touched on this Evangelium Vitae, by asking his a nation that did nothing to defend babies in the womb could then put others to death. Very cogent. I have another question: how could a nation wich is prepared to immolate thousands with nuclear weapons, which I think the Eliabethans would find it, well, odious, would be too advanced to execute individuals who threatened the public order.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | May 29, 2012 4:15:41 PM

Joel Clarke Gibbons,

You says: "I would like to hear More's thouths on the odious way in which the State of Norway condones mass murder of her citizens by Anders Breivik?"

Please explain.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 29, 2012 4:59:11 PM

Mike- I think I probably mostly agree with you, but I wonder if "torture" isn't being cut a bit close on your account, if burning someone to death doesn't count as torture. It's not quick, and it's designed to cause pain. It's not primarily a method of extracting a confession or the like, of course, though I think there was some desire that the pain would encourage those burned to recant their views. It's possible that some forms of execution used around these times were even worse- breaking on the wheel, perhaps- though I can't say I find the question of exact quantification worth answering. But this was obviously done in opposition to other methods (beheading, etc.) that would cause less pain, and done, seemingly, for the reason of making the death especially bad and symbolic. Anyway, it does seem a bit funny to say that he never had anyone flogged, he only had them burned at the stake. Perhaps your point is that the former would have been extra-juridical or illegal? I don't know enough to know that for sure (though I doubt it, from the little I do know)but that too seems only marginally relevant as to whether burning someone alive is torture or not. I also don't think it will work, as a matter of history, theory, or definition, to suggest that if death is the goal, then the action isn't torture. Why isn't the better view to note that More did engage in some torture- burning people alive- but that there's no evidence that he was more prone to this or more eager to do it (assuming that's right- I'm happy to take your word) than anyone else in the relevant position and time, and perhaps less eager than many would have been?

Posted by: Matt | May 29, 2012 5:02:45 PM

The weight of the Catholic tradition remains indisputably on the side of the legitimacy, at the very least, of the Church's use of her coercive jurisdiction over the *baptised.* Such jurisdiction -- not to mention the *obligation to exercise it under proper circumstances -- is one aspect of the Church's being a societas perfecta.

Posted by: Patrick McKinley Brennan | May 29, 2012 5:15:09 PM

"The weight of the Catholic tradition remains indisputably on the side of the legitimacy, at the very least, of the Church's use of her coercive jurisdiction over the *baptised.*"

Could this perhaps be one of the reasons why many Protestant sects disfavor infant baptism and favor adult baptism of choice? In other words, with infant baptism, there would be no "consent" to such coercive jurisdiction. Whereas by adult choice, such coercive jurisdiction would have the consent of the governed, so to speak.

Posted by: CK | May 29, 2012 6:59:44 PM

looking over Utopia, by St. Thomas More I find only two references to executios or torture or anything like that. there is no mention of heresy, but one reference to inter-religious conflict.

1. In Utopia, unlike England, there are no executions for robbery. He observes that death for theft is incommensurate, and further since most thieves rob from sheer necessity, even hanging will not deter them.

2. In a longish paragraph on religious conflict, he explains that it is unknown in Utopia, where the citizens understand that anything that divides the citizenry one against another weakens the polity and leads to foreign domination. There is complete freedon to argue and persuade without fear of punishment. He mentions that at an earlier time these was a lot of conflict, but it was resolved by banishing the instigator and since then there is universal agreement on the rule of religious liberty.

Bear in mind that his England was only a part of modern England, beset by enemies to the west and to the north, not to mention the pirate kingdom across the Irish Sea. England was then only a little more than the six Home Counties that surround London proper. Accordingly, it must have percieved itself as a small arc in a stormy sea.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | May 29, 2012 7:36:03 PM

Of course, it is difficult to know which is more frightening—someone who is unnaturally fond of burning heretics at the stake, or someone who believes God *requires* him, even if reluctantly, to burn heretics at the stake.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 30, 2012 8:56:14 AM

CK - "but when I heard some of the dangerous meanderings of Rev. John Hagee, I began to understand where the practice came from."

Hit up "Urban Dictionary" for the definition of "fatwa envy"...

