I love A Man for All Seasons. It is truly one of my favorite movies and I return to it periodically in order to appreciate once more the fine writing and acting on display. Of course, A Man for All Seasons is also a play with an overtly political point about the need to stand up for one's conscience in the face of political pressure to yeild. This is a theme that Robert Bolt explores in a number of his plays and scripts, but its never more clearly on display than here.
And yet, Bolt is able to make his point about Thomas More only by leaving out some uncomfortable truths about his reign as Lord Chancellor of England, including his torture and execution of alleged heretics. Perhaps most egregious was the role he played in the capture, imprisonment, and execution of William Tyndale as punishment for translating the Bible into English.
All of which is to say that the use of Thomas More as the central figure in the U.S. Conferene of Catholic Bishops' "Fortnight of Freedom" in opposition to the proposed HHS contraception mandate somewhat problematic. Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches explains:
The United States government, unlike Henry's England, is not under the religious authority of Rome, or any religious body, for that matter. (That's in the Constitution, last time I checked.) Through the contraception mandate, or any other duly enacted law or regulation, such as the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the United States government is not flouting religious authority. That's because it doesn't answer to religious authority, like monarchs did in 16th century England. The United States is a democracy, an experiment born of events and ideas that took place long after Henry ordered More beheaded; of events and ideas that explicitly reject the notion of either monarchical or religious absolutism; and which protects Americans of all religious faiths from More's (or Tyndale's) fate. (The Bishops apparently don't like these events, or misapprehend them and their relationship to American democracy. The Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, recently said that "efforts to restrict religious liberty are seemingly founded in a reductive secularism that has more in common with the French Revolution than with America's founding.")
The very idea that providing women with insurance coverage is somehow tantamount to the terror and violence inflicted on both sides in Reformation England—or to the historical cataclysm that was Henry's schism from Rome—is so absurd I'm stunned as my fingers tap across my keyboard. If we're going to spend the next five and half months discussing whether Barack Obama is like Henry VIII, well, God help us.
We seem to live in an age of rhetorical excess. It's not enough for the Bishops to disagree with the Obama adminstration on the contraception mandate. He must be the equivalent of Henry the VII, and their decision to oppose the mandate must be seen as an act of martyrdom on par with the beheading of Thomas More. This is a ridiculous comparison on its face, not least because the mandate as it is currently constructed allows the church to keep its scruples while still allowing for their non-Catholic employees (as well as those Catholics who dissent on the issue of contraception), to continue to have access to contraception.
But as I've written before, the real issue for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not really their rights to keep their own consciences, but their insistance that everyone else, Catholic and non-Catholic, must keep their conscience as well. And it is this point that makes the Thomas More comparison strangely apt.
More died for the sake of his conscience. More also caused others to die for the sake of their consciences. He burned heretics at the stake and he pursued William Tyndale mercilessly (a fact that ought to give the Bishops' Protestant allies some pause). Like the Bishops, what he wanted was not freedom of conscience regarding matters of religion, but for his own view of religious orthodoxy to prevail. And he was willing to make others suffer for the sake of that vision. While one may admire many of his qualities as a Christian and as Henry VII's Lord Chancellor, it would be a mistake to hold him up in an American context as a defender of religious liberty. He was most certainly not, and neither are the Bishops.