For anyone to be canonised in the Catholic Church, there first a long process towards canonisation which has as its aim to establish that the person concerned practised the cardinal and theological virtues to a heroic degree.
The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. The Old Testament book of the Wisdom of Solomon identified these: Wisdom, chapter 8, verse 7, says: “And if any one loves righteousness, her labours are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable … than these.” (Wis 8:7). Likewise, Plato in book 4 of The Republic around 380 B.C. identifies the same four moral virtues of wisdom (or prudence), courage (also called fortitude), moderation (or temperance) and justice.
Prudence is called the queen of virtues – because it governs the other virtues.
Thus Justice must be applied with prudence.
Temperance must be practised prudently.
Fortitude must be practised prudently.
Aristotle had the great insight that the virtues are not met, either by deficiency – not going far enough – or by excess, by going too far. So, for example, a deficiency in fortitude leads to cowardice and shirking of duty when there is danger or difficulty; whilst an excess of courage leads to temerity and recklessness. Virtue stands in the middle, as Aristotle observed, between the two extremes of either side.
The cardinal virtues are so called because the Latin word cardo means a hinge. They are the great moral habits upon which all praiseworthy human behaviour hinges. Other virtues are related to them as species, or associated by similarity.
There are three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity: named by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13.
The theological virtues derive their name from the fact that they have God as their direct object, theos being the Greek word for God.
The first decree of positive approval of the candidate’s life on the road to canonisation concerns the virtues of the person. No account is yet taken of claimed miracles. That first decree of approval is the conferral of the title of Venerable, which is the step before being called Blessed, after which comes Saint. To be declared Venerable means that, according to the human evidence gathered, the candidate for sainthood lived these seven virtues to a heroic degree: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope and charity.
The title of Venerable means these virtues were present in the person in a manner that was heroic, not just noteworthy. That is, it has been established that they were tested by pressures of life that would have shown up anything counterfeit or superficial or merely good. Endurance and perseverance have shown these virtues to be rock solid. A building may look sound and beautiful, but only a severe storm or earth-tremor will really test its foundations. Saint Thomas More was obviously a kind and just and charitable and principled man, but we would never have known the depths of his charity and fortitude and uprightness had he never faced certain nasty people to whom he always responded with gentleness and love, with righteousness and honour, even when they continued to reciprocate with bitterness, and plots to destroy him.
In a living body, the organs can be distinguished from one another, but they do not exist separately; they function as parts of a harmonious whole. Still, the arms and legs and heart and liver and brain and the rest are studied separately in anatomy. In the same way, though the virtues of a truly good person are blended into one harmonious model of noble behaviour, a study of them one by one can lead to a deeper appreciation of what is going on as the person faces the diverse challenges of life.
Prudence: Sir Thomas More practised counsel and prudence in dealing with his enemies who sought to entrap him and harass him and provoke him into making some statement against the King and the King’s desire to take over the Church and make himself its head. No one could quote a single slip of the tongue, until Richard Rich decided to commit perjury and fabricate something More had never said.
Justice: His enemies had More charged with accepting bribes, but the charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence. Even while on his way to execution, a woman followed him, crying that he had done her much wrong when he was Lord Chancellor, to whom he said, “I very well remember the Cause, and if I were to decide it now, I should make the same Decree.” (A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceeding Upon Impeachments for High Treason, etc, London, 1719)
Temperance: The virtue of temperance he practised unexhibited day after day – for he wore a hairshirt every day of his adult life. That in itself is a heroic penance and requires heroic self-control.
Fortitude: Everyone knows of the courage and equanimity with which he suffered imprisonment, and the extreme cold and deprivation in the prison, which he left only for his trial for treason, ending in his condemnation and public beheading.
Faith: Did St Thomas More have faith, and strong faith? It was precisely for his faith that he was put on trial, for he would not sign or swear anything against the Catholic faith, no matter how much pressure was put upon him.
