James Monti's superb and scholarly volume "The King's Good Servant but God's First" was first published by Ignatius Press in 1997. It deserves to be brought to the attention of more readers again not only as a classic volume on "The Life and Writings of St. Thomas More" but also in view of the recent "Gift of Authority III" document issued by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission that has been continually engaged in ecumenical dialogues. This document is important as in large measure transcending the usual Anglican polemics of the past that have led so many Protestants to decry "Popery", "Papism", and "Papolatry".
"Gift of Authority III" represents a remarkable convergence with Catholic doctrine on the Petrine Ministry of the Successor of Peter who exercises by the will of Christ a supreme authority over the Universal Church, East and West. The Anglican signatories to the document clearly note that:
"In the pattern of the New Testament one of the Twelve is chosen by Jesus Christ to strengthen the others so that they will remain faithful to their mission and in harmony with each other."
(See the discussion of the Petrine texts in 'Authority in the Church II')
They also observe that:
"Historically, the Bishop of Rome has exercised such a [primatial] ministry either for the benefit of the whole Church...or for the benefit of a local church.
...Within his wider ministry, the Bishop of Rome offers a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth, as an expression of universal primacy. This particular service has been the source of difficulties and misunderstanding among the churches. Every solemn definition pronounced from the chair of Peter in the church of Peter and Paul may, however, express only the faith of the Church...When the faith is articulated in this way, the Bishop of Rome proclaims the faith of the local churches. It is thus the wholly reliable teaching of the whole Church that is operative in the judgment of the universal primate...
It is this faith which the Bishop of Rome in certain circumstances has a duty to discern and make explicit. This form of authoritative teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils. The reception of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome entails the recognition of this specific ministry of the universal primate. We believe this is a gift to be received by all the churches."
(# 46 and 47)
St. Thomas More would have surely approved the above words expressive of a new and welcome understanding of the role of the Pope in the Church Militant. It was for the truth of the Petrine Primacy as a divine institution that he indeed gave his life as England's most glorious lay martyr. It has been estimated that as a Catholic Apologist St. Thomas More wrote over 11,000 trenchant pages in defense of the spectrum of Catholic doctrine rejected by the Reformers.
James Monti's excellent volume is unique for containing many precious extracts from his writings explaining the Church's teaching on Scripture and Tradition, grace and predestination, the sacraments, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the Real Presence (by Transubstantiation) of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and even why the 16th century Catholic Church could not accept the ordination of women! With acute logic, the mastery of Scripture and the Fathers, and with humor and charity, St. Thomas More defended Catholic truth.
As Monti amply demonstrates, all of More's Apologetics was motivated by his zeal for the Unity of the Church, for the conversion of souls gone astray, and because of his belief that "dissent constituted nothing less than a betrayal of Christ Himself" (page 158). His work as a Catholic Apologist conveys important lessons for today's Catholics who are again faced with serious assaults on the Faith and the authority of the Successor of Peter. In his early "Response to Luther" he had declared succinctly his belief in the supreme authority of the See of Peter over the Universal Church:
"I am moved to obedient submission to this See by all those arguments which learned and holy men [a reference to St. John Fisher and others] have assembled in support of this point: moreover, I am indeed moved not least by a fact which we have so often noticed; that not only has no one been hostile to the Christian faith without at the same time declaring war on that See, but also there has never been anyone who declared himself an enemy of that See without shortly afterwards declaring himself a notorious and foremost enemy and traitor both to Christ and to our religion."
Later, on the scaffold on July 6,1535, More was to cry out that:
"he should now there suffer death in and for the faith of the holy Catholic Church".
Earlier, in his travesty of a trial, he had professed his belief in the,
"spiritual pre-eminence by the mouth of our Savior Himself, personally present upon earth, [given] only to St. Peter and his successors, Bishops of the same See, by special prerogative granted."
In his May 1982 visit to England, Pope John Paul II declared St. Thomas More "a model layman who lived the Gospel to the full." However, as James Monti has noted:
"Over the last 20 years, it seems that the Saint has been put on trial again, charged with the supposed 'treason' of being too ardent a defender of Catholic orthodoxy. More than one biography has appeared of late painting him in a less favorable light for that very reason. It will be our purpose... to demonstrate that the secret to More's greatness lay precisely in the reasoned ardor of his Catholic convictions."
Today there is discussion as to whether a renewed Apologetics hampers the Church's genuine ecumenical efforts. St. Thomas More saw no contradiction between professing the truth of Christ and extending the charity of Christ even to those who declared themselves the Church's enemies. He would rather plead that his fellow Catholics "wake and pray and take the pen in hand."