Thomas More, Martyr of Traditional Marriage: Part Two—His Time, and Ours


In late polyphonic music the central aspect is the delicate interplay of voices without any single one of them taking precedence. In music of a century later we find the dramatic use of a powerful individual voice, but in fifteenth-century English polyphone the emphasis rests upon the intricate melody of many voices. The character and abilities of the individual are only of consequence as an element within the harmonious organization of parts; we do not know the names of the masons who created the bell towers and fan-vaults of the great fifteenth-century churches. This is not the world of Luther or of what has become known as post-Reformation culture, but it remained the world of Thomas More.

From Thomas More, by Peter Ackroyd

In this essay, I hope to trace some parallelisms between the moral shifts in Thomas More’s day and those in ours. The comparisons are, of course, imperfect. But I think they are also significant.

  1. Both eras have witnessed the devaluation of rite, ritual, and community—in favor of a greater emphasis on the individual’s core personal relationship (in More’s day, the relationship with God; in our day, that with a romantic partner).

The Reformers rejected the Catholic emphasis on rite and ritual. Certainly there was that which was worthy of rejection in the spectacle, mystery, and priestcraft of the Catholic system. (For a profound examination of the problematic aspects, see Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.”) And yet there was also glory and truth in the old Catholic ways. There was the glory (albeit problematic) of blithely worshipping that which is high and holy and gracious—as a willing, reverent, and trusting follower and a mere member of the community. There was the truth that we are united as a community and lifted through ceremony and ritual. (This is true in secular terms as well: think of the ceremonies of greetings and farewells; think of the pledge of allegiance or the presidential inauguration; think of family dinner or holiday celebrations.)

Perhaps the most important theological arguments of the day concerned the nature of the sacraments. Protestants eliminated all sacraments except those that were attested to in scripture. These they kept—and minimized. One feels that the sacraments within the Protestant world are something of a relic. For the new system emphasized above all else the individual’s relationship with God—a spiritual, emotional, internal affair. And what had these external demonstrations to do with that? Protestants were individual disciples of Christ who saw the old order as an oppressive hindrance to their respective relationships with God.

In our day, marriage is the only sacrament whose grand significance within the general culture’s imagination has survived the last thousand years. Baptism, the Eucharist, and all other sacraments have been relegated to the realm of religious eccentricities. But if the significance of marriage has survived, it has not survived undiminished. For most people today, it signifies a very different and much smaller thing than it did for most people then. It used to mean that two people entered into a particular type of relationship whose duties and privileges were defined by the community. Marriage was an “ordinance”—a “set order.” It was an institution, and so it made sense to speak of the [singular] state of matrimony. The primary purpose of this institution was to ensure that sexuality was guided into productive channels, and that the children of such unions would be provided for and raised in stable families.

Perhaps the second most important theological argument of Thomas More’s day concerned the proper place of the Bible. For Catholics, the Bible needed to be interpreted by the Church, in light of the communal traditions and institutions that have been handed down from the proper authorities. For Protestants, the Bible was to be read directly by everyone: the Bible itself was to be studied, rather than traditions and commentaries about the Bible. This admirable sentiment contains much wisdom—but of course, no text may be studied without some interpretive lens, and so the eventual result of the Protestant motto, “sola scriptura,” was that individual Protestants today are generally free to choose their own authorities, their own interpretive lenses, and their own interpretations or non-interpretations of the Bible, with minimal accountability to any authoritative structure. The churches themselves even cater to differing individual tastes: one often sees Protestant churches posting their menus of worship services on their church signs: traditional services at 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM; contemporary services at 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM. I have even seen a third category that meant, I take it, ultra-contemporary, though I forget the precise phrase. I did not attend the ultra-contemporary service, but I would bet that it was barely recognizable as a Christian event, emphasizing benign moral truisms and a multiculturalist sensibility while playing down any uniquely Christian message.

Marriage has suffered the same fate as the Protestant Bible. It’s meaning and interpretation used to belong to the community; now it is becoming more and more open to individual interpretation. For most people, it signifies the crowning of a romantic relationship with—hopefully—lifelong commitment. But even this minimal meaning is optional. Marriage has been deinstitutionalized, and is beginning to mean nothing and everything, precisely as the whim, wisdom, or will of the married individuals dictate. We write our own marriage vows, and anyone who has completed the appropriate paperwork has the authority to officiate at the ceremony or non-ceremony. Our culture has prominently posted metaphysical signs that advertise the marriage menu: traditional, contemporary, or ultra-contemporary.

  1.   Both eras have witnessed a surging emphasis on emotion and on self-discovery.

The Reformation helped give birth to a new awareness of internality—and a corresponding anxiety about the state of one’s soul. Indeed, Martin Luther’s highly introspective spiritual journey is emblematic of the archetypal spiritual journey of the generic Protestant, even today. Martin Luther was so filled with anxiety about his sins that he spent hours and hours taxing his soul with confession and penance. This period of spiritual despair ended only with Luther’s conversion experience, when he discovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone. With later Protestants, this spiritual anxiety tended to come on the other side of accepting Protestant soteriology, in the form of worrying about whether one is saved (or, as with the Puritans, whether one is “elect”).