What the virtue of faith means is well expressed in the traditional Act of Faith: “O my God, I firmly believe all the truths that the Holy Catholic Church believes and teaches; I believe these truths, O Lord, because Thou, the Infallible Truth, hast revealed them to her; in this Faith I am resolved to live and die. Amen.”
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay remarked on More’s faith in his essay of 1840 reviewing von Ranke’s Lives of the Popes. Lord Macaulay (a Protestant) remarked:
… when we reflect that Sir Thomas More … [believed in] the doctrine of transubstantiation, we cannot but feel some doubt whether the doctrine of transubstantiation may not triumph over all opposition. More was a man of eminent talents. … We are, therefore, unable to understand why what Sir Thomas More believed respecting transubstantiation may not be believed to the end of time by men equal in abilities and honesty to Sir Thomas More. But Sir Thomas More is one of the choice specimens of human wisdom and virtue; and the doctrine of transubstantiation is a kind of proof charge. A faith which stands that test will stand any test.
Hope: Christian hope does not mean the belief that things will get better! For St Thomas, on a worldly level, things got worse and worse: pressures to conform, accusations, charges, imprisonment, trial, condemnation, execution. The meaning of Christian hope is best expressed in the traditional Act of Hope: “O my God, relying on Thy promises, I hope that, through the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, Thou wilt grant me pardon of my sins and the graces necessary to serve Thee in this life and to obtain eternal happiness in the next. Amen.” So he thought and expressed it in a letter to his daughter Margaret, written the day before his execution, saying, among other things: “Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven.”
Charity: The key Christian virtue is charity. Although it is normally listed after faith and hope, it is in fact the greatest of the virtues, the mother of them all, the soul without which no virtue is really alive.
The Apostle Paul put this in a startling way: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:3). Some might ask: “But is that not what charity means – giving what you have to the poor, or helping some worthy cause with a large donation?” Obviously the Apostle thought there was a lot more to it than that. So the rich concept of ‘charity’ has to be understood aright. The charity of which the Apostle spoke, and Saint Thomas More practised, is love of God as the chief commandment, and the love of neighbour for the love of God. So the traditional Act of Charity expresses it: “O my God, I love Thee with my whole heart and above all things, because Thou art infinitely good and perfect; and I love my neighbour as myself for love of Thee. Grant that I may love Thee more and more in this life and in the next for all eternity. Amen.”
Apart from treating his own servants so well, and the poor who called upon him, St Thomas practised the hardest form of charity – the charity where there can be no mixed motives behind it, the charity which gives no human consolations or a warm inner glow, no self-satisfied feeling of doing good to those who need your help, namely, the charity of loving one’s enemies. No one commends you or praises you or rewards you for that charity; no self-satisfaction comes with that virtue: loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you. Thomas never spoke or wrote one word of resentment against his false accusers and perjurers; he desired only their conversion and repentance and salvation.
Was Sir Thomas’ virtue solid or superficial? His 13 months in that cold bleak prison of the Tower of London answer that question.
Was Sir Thomas principled or pragmatic? His martyrdom of itself answers that question. In a letter from prison to his daughter Margaret, he relates a meeting he was summoned to, a few days before his imprisonment, with a collection of very high religious and secular officials, who tended him the Oath of Succession, now containing an abjuration of the Pope’s authority over the Church in England. More remarked in that letter: “unto the oath that there was offered me, I could not swear, without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation.” Saving his soul and not betraying his faith were his highest values. His friend Erasmus defended More’s character as “more pure than any snow” and described his genius as “such as England never had and never again will have.”
Here is a little prayer St Thomas wrote for a happy death:
“Good Lord, give me the grace so to spend my life that when the day of my death shall come, though I feel pain in my body, I may feel comfort in soul and – with faithful hope of Your mercy, in due love towards You and charity towards the world – I may, through Your grace, depart hence into Your glory.”
This Homily was given by the Rev Fr. Peter Joseph in the Crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 22 June 2023.