By Nerissa Young
Centuries before Edward Snowden was Sir Thomas More.
Both objected to something that was legal because they thought it was immoral. Maybe Snowden’s stance isn’t based on the church, as More’s was, but they both took actions that ultimately disenfranchised them. More paid with his life.
The 1966 film “A Man For All Seasons” casts a heroic look at More, who was among King Henry VIII’s closest circle of advisers until Henry wanted a divorce from his wife Catherine.
More, a devout — and some historians say zealous — Catholic, could not abide when Henry declared himself the supreme leader of the church, Parliament made it the law and the reformation birthed the Church of England.
The film’s screenplay is adapted from the play by Robert Bolt. While one should not consider Bolt’s dialogue the irrefutable authority on the events of the early 1500s, he sure knew how to turn a phrase and provoke thought.
As the nation celebrated its founding last weekend and Americans look to her leaders and ahead to 2014 in choosing them again, the film offers a tremendous primer on the collision of church and state, of principle and patriotism.
Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s chancellor, asks More to support the divorce by exerting political pressure on the pope. The cardinal reminds More of the potential bloodshed if Henry does not obtain a male heir from Catherine. It is for political expediency’s sake that he needs More’s support.
“If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint. With a little common sense, you could have made a statesman,” the cardinal says. “Now, explain how you as a counselor of England can obstruct these measures for the sake of your own private conscience.”
More retorts, “Well, I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos. “
After Wolsey’s death, Henry makes More his chancellor.
The king personally seeks More’s cooperation and notes the motives of those who surround him: “There are those like (the Duke of) Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown. Others like Master (Oliver) Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth, and I’m their tiger. There’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there’s you.”
More resigns rather than agree. He puts his hope in the laws of England that should protect his silence except the king ups the ante by requiring everyone to sign an oath acknowledging his divorce from Catherine, his new marriage to Anne Boleyn and his position as head of the church.
Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk and More’s close friend, confronts him: “And will you forfeit all you have, which includes the respect of your country, for a belief? … And who are you? A lawyer and a lawyer’s son. We’re supposed to be the proud ones, the arrogant ones. We’ve all given in. Why must you stand out? ... It’s disproportionate.”
When More is imprisoned for refusing to sign the oath, Norfolk heads the Tigger court — bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy — into which More is called. “I’m not a scholar. I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not, but dammit, Thomas, look at these names. Why can’t you do as I did and come with us for fellowship?”
More resists. “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me … for fellowship?”
The king tightens the screws by sending More’s daughter to persuade him to sign. More counters, “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
His daughter notes his refusal is making him a hero, something she believes her humble father does not want.
He responds: “If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little even at the risk of being heroes.”
During this time of celebrating the rightness of America, may she find those who will stand fast against all others and risk being heroes.
— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: email@example.com.