St. Thomas’ First Choice

Quick Catholicism quiz. Who can ordain a bishop? A bishop. Only a bishop can ordain a bishop. Kind of like only a human mother can give birth to a human child. Only a man who is a bishop can make another man a bishop.

Now, we’re not done. One other thing is necessary. In order for any bishop, anywhere in the world, to ordain a bishop, he must have something in hand. He cannot ordain another bishop unless he has a particular document. Right! A letter from the Pope which says, “Yes. Ordain this man a bishop. I approve.”

The Church operates in every country on earth. Every nation has its own distinctive characteristics, its own customs, its own politics. The Church cannot live her life in some sort of a-political vacuum. We always find ourselves embroiled in the drama of our particular place and time.

In any nation where the Church finds Herself, She embraces the place as Her home. In other words, a Catholic owes the same loyalty and allegiance to country as anyone else. In fact, we Catholics have all the more reason to cultivate patriotism. We love our country in God. We believe that the Lord has given us this place to be our avenue to heaven, day by day. We work out our salvation here. So we love our country like a monk loves his monastery or a nun loves her convent.

But a bishop cannot ordain another bishop without a letter from Rome. In other words, no nation can turn in on itself, like its own little world–and cut off the larger, universal family of Christ. Our country can and must demand our loyalty—but never in such a way that we would have to choose between country and Church.

We love America all the more because she makes no claim to be above God, or even alongside God. The United States: “One nation, under God.” Under. God above. Country below. God first. Country—not first.

St. Thomas More made a brilliant career as a lawyer and a judge of cases. He could clear huge courtroom backlogs quickly, because his mind retained and processed laws and facts like a supercomputer.

But, when push came to shove, St. Thomas did not rely on his own keen mind. He did not rely on his own incisive judgment. And he did not rely on the venerable laws of his island nation, either. King Henry wanted Thomas to declare that he, the king, had a case for divorce. Thomas said, “You know what? The Pope knows best. I defer to the judgment of the Pope.”

We revere St. Thomas More as a martyr of conscience. He searched his soul for guidance when others pressured him to go along with the king’s wishes. Thomas would not betray himself.

He cracked his brain for a workable solution. He never wanted to die a martyr. He would have been happier to find a compromise.

But the king made Thomas choose. Choose between loyalty to the Church and continued life on earth. Let go of the sure bond you have with Christ, and live. Or keep your grip on that sure bond, and put your head on the chopping block.

St. Thomas prayed for King Henry until the end. He prayed for him until the axe fell. Thomas would have preferred peace. Better to have harmony between Church and state, friendship and patient tolerance for everyone.

But conflicts can serve to clarify things. When St. Thomas faced his final choice, the decision he had to make could not have been clearer.

I love my country. I love my king. I love my family, and my home, and the good work which God has given me the talent to do. But do I love these things more than my Church? More than God and truth and my hope for eternal life?

God first. Our immortal souls come first.

Shakespeare’s Bad Plays

Back in 2006, I was visiting one of the most excellent Catholic families I know, and they brought ought a special item to show me.  It was a box containing CD recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays.  An all-star troupe of actors had enacted them all, and they were performed so as to communicate the action via sound only.  (Excellent sound effects are employed.)  It is called the “Arkangel Shakespeare.”


I said at the time that if I were not a Christian man, I would have gotten down and worshipped this box of CDs as if it were a god or a talisman of consummate holiness.  As it is, I saved up my Mass stipends for a few months, and then ordered my own Arkangel Shakespeare from Amazon.  (It is also possible to order individual plays, by the way.)


So whenever I am in my car, if I am not either praying, or meditating, or rocking-out a little bit, I listen to the plays of William Shakespeare.  I have had the collection for over two years now, so of course I have listened to all the favorites of the high-school and college English classes of my bygone days:  Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, both Parts of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III, etc.


I enjoy the comedies, of course (especially Taming of the Shrew, which always makes me think of the Moonlighting spoof of it, with Bruce Willis in rare form as Petrucchio).  But I love intense drama more than young lovers getting confused or being turned into animals by fairies.  My favorite Shakespearean effect is when the action of the play feels like the slow tightening of a vice.  Because they employ this effect to perfection, my two favorite Shakespeares are Richard II and Coriolanus.


The fact is, though, that when you have a box full of CDs of every play Shakespeare ever wrote, and you have a lot of time on your hands in the car to listen to them all, you come to realize that they are not all good.


The only one I have popped out of the CD player before the first disc even got finished is Titus Andronicus.  I could not deal with someone’s tongue being cut out.  The last two times someone dragged me to a horror movie, I have fainted both times.


Shakespeare wrote not one, not two, but three plays about King Henry VI.  They are all bad; they are all boring—even though St. Joan or Arc is in them (so you know they are very bad).


Henry VIII is also inexplicably tedious.  Even though the history involved is extremely dramatic, somehow the play lumbers along so stolidly that you hardly care whether Henry gets his annulment or not.


The fact that this is Shakespeare, however, never completely vanishes.  The Duke of Buckingham does not just call Cardinal Wolsey ‘fat.’  Instead, he says:


“I wonder that such a keech (slang for a chunk of beef fat)

Can with his very bulk take up the rays o’ th’

Beneficial sun and keep it from the earth.”


Keep that in reserve for when you need a good insult.  (But try not to be mean-spirited about it.)