Reading room > Fr. Jan Kerkhofs SJ on Saint Thomas More

Speech given to Knights celebrating the Feast of Saint Thomas More
22 Jun 2002

Dear Friends,

Let me start by saying that I am very grateful that the Order of the Knights of Thomas More has been added to the many Orders our Church counts.  Being an active member of Pax Christi International, I am happy that it is not a military Order, though I consider Nato still as a must for keeping some order in mankind's wilderness.  Anyhow, many among you are in one or another way politically committed in the building of Europe and our Lord Chancellor More will be an inspiring protector. He had indeed a real European mind.  Also many among you are Irish.  It will please them to know that in the past we had at our university four Irish rectors.  And many Flemish `freedom fighters' in the 19th  century have been inspired by the Irish ones.  But I will not give a conference on my university nor on past Belgian politics.

I have been invited to tell you something about More and Leuven (Louvain).  As you probably know, More was deeply befriended with the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus.  The latter had founded here, near the old Fish Market, his famous `collegium trilingue' (Hebrew, Greek and Latin).  Eventually this college inspired the creation of the well known `College de France' in Paris, a centre for top scholars.  According to a brilliant book of Peter Ackrod, The Life of Thomas More (London, 1998, 118), More once went to Leuven and paid a visit to his friend Erasmus, also to study the curricula in Leuven and the methods of teaching currently available.  In these early years of the sixteenth century, More clearly saw himself as a part of a European community of scholars.  That is all we know about his only visit here.

More important, however, is that the first edition of More's Utopia has been printed here in Leuven by the famous Dirk Maertens.  More wrote a big part of this Utopia when staying in Flanders.  Indeed, as a kind of ambassador of king Henry VIII, More went several times to Brugge and to Antwerp.  In the latter city he was hosted in the Court of the Prince (Prinsenhof) by its mayor, a very important man (Antwerp was at that time the most important city of the whole of northern Europe).  Today this `Prinsenhof is the centre of the Jesuit university faculties St Ignatius, where more than 40 years ago I started teaching general sociology.

Let me use this occasion to add some reflections on More.  First of all, as a Christian, he was what a Dutch weekly once wrote about me, namely that More was a protesting orthodox Catholic.

Protesting indeed.  He made a strong plea for optional celibacy, even for the ordination of women.  Though he disagreed with the divorces of Henry VIII, he was in his Utopia flexible regarding divorces, even his opinion about euthanasia would please many modern experts in bio-ethics.  Living in a time of political and ecclesiastical crisis, with a series of bad popes, More thought that at such a moment one could put the Ecumenical Council above the pope, even though he was not a strict `conciliarist', and surely not in favour of a democratic Church.

More was, of course, an orthodox Christian.  He gave his life and his head for his faith.  He was a strong defender of the unity of the Church and fiercely opposed to Martin Luther.  In the context of his time, one understands that he did condemn aggressive `heretics' to death.  However, he was more tolerant than many others.  His son-in-law was, for several years, a Protestant and More was not forcing his conscience.  Recently even More has been added in the Anglican list of saints.  Regarding the so called Turks, a general name for the Muslims, More had a very open attitude.  In case they would not use violence, he accepted their preaching in Europe, under the condition that also Christians could proclaim their faith freely in Muslim countries.

Finally, More was a real Catholic, which means that the Church was for him more than an insular British particular community of Christians, cut off from the mainstream of the Church universal.  More was devout, even at such a degree that Alice, his second wife, complained that he obliged his family to recite too long series of prayers in the evening.

Furthermore, as Lord Chancellor and as a politician, More was a strange mix of what we would call, in today's terms, a member of the Green party, of the Tories and of Labour.  Green, he was `avant la lettre'.  In his big house in London he had a complete zoo, with monkeys, weasels, beavers, rabbits, foxes of course, all kinds of birds and horses.  He was in favour of a policy protecting the environment.

But also Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for external relations, would be happy to hear that More was even a Tory.  He had great respect for the monarchy, for tradition, for honours.  He was a very rich a man, as Holbein's painting reveals.

But, nevertheless, he seems closer to Tony Blair.  Many socialists consider him as one of theirs.  More was opposed to the supremacy of money.  He was in favour of a good system of social security, of working days of six hours, of creches.  He promoted communes.  Even, as in Mao's China; he wanted that all the citizens in the land of his Utopia wear the same dresses.  He was, as Erasmus, a great pacifist  but at the same time people had to defend their country and even women had to do military service.  R. W. Chambers, the first good biographer of More, writes about him: "In the Utopia he had reserved to the individual almost nothing, save the integrity of his soul: that no man who submitted loyally to the state discipline should be forced to say he believed that which he did not believe" (Thomas More, London, 1948, 396).

Indeed, above all, More was a man of conscience.  He was, as he said shortly before his death, `the king's servant, but God's first'.  When taken into Westminster Hall before his condemnation he declared to his judges:

"Ye must understand that, in things touching conscience, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience and to his soul than any other thing in all the world beside; namely when his conscience is in such sort as mine is, that is to say, where the person giveth no occasion of slander, of tumult and sedition against his prince as it is with me".

That is the main reason why I like this great man.  There is, however also another reason.  Many great-grandsons of More became members of my Society of Jesus.  With two of them, Christopher and Thomas XI, his line had run out in the Society.  This latter Thomas was the last direct male descendant of Sir Thomas More.  He was Provincial of the English Province when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society in 1773, as Eamon Duffy, Professor in Cambridge, said, `the most shameful hour of the papacy'.  But in 1814 another pope, Pius VII, restored the order, which explains that I am here.

I thank you for your patience and for this fine banquet.

Jan Kerkhofs SJ