Posted by: Ray Ingles | May 30, 2012 9:29:15 AM

DN, what is even more frightening is someone who justifies the determination that some human beings are not "persons" at all and can be killed or experimented upon in the name of human rights rather than despite human rights.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | May 30, 2012 9:49:47 AM

Matt Bowman,

I don't understand the attitude that there is actually only one "real" moral question—abortion. Here we are, discussing burning heretics at the stake, with a few commenters trying, at least partially, to justify it, and you are saying, in effect, "Well, abortion is worse!"

Meanwhile, the House today takes up a bill targeted against abortions for sex selection, and predictably, women who actually seek such abortions are exempt from all the law's provisions. The only people pro-lifers don't criticize for abortions are the women who have them.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 30, 2012 10:20:22 AM

Let me speak up a little, not on the historical question or on the review, but for Mantel's books, both of which I've read and thought were excellent, the first especially. Of course, Mantel's books are novels, not histories, and as novels I think they are very successful. They proceed from "Cromwell's" perspective and are unromantic toward "More," but that makes them all the more interesting as a contrast to wonderful but largely unsubtle works like A Man for All Seasons. They provide a different perspective on "Cromwell" -- one that, I would add, has much to do with the character's grief at the ill treatment and casual abandonment by the court of another cleric, Cardinal Wolsey. But the more (and more carefully) one reads, the more nuance one finds in the treatment, even if Mantel's sympathies are somewhat lumped. "More" is depicted as dogmatic, a snob, and lacking in a full sense of human feeling toward his adversaries, but he is also depicted as ultimately being brought to his doom by his inability to subscribe to a statement he believes to be theologically wrong and perilous to his soul -- a fact that gives him a particular kind of moral center lacking in "Cromwell." "Cromwell" is a fascinating character and, as a character, has much to recommend him; but by the end of the second book it is also clear that he is ambitious, driven as much by personal loyalties and animosities as by broader principles, capable of using many means to his master's desired ends and his own, and that what makes him a great figure also presages his own doom. I hope the discussion of the history won't deter people from reading these books as books.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 30, 2012 10:38:42 AM

The effort of St. Thomas More and other apologists for the burning of heretics to shift blame from the Church to civil authorities must reckon with Canon III of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which provides in part:

"We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy that raises against the holy, orthodox and Catholic faith which we have above explained; condemning all heretics under whatever names they may be known, for while they have different faces they are nevertheless bound to each other by their tails, since in all of them vanity is a common element. Those condemned, being handed over to the secular rulers of their bailiffs, let them be abandoned, to be punished with due justice, clerics being first degraded from their orders .... Secular authorities, whatever office they may hold, shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled by ecclesiastical censure, that as they wish to be esteemed and numbered among the faithful, so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church; so that whenever anyone shall have assumed authority, whether spiritual or temporal, let him be bound to confirm this decree by oath. But if a temporal ruler, after having been requested and admonished by the Church, should neglect to cleanse his territory of this heretical foulness, let him be excommunicated by the metropolitan and the other bishops of the province. If he refuses to make satisfaction within a year, let the matter be made known to the supreme pontiff, that he may declare the ruler's vassals absolved from their allegiance and may offer the territory to be ruled lay Catholics, who on the extermination of the heretics may possess it without hindrance and preserve it in the purity of faith; the right, however, of the chief ruler is to be respected as long as he offers no obstacle in this matter and permits freedom of action. The same law is to be observed in regard to those who have no chief rulers (that is, are independent). Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land."


Does not such "weight of the Catholic tradition" drag the "societas perfecta" down into the flames?

Posted by: dfb | May 30, 2012 10:54:37 AM

"Does not such "weight of the Catholic tradition" drag the "societas perfecta" down into the flames?"

Not if an elemental aspect of the "societas perfecta" includes the coercive jurisdiction over the baptised. As such, the quote from the Fourth Lateran Council is merely more evidence of that aspect.

Posted by: CK | May 30, 2012 11:16:52 AM

I won't reply to everything here, but I do want to clarify a few things I should have said in the original post and am prompted to say now in response to some comments:

1. Paul Horwitz is right--Mantel's novels are great reads, richly deserving of the literary praise they've received (unusual for historical fiction), and, notwithstanding the treatment of More, highly perceptive depictions of Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII. But it's good to note where literary license has exceeded history. I believe Wolf Hall is being made into a mini-series, so this issue will be posed again.

