Date of Award
Union College Only
Bachelor of Arts
vocation, career, politics, religion, England
Thomas More’s career as England’s foremost Catholic polemicist constitutes the broad focus of this thesis. The necessary biographical elements of this study have relied on Richard Marius’s Thomas More: A Biography – which, though over twenty years old, has remained the preeminent full-length consideration of More’s life – as well as John Guy’s recent work of Morean historiography, Thomas More. More’s own Dialogue Concerning Heresies is examined, as is Protestant William Tyndale’s response, An Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue. Each source is scrutinized in order to assess the status of English anticlericalism in the late 1520s and consider More’s own attitude toward the Catholic clergy. First, More’s early life is examined through the prism of the vocation crisis he experienced in early adulthood, a crisis which manifested itself in two conflicting ambitions: one for a life of contemplative service to the Church as a priest, the other for the active life of a political career. Next, More’s attitude toward clerical reform is considered after a summary discussion of the history of late medieval and early modern English Anticlericalism. Three major anticlerical “moments” are examined: John Wycliffe and Lollardry, the case of Richard Hunne, and the importation of Lutheran ideas into England. Each is considered in an attempt to grasp the anticlerical sentiments that More would have encountered as he prepared to confront the threat of heresy in 1529. In his Dialogue More admits the existence of a small number of priests whose behavior brings discredit on Church, yet he is unwilling to condemn the entirety of the English clergy. He argues that the central cause of clerical misbehavior is the swelling of the priestly ranks and attributes the existence of clerical “bad apples” to the Church ordaining men to the priesthood who seek worldly comforts rather than spiritual reward. Remedying the situation, he says, would require a return to the practices of the ancient past, the storied days of the earliest British Christians, where few men, he claims, dared to aspire to the priesthood. This could be accomplished, he argues, if the Bishops ordained fewer candidates, and as a result, a leaner, more competent clergy could attend to the cure of English souls rather than dabble in politics or serve as chaplains to private households. Tyndale’s Answer to More rehashes standard Protestant charges against the corruption and immorality of Catholic priests and lampoons More’s proposal that slashing clerical numbers would serve as a cure-all for clerical misconduct. Tyndale portrays the standard Catholic priest as one who patronizes prostitutes, exploits the poor, and prevents the public from having access to the salvific power of the Word of God, the Bible in the vernacular. However, the charge that resonates most forcefully is Tyndale’s claim that the Catholic bishops have set up “stews of young boys” to serve as clerical concubines. Such was the indignation that Tyndale and others felt concerning the Catholic clergy, and, in England, only Thomas More stood in their way. It is in his role as a public apologist for the Catholic faith that More fulfilled his intellectual promise. Through his polemical writings, he was able to meld his ambition for a life in the public arena with his inner, spiritual need to nurture God’s call to service. While his political ambition prevented him from answering God’s call in the form of ordination to the priesthood, that same determination and gifted intellect allowed him to emerge as England’s champion polemical writer: slaying the demon heresy for the Glory of God, with the approval, for a time, of his king.
Bigness, Andrew P., ""But if I were pope" : Thomas More and English anticlericalism in the context of his public career" (2008). Honors Theses. 1513.