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St. Thomas More: Role Model for Modern Politicians

1/17/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Gerard Wegemer on the Saintly Statesman's Legacy

DALLAS, Texas, JAN. 17, 2004 (Zenit) - Politicians today could learn a lot from their patron saint, Thomas More, by looking to his mastery of self, rhetoric and moral issues.

So says Gerard Wegemer, a dedicated student of More who has written two books on the 16th-century statesman: "Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage" (Scepter) and "Thomas More on Statesmanship" (CUA Press). The former focuses on how More understood and lived the virtues in family and political life; the latter looks at More's understanding of human nature and the elements needed for statesmanship.

Wegemer, a professor of literature at the University of Dallas and the founding director of the Center for Thomas More Studies, is editing a paperback series of More's major works.

He shared how modern statesmen must follow in the footsteps of More.

Q: How is St. Thomas More a portrait of courage, particularly for politicians?

Wegemer: St. Thomas More, made patron of statesmen and politicians by Pope John Paul II in 2000, held the highest office of England under King Henry VIII, but gave up that office and eventually his life to defend fundamental principles of justice.

Although More ingeniously sought to avoid imprisonment and death -- after all, he had a growing family to care for and a deep love of life -- his love of truth and conscience eventually led to martyrdom.

More is a "portrait" of courage, instead of a mere sketch, because he lived courage in every aspect of his life: in the diligent attention to his family members and their education, in the diligent study of the issues in his professional and political work, in the diligent care for his neighbors and friends, especially God, the first of his friends, etc.

Courage for More was constant and he gave cheerful attention to duty in whatever forms that duty took.

Cheerfulness and good humor are the qualities for which More is most famous, even in his own lifetime. To maintain cheer in all circumstances, even on the scaffold, takes a remarkable courage from which any politician can profit.

Politicians are always under pressure and always face opposing and contentious views, so contentious that hatred and war can result. More mastered himself, rhetoric and the issues of his day to such a degree that he became the spokesman of his country and of his Church -- his conscious objective was to allow the light of reason to reign, rather than the heat of emotion. Towards this end, he knew that humor played an essential role.

More was also a genius, yet nevertheless he trained himself for 15 years after law school before accepting a position in King Henry's court. By that time, More was 41; his marriage with his second wife was settled -- his first wife had died after the birth of their fourth child; his children were older; and he was prepared for the emotional, moral and political challenges that arose immediately.

It might be said that More is most useful to politicians today because he shows how one must educate oneself to be a genuine statesman.

For example, how do politicians train themselves not to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others?

According to More, the primary objective of education is the "inner knowledge of what is right" -- "recti conscientia," a right conscience -- knowledge that does not depend "on the talk of other people." Otherwise, as More put it: "A mind must be uneasy which ever wavers between joy and sadness because of others' opinions."

Here again we return to the centrality of More's cheerfulness and good humor as a mark of his balanced statesmanship.

Q: How did More integrate his interior, spiritual life with his exterior life in politics?

Wegemer: As More is the first person to use the word "integrity" in the English language, your question goes to the heart of his attractive personality and of the reason that he was so trusted and beloved by his fellow citizens.

In the 16th-century play "Sir Thomas More," written in part by Shakespeare, Sir Thomas is described as "the best friend the poor ever had" and he is shown to be so well admired that he stops a riot by his presence and his persuasion. As politicians know, their reputation is their most important human asset, and this is shown in More's life as well.

More started every day in prayer and study, even -- or rather, especially -- during his busiest days as Lord Chancellor. He was convinced that God works through conscience and is present in conscience, but that the voice of conscience whispers only after sufficient study and attention.

As Pope John Paul II put it in his proclamation of 2000, St. Thomas More "demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience which is 'the ...

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