Liberty and Death: G. K. Chesterton on St. Thomas More

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936)

As the Church in the United States participates in the annual Fortnight for Freedom campaign, we have an opportunity to reflect on heroic witnesses who affirmed by their lives and their deaths that authentic freedom comes from Christ. This is a liberty that the powers-that-be cannot destroy through force of arms or legal mandate.

St. Thomas More (Feast Day: June 22) was canonized in 1935. That same year, the prolific journalist, poet, essayist, and fiction writer G. K. Chesterton published one of his final books, The Well and the Shallows. In this collection of essays, Chesterton (a convert to the Faith) takes on economics, morality, governmental philosophy, contraception, and more. 

His essay on the famous English martyr serves to illustrate why Thomas More is invoked under the title “Patron of Religious Freedom“:

Thomas More died the death of a traitor for defying absolute monarchy; in the strict sense of treating monarchy as an absolute. He was willing, and even eager, to respect it as a relative thing, but not as an absolute thing. The heresy that had just raised its head in his own time was the heresy called the Divine Right of Kings. In that form it is now regarded as an old superstition; but it has already reappeared as a very new superstition, in the form of the Divine Right of Dictators. But most people still vaguely think of it as old; and nearly all of them think it is much older than it is. One of the chief difficulties to-day is to explain to people that this idea was not native to medieval or many older times. People know that the constitutional checks on kings have been increasing for a century or two; they do not realize that any other kind of checks could ever have operated; and in the changed conditions those other checks are hard to describe or imagine. But most certainly medieval men thought of the king as ruling sub deo et lege; rightly translated, “under God and the law,” but also involving something atmospheric that might more vaguely be called, “under the morality implied in all our institutions.” Kings were excommunicated, were deposed, were assassinated, were dealt with in all sorts of defensible and indefensible ways; but nobody thought the whole commonwealth fell with the king, or that he alone had ultimate authority there. The State did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake, as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school. There was an idea of refuge, which was generally an idea of sanctuary. In short, in a hundred strange and subtle ways, as we should think them, there was a sort of escape upwards. There were limits to Caesar; and there was liberty with God.

Read the entire essay here.