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What would Thomas More do?   

Rev. Raymond De Souza

As this sorry sitting of the House of Commons draws to an end, St. Thomas More is strikingly relevant.

St. Thomas More
(1478-1535)


On Wednesday, the Catholic Church marked the feast of St. Thomas More, a leading statesman of the 16th century and one of the most noble figures in the history of law and politics. Indeed, so impressive were More's fidelity and courage in opposing England's King Henry VIII that the Anglican Communion, despite an obvious disagreement with his position, recognizes him as a martyr. As this sorry sitting of the House of Commons draws to an end, St. Thomas More is strikingly relevant. He was executed for treason by Henry VIII in 1535 an early victim of what we might call today a "democratic deficit." More opposed Henry's declaration that the King would be the head of the Church in England, not the Pope. And of course he opposed Henry's (first) divorce, the proximate cause of Henry wishing to declare himself the head of the Church. Marriage, freedom of conscience and the democratic deficit are all on our federal agenda today. Would that some measure of More's courage was also in evidence.

There are a handful of MPs for whom St. Thomas More's example is particularly relevant. While a free vote will be held in the House on the homosexual marriage bill, the Liberal Cabinet is being whipped to vote in favour. There are several Cabinet ministers whose opposition to gay marriage is well known they voted against it before they entered into Cabinet but who are now voting in favour.

The battle between ambition and principle is an ancient one. In the Robert Bolt play, A Man for All Seasons (the film adaptation of which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1966), More is finally betrayed by his one-time friend and protege, Richard Rich. After Rich offers his perjured testimony at the trial, More notices that he is wearing a chain of office, and inquires of Rich what it signifies. Informed that Rich is now Attorney General for Wales, More delivers a devastating blow: "Richard, the Lord said that it did not profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his soul. The whole world, Richard ... but for Wales?"

For Wales indeed. Imagine what the shocked and saddened Thomas More would have said to, say, Albina Guarnieri. But for Veterans Affairs? Or to John Efford. For Natural Resources? Or to Joe McGuire. For the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency? Or, heaven help us all, to Joe Comuzzi. For the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario?

There are others Tony Valeri, Joe Volpe, Joe Fontana who have wrestled their conscience to the ground on this one, convincing themselves that staying in Cabinet is the greater good. Those in office always convince themselves that whatever good they think they are doing is worth the cost of going along to get along. But in point of fact, sacrificing an office on principle is about the greatest accomplishment most politicians could ever achieve, despite whatever happens to be the pressing business over at the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.


Informed that Rich is now Attorney General for Wales, More delivers a devastating blow: "Richard, the Lord said that it did not profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his soul. The whole world, Richard ... but for Wales?"


Sir Thomas More was, along with Erasmus, the most distinguished humanist of his time. He was a highly-praised chancellor what might today be called prime minister. He was a gifted writer. But we don't remember him for all that. We remember him for his willingness to sacrifice all that for his principles. To be sacked from Cabinet for voting one's conscience is not the worst thing that can happen to an MP. The worst thing is to stay in Cabinet by sacking one's conscience.

The situation is all the more sad because it is unlikely that dissenting Cabinet ministers would face any sanctions whatever. If two or three were simply to tell the Prime Minister that they were to vote against the homosexual marriage bill, he would instantly declare a complete free vote, or some other compromise. Paul Martin, the weakest prime minister in memory and willing to go to any lengths to preserve his government, is no Henry VIII.

If they were to do so, a blow would be struck for democracy. Reducing the democratic deficit not long ago one of Mr. Martin's number one priorities is not only a matter of the government permitting MPs to vote freely, but of MPs insisting on their freedom, including MPs in the Cabinet.

Long after the Atlantic Accord, the health-care fix for a generation, the NDP budget reforms and all the rest are forgotten, this Parliament will be remembered for what it did about marriage. Nobody remembers what Richard Rich did as Attorney General of Wales; only what he did to remain Attorney General of Wales.

St. Thomas More was declared the patron saint of statesmen and politicians about five years ago. The issues of his time at Hampton Court and our time on Parliament Hill are not too different. Whether he has any followers worthy of his example remains to be seen.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "What would Thomas More do?" National Post, (Canada) June 23, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2005 National Post

 

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