More and Religious Liberty - Part 1

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The Unhelpfulness of Hagiography for religious libertyIn an essay last year over at The Public Discourse, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput quite rightly noted that the legacy of the sixteenth-century Catholic statesman Sir Thomas More matters greatly—and matters, as he emphasized, “right now.” He was also quite right in pinpointing the reason for More’s legacy continuing to matter especially in contemporary America, noting that the church here has “fought loudly and hard for religious liberty over the past year.” And it has had to do so in no small part because the powers that be seem intent on “diminishing Christianity and its influence.” Further, one can hardly disagree with the Archbishop’s observation that one popular and effective manner of doing so is by “rewriting the narrative on many of Christianity’s achievements and heroes.” In short, then, I wholeheartedly share Archbishop Chaptut’s concerns. My shared unease regarding attempts to “rewrite the narrative,” however, compel me to raise questions and concerns about Chaput’s own narrative. The revisionism he laments especially is that on display in Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall, which “trashed” More as “proud, intolerant, and devious.” He complains that Mantel’s work, leaning partly on the scholarship of Geoffrey Elton, presents “a revisionist Thomas More wrapped in popular melodrama.”

From the outset I should be clear that I have no interest in defending Mantel’s work of fiction, either on its literary or historical merits. It does strike me as problematic, though, to upbraid Mantel’s revisionism by measuring it against what Chaput calls “Robert Bolt’s brilliant 1960 play A Man for All Seasons.” Brilliant it may have been as a piece of literature (as, one might even say, “popular melodrama”); but historically speaking, it suffers no less than Wolf Hall for “rewriting the narrative.” As Notre Dame historian Father Marvin O’Connell—among many others—accurately observes, Bolt’s “‘man for all seasons’ is radically different from the person so painfully, so incompletely reconstructed from the evidence that has come down to us.” More concisely, British historian John Guy describes it pointedly as “sumptuous drama but appalling history.”

The importance of this simply must be acknowledged because, at least until Mantel’s novel rolled off the press, popular perceptions of More derived almost entirely from the portrait provided by Bolt’s play (and subsequent 1966 film), supplemented occasionally by encounters with the most widely read of More’s own works, Utopia. Both, however, pose real problems for understanding the historical Thomas More. His own Utopia is rather famously problematic in this respect, describing as it does an idyllic land of complete religious tolerance, married priests, female priests, and provisions for relatively easy divorce and euthanasia. Part of the work’s enduring popularity, of course, is the sheer liberality and modernity of such ideas—which the uncritical reader may not recognize as being ideas, to put it mildly, not at all embraced by More himself.

If More’s own views are ambiguous or obscured in his Utopia, More as liberal modern is hardly ambiguous at all in Bolt’s play. Chaput is perhaps correct to suspect that Mantel’s portrayal of More is unhelpfully influenced by her being “a lapsed Catholic whose disgust for the Church is a matter of public record.” If such suspicion is warranted, however, one is no less warranted in suspecting that Bolt—a professed agnostic with some fondness for existentialism—has “rewritten the narrative” to reflect his own personal quirks and biases. It is, for example, exceedingly easy to imagine a modern existentialist agnostic (and exceedingly difficult to imagine the historical Thomas More) uttering the following words, put in More’s mouth by Bolt: “what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it.”