A new exhibit is open daily at the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C., until March 31, 2017. Its title — “God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More” — refers to More’s last words before being beheaded: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”
The exhibit zeroes in on the events leading to More’s execution by King Henry VIII, beginning with Pope Clement VII’s refusal to declare null Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The King responded by proclaiming himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England so that he could grant himself the annulment and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. More knew that publicly opposing the king would endanger his family, so he resigned as Chancellor of England and kept silent. But because of More’s reputation for learning and virtue, Henry was determined to have More approve his marriage, and consequently enacted a law requiring his subjects to acknowledge his headship of the English Church. When More refused to do so, he was imprisoned, convicted of treason, and beheaded.
So, More lost his head because he was willing to give his life for the truth. Henry wanted to believe that he could dissolve his marriage on his own authority, and wanted More to support him in this. More refused, bearing witness to the truths of papal authority and the indissolubility of marriage.
While arguing that More’s example helped promote the spread of religious liberty in America and the world, the exhibit also describes the history of anti-Catholicism in the U.S., and ends with an ominous quote from G. K. Chesterton: Thomas More “is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death … but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years time.”
What does Chesterton mean? More is particularly relevant to our times because he was a martyr for the liberty that is now threatened by the American government’s increasing efforts to force Catholics to act against their consciences on such issues as contraception and gay marriage.
The exhibit is spot on about More’s relevance for our times, as Christians are facing an attack by government authority on the truth about marriage. Just as Henry denied its indissolubility, today our government denies that it is solely between a man and a woman, and that contraception is contrary to its very nature. Like Henry, our government wishes to compel our assent to what we know to be untrue. Like More, we must respond by witnessing to the truth, even if it means suffering persecution, which will come.