2. Matt Lister is right that I am making a distinction, for present purposes, between (1) extra-judicial torture and confinement, which Foxe's Book of Martyrs (and Mantel, fictionally) accused More of engaging in, and (2) the role of the Lord Chancellor in carrying out *ecclesiastical* punishments in Tudor England. My (contestable) assumption is that hindsight can more readily be reconciled, however uneasily, to the latter than the former, and it's only the latter that the historical record will bear imputing to More.

3. Patrick Brennan is right that the Church understands itself to have jurisdiction to coerce the baptized with regard to matters of faith, though he and I might disagree about whether the *state* may cooperate with the Church in doing so. I believe Dignitatis Humanae and the great mass of recent Catholic social doctrine on church and state rule out such coercion on the part of the state.

Posted by: Michael Moreland | May 30, 2012 11:49:00 PM

This is a very interesting thread. As a person interested in English history, I am now curious: what is the nature of the allowable "coercion of the baptized" mentioned above? How far is it allowed to go?

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | May 31, 2012 7:01:34 AM

"Patrick Brennan is right that the Church understands itself to have jurisdiction to coerce the baptized with regard to matters of faith, though he and I might disagree about whether the *state* may cooperate with the Church in doing so."

Interesting. I assume we are talking about physical coercion, and not moral suasion. Given the current interest in religious liberty, do you think that that state may permissibly interfere with the Church's exercise of its "jurisdiction to coerce the baptized with regard to matters of faith"? Or would that be an impermissible transgression against religious liberty?

Posted by: WmBrennan | May 31, 2012 10:14:59 AM

It appears that "coercion of the baptized" by the Church is a matter of some dispute in the wake of Vatican II and Dignitatis Humanae. Fr. Martin Rhonheimer wrote essay in Nova et Vetera on the topic that did not sit well with some people. I believe he concludes that Dignitatis Humanae was a real shift in Church teaching on religious liberty. Unfortunately, I can't find the Rohnheimer article. Presenting a different view is a paper available online by Thomas Pink titled "What is the Catholic doctrine of religious liberty?" in which concludes:

By the nineteenth century the papacy had moved to that distinctively modern policy
which the Church of Vatican II is simply continuing - a policy of living in peace with
and alongside Protestantism, as opposed to seeking to coerce it out of existence. And
so began to die the conception of religious liberty as being principally a canonical
problem. As a practical concern, the coercive jurisdiction of the Church became
increasingly an internal matter, its extension to the Protestant baptized of decreasing
practical relevance. Ultimately, by the twentieth century, the pressing problem facing
the Church was becoming that of states that were either indifferent to the Church and
her teaching, or that in increasing numbers aggressively directed their authority
against her. That the Church is herself a coercive authority would increasingly be
talked down or just ignored - at least outside the discipline of canon law itself, in
which the coercive regulation of the faithful by the Church is of course the very object
of study. The problem of religious liberty could from now on be taken as a problem
primarily about reaffirming the limits to the authority of the state in matters religious.
It was inevitable that sooner or later what in fact are broadly traditional limits to
native state authority in religious matters - how traditional they are we have seen from
the Jesuit theology of the counter-reformation - would indeed be reaffirmed, but in the
convenient and attractive new packaging of the language of a liberal conception of the
state. And indeed, though Dignitatis humanae was very carefully formulated to be
consistent with past tradition, it was also bound to happen that the declaration would
be misinterpreted, and a liberal conception of the state should, thanks to this
misreading, infect conceptions of the Church and her authority too, and in a way
disconnected from canonical reality. The political would annexe the ecclesial.

