Thomas More's battle against religious freedom and how he became a symbol in the contraception debate

by John MacBeathWatkins

(From Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World)
It is not at all unusual for a book to be burned. It is somewhat more unusual for an author to be burned, or a translator of a book, or a bookseller, or a reader of a banned text, but all of these things have happened.

William Tyndale, who translated the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible into English, was burned at the stake for doing so. Some say that he was strangled first, and his remains burned only so that he could not be resurrected on Judgement Day.  (John Wycliffe had translated the Vulgate Bible from Latin into English, but Tyndale was the first to go back to the original texts for an  English translation. Wycliffe died of natural causes, but the church had his remains burned so that he would not be resurrected on Judgement Day, as punishment for his translation.)

It was of course the English clergy who most avidly persecuted Tyndale, most notably Sir Thomas More. Now More is being touted as a defender of religious freedom by the Catholic bishops who oppose requiring insurance companies to include contraception coverage in policies for institutions even if they are affiliated with the Catholic Church (the church itself is of course exempt, and no Catholic is required by the HHS mandate the bishops oppose to use contraception, although it seems that most Catholics think contraception is morally acceptable.)

The claim that More was a martyr to the cause of religious liberty does violence to history.

In addition to playing a role in getting Tyndale burned at the stake, More was responsible, as chancellor, for having six other men burned at the stake as heretics. They were heretics because they were protestant, and More was in agreement with the Catholic Church of the time in thinking that protestantism was heresy.

Henry VIII had More executed for treason because he refused to abandon the notion that the Catholic Church held supremacy over Henry VIII. It is therefore evident that More was a martyr, not for religious freedom, which he opposed, but for the notion that the Catholic Church should be able to tell governments what to do.

Which, in a way, makes him the perfect symbol for the what the Catholic bishops are trying to do. If you really want to know the attitude men like More took toward religious liberty, I suggest you read Foxe's Book of Martyrs. I suggest most modern Catholics would renounce, rather than celebrate, the actions recounted in those pages.

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