The title of this entry above is taken from my favorite movie: the 1966 production of Man For All Seasons. The film was a cinematic version of Robert Bolt’s play of the same name about the the last few years of the life of Sir ( Saint) Thomas More (1478-1535).
Thomas More, as I think most of my readers would know, was a 16th century English statesman and man of letters as well as a well-informed, devout Catholic layman. It was his fate ( or providence) to achieve prominence in the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) at the very time when this passionate and powerful monarch was determined to acquire a new wife by annuling his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry would do this either with Papal approval or without. He did in fact threaten, and did accomplish, a complete break of the hitherto solidly Catholic realm of England with the Holy See in order to get that new wife. As King he forced through acts of legislation that denied the primacy of the Pope over the Church in England (ecclesia anglicana) and substituted himself in the role of Pope over his own new national Church. These acts also involved severe penalties for non-compliance with the ultimate penalty of death reserved for all would refuse the Oath of Supremacy that would proclaim Henry and his successors as “Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England”. ( To this day his distant descendant Elizabeth II holds the slightly modified title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England.) Henry unleashed powerful forces of persecution and compulsion that fragmented English ( and Irish) society for generations: the “dungeon, fire, and sword” of the hymn Faith of Our Fathers.
Thomas More was then a knight and Henry’s “Lord Chancellor”: a sort of prime minister. More was unprepared to accept the destruction of the authority of the Successor of Peter over the Church and tried to fend off the King’s final break with Rome. Henry was a dangerous man to oppose.
The line that forms the title of this piece occurs when More’s wife cautions her husband not to anger the impulsive monarch unnecessarily. In reply, More ( in the person of the splendid actor Paul Schofield) replies that “anything that can be accomplished by smiling ” he would do.
In the end, smiling was not enough. Thomas resigned his office and not long after Henry imprisoned him and had him executed for the “high treason” of remaining loyal to Papal authority and the marraige laws of the Church.
Today the Catholic Church in the United States, and almost all of the Western world is in an analogous situation in my opinion.
Here at home, and I know these words will disturb some, the Church has lost the political battle against the forces of aggressive ant-religious secularism. First, contraception, then abortion, then the homosexualist agenda, now “gay marriage”. One wonders what is next. After all the hopes of the 1980’s it seems the body politic has shifted to the “progressive left”. With the aid of many Catholics ( at least in name) both in office and in the voting booth States with large Catholic populations are strongly embracing policies and values directly contrary to Catholic ( and some Protestant and Orthodox) teachings.
Bit by bit, we retreat.
While I do not say there could not be a change; it seems to me practically and politically clear that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned anytime in the foreseeable future; that “gay marriage” will be law throughout the country; that real restrictions placed on the “abortion liberty” will be extremely difficult to achieve; that even to oppose the agendas of these interests groups will be branded as “hate speech.” In Canada, it is now legally perilous to preach in church that homosexual behavior is sinful.
There is no guarantee that even Catholic hospitals will not be forced to offer procedures and services contrary to the teachings of the Faith in the new “health regime” looming in the near future.
To be even more frank, this has happened because decades ago the official teaching Church lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Catholic population. Our teaching, preaching and leadership has failed to convincingly proclaim, explain, and , defend our teachings in the public arena. This is not due to poor quality of the above efforts solely, but a general “revolution’ all across the board in our culture and social life.
Yet, through it all, we have been “smiling”.
Our “Catholic” and non-Catholic politicians are still the hailed and honored guests at our Midnight Masses; our conventions, our parades, our Al Smith dinners. They are invited to speak at, and be honored, by Catholic institutions of learning. We smile, ‘reach out’, and ‘dialog.” Yet, we still get the proverbial stick in the eye.
Even the most genial and gregarious of our leaders get nothing for all their efforts other than more abortion, more gay marriage, no state aid to schools, restrictions on our religious freedoms, contempt and dismissal. We ignore the personally immoral lives of even our Catholic elected officials in order to somehow “not to burn bridges”.
We’ve been smiling for decades now.
I wonder if we have achieved already “all that can be done by smiling.”
January 15, 2013.