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David Lyle Jeffrey
The Conscience of a (Catholic) Fundamentalist
The Last Letters of Thomas More, edited by Alvaro de Silva, Eerdmans, 2000, 208 pp.; $20
Five years after the beheading of Thomas More in 1535, his sometime royal friend and ultimate executioner bought a grisaille painting by Girolamo da Trevisa the Younger. The Four Evangelists Stoning the Pope is the only work of art still found in the Royal Collection the original location of which can be identified with one of the many (mostly expropriated) houses of King Henry VIII. The famously appetitive monarch, it seems, had an uncharacteristically narrow taste in the visual arts.
In most other spheres his appetite was of legendary capacity. Leaving aside the matter of his tremendous girth, Henry's joint sexual and ecclesiastical ambitions have combined to make him the butt of many a posthumous joke. One of the most succinct is Brendan Behan's polemical quatrain:
Beware the Protestant minister,
his false reason, false creed and false faith:
the foundation stones of his temple
are the b***s of Henry the Eighth.
This pub-rhyme, an epitome of Irish Catholic humor, was written in a place where the consequences of conflict and conscience during "the birth of the English Reformation" are still most painfully being worked out. But the jest works more widely because at bottom it bares so well a broad truth.
Thomas More, Behan's co-religionist, would certainly have seen Behan's theological point, so to speak, but he would not have found it funny. For a Christian willing to die rather than betray his conscience, the oppression of a self-proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church who seemed, as Alvaro de Silva puts it, to have his own conscience more or less between his legs, was doubly embarrassing. Lesser but not dissimilar grotesqueries still discomfit, after all, as a certain Bishop of Newark's post-retirement career as sex columnist for the dot-com branch of Penthouse magazine may serve to illustrate. Henry VIII has always had offspring ready to offer high theological rationalizations ...