Anxiety about sinful tendencies and desires (as opposed to sinful acts) is preponderantly a post-Reformation phenomenon, pre-Reformation introspectionists such as Augustine notwithstanding. Interestingly, though, the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic church followed suit, calling upon Catholics to confess the secret sins of the heart, and changing the nature of confession to focus on reconciliation with God rather than with the Church. Therefore, post-Reformation Catholics and Protestants are alike more introspective than pre-Reformation Christians. Even more interestingly, Foucault attributes the development of our current categories of sexual orientation in part to this historical movement towards introspection. The orientation of one’s sexual desire began to define one’s sexuality only after the sinfulness of particular sexual desires became a prominent concern.

In the pre-modern world, “good” sexuality was yet another instance of playing well one’s part: males and females had their overlapping but distinct roles, duties, and privileges; likewise, husbands and wives. In the modern world, while this role-playing continued, “good” sexuality became in large measure an internal affair, and sexuality became divided into various pseudo-scientific categories: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual.

The post-modern world, however, has attempted to reject the category of “the good,” especially as understood by any particular authority. As with the Bible, though, when authority is rejected, individual will fills the vacuum. “Good” sexuality, within the postmodern paradigm, is whatever fulfils the intentions of the individual. Enough of the modern sensibility remains, however, that the individual is generally imagined as having some essential self with particular desires at its core. The notion of the soul mate and the concept of an immutable sexual orientation are both products of this essentialist imagination. One looks inward to discover the truth about oneself, and then one lives in accordance with one’s true nature. We might call this the path of the sincere introspectionist, and it is a centerpiece of LGBT rhetoric. Yet this idea of the essential self is out of tune with the anti-essentialism of postmodernism, which teaches us, with considerable success, that there is no such thing as the fundamentally good.

My conviction is that postmodern thought is right to reject the essentialist self, but wrong to reject the category of the good. Thus, tragically but predictably, the popular imagination of our day embraces what is wrong with postmodernism while rejecting what is right. The sincere introspectionist is supposed to be uncovering a more authentic existence, but in fact the sincere introspectionist is merely playing a role—one role among others that a person may choose to play, and an inauthentic role at that. There is no escaping role-playing, in part because the whole idea of an essential self is simply wrong. Human beings are amorphous, indeterminate creatures, and we are thoroughly the products of our societies. Our culture is deceived into thinking that following one’s own desires is freedom. This is not freedom; it is to play the part of passion’s slave. Yet true freedom is possible—not through being “true to ourselves”—but through becoming faithful to ideals of goodness insofar as we are given to know them. (Or, to put it another way, through “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”)

  1. Both eras have witnessed the perversion of representative government by the will of the sovereign in order to validate sexual behavior that would otherwise have been beyond the pale of official acceptability.

Henry VIII consolidated power until he was able to work his own will within the kingdom. After co-authoring an anti-Protestant treatise (“Defense of the Seven Sacraments”) and being awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the pope, he realized that his own interests lay rather with the Protestant side than with the Catholic. On the Catholic side was the spiritual authority of Rome, which refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage. Henry VIII was carrying on an affair with Anne Boleyn and was eager to be released from his unfruitful marriage to Catherine of Aragon that he might publically take his mistress to wife. He attempted to bully the pope into granting the annulment, but the pope had more to fear from Catherine’s nephew, the King of Spain, than from Henry VIII. King Henry was therefore unsuccessful with the pope, and began soliciting Protestant-sympathizing clergy to convince him that he had the right to take the spiritual headship of the realm on his own lusty shoulders. This they were more than happy to do: their own respective careers and the Protestant cause would thrive together if England could be distanced from Catholicism.

Having been successfully convinced that he had the moral right, he bullied the clergy and the parliament into granting him the legal right, subordinating both nodes of power to the monarchy in the process, and subordinating the religious law to the civil law. Alas, there was no imminent threat from any Spanish king to help shore up his own subjects’ fidelity to their formerly espoused principles, nor to check the English king’s influence within his own realm. Few members of parliament and few clergymen dared oppose him openly. With some few exceptions, they dared only erect procedural barriers, through which the king ultimately powered his way. He was granted his annulment and his spiritual headship, after which he caused the parliament to pass a law requiring whomsoever the King might please to sign an oath affirming, in essence, the validity of Henry VIII’s acts. Such was the power of Henry VIII, and such the flurry of arguments to enable any willing person to justify to himself the choice, that none refused the oath (as far as I can tell) except for Thomas More and John Fisher. These two suffered imprisonment in the tower of London together, and were eventually executed in quick succession.

