St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr in 1535.
Everyone present at his execution, and everyone who knew him, would readily have granted that England had no more intelligent, knowledgeable, and cosmopolitan a statesman than Thomas More.
And everyone knew that he died for one reason: Because he would not betray his Roman-Catholic loyalty to the pope.
Beautiful. Especially when we think of the pope as personally representing everything virtuous and true.
But which popes occupied the Chair of Peter during Thomas More’s lifetime?
When Leo X was elected pope in 1513, he was not even a priest. He famously said, “Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!” Leo X enjoyed the papacy while St. Thomas More was in his late thirties and early forties.
St. Thomas suffered martyrdom at age 57, when Pope Paul III reigned in Rome.
Certainly Paul III was a holier man that Leo X. But Pope Paul did have a number of children by mistresses he kept while he was a young priest. And he did create his 14- and 16-year-old grandsons Cardinals.
So, we have to rethink this a little. St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr, rather than betray his loyalty to the pope. And the pope in question was not an altogether awesome superman of a white-robed pope. Rather, the pope at the time was what we would have to consider a mediocre Christian at best. A mediocre Christian like me, or you.
Does that make St. Thomas some kind of patsy? Should he have betrayed his loyalty instead of dying as a martyr out of loyalty for a mediocre pope?
Don’t think so. Christ never promised a succession of saintly super-popes. He promised that the unity and integrity of the Church would endure because the papacy would endure.
In other words, the pope is the pope. The famous martyr for loyalty to the papacy, St. Thomas More, did not distract himself by judging the pope. Thomas simply kept faith with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, governed by the one and only pope there is, at any given time.