But the political case does not exhaust the subject, as the dogmatic teaching of Trent
has shown. And deep theological principles are at stake. Although the language of
Vatican II's declaration is often that of secular liberalism, when integrated into
tradition the fundamental structure really is quite different. Faith is free from
coercion by the state not because of some secular doctrine of simple respect for
persons owed equally by all authorities, but because, as Dignitatis humanae itself
states, our metaphysical freedom is oriented toward an end that transcends nature, an
end to which the baptized are directed through law imposed on them by the authority
of the Church. And this being the true basis of limitations to state authority over
religion, there is no reason why the authority of the Church should be limited in
exactly the same way. Religious liberty is a topic which we shall only fully
understand once we extract ourselves from the perspective of our immediate political
context, and reintegrate Vatican II and its decrees into the teaching of the magisterium
as a whole and into a richer view of the theological tradition. And so I have tried here
to begin to do.

I should say that the above is the result of a very rapid bit of research and skimming rather than reading, so it should be taken for no more than that. But my instant conclusion is that there are those who maintain that the Church always had, and continues to have, the right to coerce baptized individuals (though by what mechanism it would be done today I have no idea). And there are others who maintain that owning to the dignity of the human person, individuals may not be coerced either by the state *or* the Church.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 31, 2012 11:26:10 AM

Beyond the issue of St. Thomas More and the persecution of heretics, how can a man be called "fussily pious" and "stiff-necked" who expresses the hope that he and his judges will meet merrily in Heaven?--"More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation."
Desiderius Erasmas, who could not abide fussy piety, would certainly disagree with Mantel's characterization of "More"--"Friendship he seems born and designed for; no one is more open-hearted in making friends or more tenacious in keeping them, nor has he any fear of that plethora of friendships against which Hesiod warns us.... Nobody is less swayed by public opinion, and yet nobody is closer to the feelings of ordinary men."

Posted by: Stephanie A. Mann | May 31, 2012 4:13:56 PM

It still baffles me that people find Wolf Hall a worthwhile read. It's easy enough to understand why it won the Booker - it bows to the myth of progress and presents Cromwell as a modern, middle class liberal type living in an exaggerated version of history palpable to middle class liberal types who like to flatter themselves by throwing awards at those who think like them.

It's dishonest revisionism of the worst kind.

Posted by: T. Minos | May 31, 2012 7:11:12 PM

For someone not believing that Thomas More was not fond of torture, you go through a lot of trouble explaining that he was just as intolerant of other religion as most men of his time. SO you want to drag him through the mud before clearing his name?

Posted by: myrentstoohigh | Jun 2, 2012 12:02:11 AM

You sad b*ggers - desperately trying to prop up your "saints" who were savage killers inflated with pompous ideas remote from the realities of the lives of the ordinaru man and woman.

I despair of you.

Posted by: Richard | Jul 26, 2012 7:56:23 AM

I read Wolf Hall and several reviews of it. Surprisingly, none of the reviews even remotely addressed the question of historical accuracy. Of course it's a novel, but certainly one that wants us to believe that this is "how it must have been" (see http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/nov/05/how-it-must-have-been/?pagination=false). Is anybody aware of a review that actually discusses the historical details (btw I see a general tendency that book reviews don't care any more about the merit of the book - they either just summarize the book in question, or they plug the review author's pet ideas)? I sometimes had a strong feeling of anachronism - that it is unlikely that 16th century people thought, talked and acted like that. But then I could be wrong - any ideas?

Posted by: TM | Aug 6, 2012 8:44:37 PM

For example, is there any source for Mantel's depiction of More being mean to his wife and Cromwell loving and respectful to his, or is it all Mantel's literary license?

Posted by: TM | Aug 6, 2012 8:49:27 PM

In the 1996 film of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," Paul Scofield played chief inquisitor and judge Thomas Danforth. The film's director, Nicholas Hytner, said that Paul Scofield was especially interested to play the judge because he felt he knew the character already---as the "flip side of the coin" of Thomas More.

By that I took Hytner/Scofield to mean not that Danforth and More were moral incompatibles, but rather that the same character, given different settings, could figure in one case as the dissident and in another as the inquisitor.

I offer this not as some psychological key to the historical More, but as a point of reflection. What differentiates a Danforth from a More? One thing, I've decided, is whether the principles of our cause prompt us to make a sacrifice of ourselves or of other people. Maybe the hitch comes when our sense of dedication leads us to self-cast ourselves in the role of the defender, rather than a confesser, of our faith.

Posted by: MH | Jan 27, 2013 10:56:59 PM