In our day, the sovereignty rests with the people, not with the king. Yet now, as then, the sovereign will has a duly appointed set of procedures through which it may express itself. In contemporary America, even more than in More’s England, the congress is supposed to be the source of law, and to represent the interests of the people through free and open debate. In More’s day, the king usurped this power and altered the institutions of his kingdom in order to bring his own behavior (sexual and otherwise) within the bounds of official acceptance; in our day, the judiciary has similarly usurped the legislative function in order to channel the will of the American people that certain expressions of sexuality be brought within institutional approval.

I have, implicitly or explicitly, given a few of my reasons for believing that the state need not and should not recognize a homosexual relationship as marriage. But my convictions on the subject do not and should not determine the law, any more than should those of Justice Kennedy and his bare majority of Justices. The Constitutional case for the alleged right to same-sex marriage is far weaker than Henry’s Biblical case for his alleged right to an annulment. The Constitution simply has nothing to say on the matter. Nor is there any good argument that the right to marry whom one wants to marry, despite of their gender, is deeply rooted in the traditions of the American people, and may therefore be considered a right that was reserved to the people, forming part of the right to liberty that is protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The utter lack of a good Constitutional argument means that Justice Kennedy’s opinion was barefaced judicial activism, even if it comes merely as the next step in a series of similarly activist rights-granting decisions. If any reader has not read the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, I would urge the reader to do so—both the majority and the dissenting opinions. Truly, as the Chief Justice said in his dissent, the Constitution has nothing to do with gay marriage.

It was for the people to grant or deny the right, through the political process. I do not doubt that the people would have done so eventually as a nation or within each state. They would have done so against my advice, but it would have been properly done, according to the Constitutionally mandated process. But instead of this, the order of governance was distorted in the rights-granting process. All is not well in the Union. For several reasons, of which judicial activism is one, there has been a power shift away from the political bodies and into agencies and the judiciary. This power shift is not less revolutionary, nor less disturbing, than the power shift instigated by Henry VIII towards absolute monarchy. In both cases, one of the intended results was the validation of sexual behavior that was patently wrong under the standards prevailing prior to the power shift. In Henry VIII’s case, it validated an adulterous affair. In our case, it has validated, among other things, pornography, abortion, sodomy, and gay marriage (all courtesy of the Supreme Court, and all in furtherance of sexual and/or expressive liberty, so called). In both cases, social institutions have lost their ability to restrain and channel the desires of the sovereign into socially productive directions. England had an uncontrolled monarch; we have an uncontrolled citizenry.

  1.   In Praise of More: Conclusion

The pre-modern world tended to exalt society at the expense of the individual; the post-modern world tends increasingly to exalt the individual at the expense of society. Thomas More’s Utopia was an attempt to reconcile, within his fictional world, the proper claims of each. The individuals of Utopia were happy and they lived in harmony with each other. The society depicted in this text was not Christian; it merely made use of what More might have thought of as natural law—the ambient goodness of God’s creation available to pagan and Christian alike. Utopia was in part meant to suggest that if a society so superior to European societies could be possible without revealed truth, how abysmally must supposedly Christian nations be failing to live according to their professed ideals! And how glorious might a society be in which all people truly lived as Christians, and were truly of one heart and one mind, dwelling in righteousness, with no poor among them! This is the vision of Zion—or, perhaps, the dream.

Surely, if this vision of Zion could be realized, it would be the best of all possibilities. It would perfectly reconcile and harmonize the interests of the individual and those of society under the banner of Truth and Goodness. Each person would have a role, and the role would be perfectly congenial. Without compulsion, each person would take part in something bigger and grander than their own lives, and their own lives would be rich and full and glorious as a result. Self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment would not be opposing possibilities, but concurrent realities.

We do not live in Zion, and neither did More. We don’t even live in Utopia. The interests of the individual and those of society are not perfectly harmonized. Nor is there any simple answer to the question of how best to harmonize them. More’s answer—putting down dissention and re-submitting to the Holy Catholic Church—is not satisfactory to me. But Henry VIII’s approach is even less so. I am glad that religious pluralism was the eventual result of the strife of More’s day (though it was on neither side’s radar at the time). But the proper goal of pluralism, and that of all individual rights, is not freedom as such, but freedom to pursue the Good. To pursue the Good is the ultimate duty and privilege. Freedom, rights, and individuality itself are all means to pursuing the Good, and not ends in themselves.

Any true vision of the Good will seek, not merely individual fulfilment, but also brotherhood, unity, and love. Man is a social creature through and through, and must seek his heaven within the society of others. Therefore, I am certain that the way forward is not to insulate the individual against the claims of society with a barricade of more and more rights, especially not rights invented by the judiciary. We stand in need, not more more rights, but of more goodness—more faithfulness, more restraint, more commitment. The way forward is rather to pursue consensus about the vision of the Good and to move towards that vision: not just as individuals, but as Good-seeking communities to which we bind ourselves with the bonds that make us free: families, churches, civic groups, the nation, and the world. We were meant for so much more than atomistic liberty.

3 thoughts on “Thomas More, Martyr of Traditional Marriage: Part Two—His Time, and Ours

  1. I’m eager to read this again. Splendidly written and thought out. “Bounds that make us free” vs “atomistic liberty.”

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