Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: A Trio of Works by St. Thomas More

Scepter Publishers combines three works by Thomas More in this volume (which I purchased for my study of More's works). From the publisher:

In The Four Last Things, More prescribes frequent meditation on Death, Judgment, Pain and Joy in order to combat the spiritual diseases of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.

The Supplication of Souls is More's vigorous, humorous, and artful defense of one of the flashpoints of the Reformation: the Catholic dogma of Purgatory. It is his devastating response to a defamatory political tract that claimed that the greed and corruption of English clergymen stemmed from their insistence on being paid to pray for the dead.

A Dialogue on Conscience sets forth More's reasons for refusing to abjure his Catholic faith by taking the oath of allegiance to King Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England. It illustrates why More has a deserved place among the Church's greatest saints and martyrs.

The first work is unfinished: what is signifies is another nail in the Wolf Hall "Thomas More is a misogynist and mean to women" coffin. Thomas More and Margaret More Roper worked together on a set of meditations on the Four Last Things. All we have is More's section on Death, but the fact that he wanted to collaborate with his daughter on such a classical philosophical and theological subject indicates how much he valued and admired her education and wisdom (she was 17 at the time, per the introduction). He examines how thinking of Death, which each of us will encounter, can keep us away from the Seven Deadly Sins. This excerpt demonstrates the range of More's learning and his appreciation of human vices and virtues. 

The second is the major work in this volume. It is More's answer to Simon Fish's Supplication of Beggars, in which Fish told Henry VIII that he was not in control of his country which is filled with poor beggars because of the priests whose demand for alms to pray and say Masses for the dead--a classic zero-sum view of salvation economy. According to Fish, if people are giving alms for prayers they aren't giving alms for the poor. More writes his answer representing the Poor Souls in Purgatory, who beg for prayers and penance from the living as they suffer for the effects of their sins on earth after death. 

Neither More nor Fish can prove their statistical points (I have not read Fish's Supplication)--Fish thinks that there have been more poor in England since people started praying for the dead while More contends that "the poor you will always have with you" and that the poor on earth as well as the poor in purgatory benefit from the alms given to the Church as well as to the poor, arguing that the economy, both temporal and spiritual, is more complex and interconnected than Fish thinks.

More notes that Fish is using subterfuge, attacking the doctrine of Purgatory and prayer for the dead as a way to attack the entire sacramental system. He cites Fish's complaint about Henry VIII's one error--The Defense of the Seven Sacraments--and Fish's hatred of the priesthood as the real reasons for this attack on the Poor Souls in Purgatory. 

Fish wants all the priests in England to be tied to carts, dragged through the streets, beaten, forced to marry, and get jobs. More asks, on behalf of the Poor Souls, how is this to be enforced, even if Henry would issue such commands. Are women to be forced to marry former priests? What jobs will they do? How will Fish prevent this sudden influx of unemployed priests from increasing the number of the poor? Has Fish really figured out the financial situation? What about all the poor the clergy and the Church assist everyday? What about the people the clergy employ--the builders, carpenters, laborers, etc? Where will they find employment?

Fish promises that the lame, the leprous, and the deaf, dumb, and blind will be healed, that Henry VIII's power and authority will be strengthened, and that the true gospel will at last be preached. Aha! say the Poor Souls: the supplicant for beggars must be as great as God in Genesis for he speaks and it IS. 

More takes each point of Fish's argument and counters it, several times revealing More's experience of legislation and his knowledge of the courts and the law to expose Fish's errors. There is none of the personal invective so often highlighted in discussions of More's apologetic or polemic works. More does employ exaggeration, mockery of Fish's ignorance, irony, and sarcasm. He offers scriptural examples and arguments from the Fathers, appealing to the authority of the Church through the centuries against these new views of Christian doctrine from Luther and Tyndale.

He ends the Supplication with pleas from the Poor Souls for prayers. They also advise the living on how to prepare for death by recounting their own regrets. They warn against preparing more for the funeral arrangements and less for death and judgment. They regret that they relied so much on comforts and luxuries in this life and did not do penance for their sins to expiate the temporal punishments that remained even after they repented and confessed their sins. They beg for our prayers and promise theirs for us once they are in heaven.

The final work is actually two letters from the end of More's life while he was in the Tower of London. The first is a letter from his step-daughter Alice repeating two of Aesop's fables cited by Sir Thomas Audley to persuade More to take the oath and get out of jail. The second is Margaret Roper's reply to Alice that describes More's responses to Audley's stories and message. In it, More anticipates the plot of the play and movie "Twelve Angry Men" by telling Margaret the story of a man named Company who disagrees with the other jurors and won't just go along because it will violate his conscience. He notes that the other jurors won't bear the punishment for that violation when it comes time for him to face judgment. More reflects some of the advice he wrote about in The Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation: the Four Last Things are more important issues than material comfort and goods; he and his family must take comfort in God's mercy and in the fact that He knows the burdens they bear.

These three works demonstrate how deeply Thomas More had thought about the Christian life and Church doctrine. As a lay defender of the faith he holds fast to Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Church and the teachings of the Fathers. His charm and wit often come through these works, as serious as their subjects are. 

Next up on my reading list of Thomas More's works: Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which C.S. Lewis called the one of the greatest Platonic dialogues in the England language:

Considered by C.S. Lewis as perhaps the best dialogue written in English, this friendly, spirited, and often merry exchange takes place at St. Thomas More’s peaceful and cultured home in Chelsea.

Dialogue Concerning Heresies is a conversation between the experienced humanist and statesman More and an intelligent college student who has been influenced by the spirit and ideas of the new men and reformers, especially Martin Luther and William Tyndale. It addresses questions that continue to be discussed today:

Isn’t it idolatry to pray to saints, venerate images, and go on pilgrimages?
Why listen to what the Church teaches? Shouldn’t we go only by Scripture, since it is the word of God?
Why didn’t the Church want laypeople to have their own Bible, and in English?
How do we know which church is the true one?
Why waste time on philosophy and other secular studies if the Bible is God’s revealed word?

This modernized edition of More’s Dialogue brings this masterful work into wide circulation for the first time since its publication in 1529.

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