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robert boltStalin famously asked how many battalions had the Pope. Today, with the Catholic faithful numbering over a billion, the answer might be, “Not battalions but billions.” In every age the secular power has known the sacred power to be its real enemy. When church and state conspire together the state ultimately wins, for the church’s real power can never be of this world, and any true believer who is involved in the clash between secular and sacred power will have to face stark choices.

The tensions and personal cost when this clash reaches a climax are perfectly pictured in two classic films written by English dramatist Robert Bolt. Bolt returned time and again to the themes of the individual conscience in conflict with a ruthless and utilitarian establishment. Bolt himself was imprisoned for protesting nuclear weapons, and his heart for the idealistic individual pitted against those who accept “the way of the world” influenced his work on major films like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryans Daughter and Gandhi. Bolt’s two most famous works, however, focus on the clash between sacred and secular power within a Catholic context.

A Man for All Seasons, was first written as a radio play, Bolt expanded it into a successful stage play and adapted it to become a fine film directed by Fred Zinnemann. A Man for All Seasons explores the trial and martyrdom of St Thomas More, while The Mission moves to South America and the conflict between the Jesuit missionaries and the colonial powers of Portugal and Spain. Underlying both films is the clash between the individual and the establishment, between sacred beliefs and secular power.

manallseasons-synIn A Man for All Seasons Thomas More rejects King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn with sharp rational restraint. Robert Bolt’s treatment avoids an easy hagiography and unlocks not only the complexity of More’s character and choices, but compares More’s courageous stance with the complicit compromise of his former protege Richard Rich. When Rich is rewarded for betraying More by being made Chancellor of Wales, More leans across and forgives him with the witty words, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”

More refuses to compromise, but he also refuses to rebel against the established order. As a lawyer, the law becomes his refuge. Although he disagrees with the established order, More will not rebel against it. When his safety and that of his family is threatened by the duplicity of Rich, he refuses to have the man arrested for he has broken no law. More insists on the validity of the law, and obedience to the law. It is his dialogue with his son-in-law about the legitimacy of the law which defines the heart of the film and the heart of More’s faith.

William Roper says, “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

And More replies, “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

Roper protests, “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More’s passionate reply grounds him and elucidates the whole conflict between the sacred and the secular. “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

In other words, when the Christian is in conflict with the secular power he may not compromise his beliefs, but neither may he rebel and break the law of the secular power–even when the secular power is evil. Bolt shows those in power as corrupt, evil, and ambitious, but still the saint does not compromise or rebel for by doing either he becomes one of them. The only option then is the way of the martyr, and it is this way–courageously refusing to compromise, and yet not yielding to the temptation to rebellion that St Thomas More embraces.

Mission 4The Mission hammers home these conclusions with more action and drama than the quietly intense Man for All Seasons. Based on events surrounding the Treaty of Madrid of 1750, the film tells how Cardinal Altamirano—a papal ambassador—arrives in Paraguay to oversee the closure of Jesuit missions to the native tribes. The missions are to be closed because they are in territory that had been transferred from Spain to Portugal. The Portuguese allowed the native peoples to be enslaved. The Spanish did not. Wishing to continue the slave trade, the Portuguese demanded that the Jesuits be reined in. Furthermore, the Jesuit missionaries’ commune-style plantations not only provided a safe haven for runaway Indian slaves, but also sharp competition to the plantation owners.

If Cardinal Altamirano sides with the secular powers the Jesuit missions will close and the native peoples will be enslaved. If he sides with the Jesuits the colonial powers will suppress the Jesuit order across Europe and threaten schism in the church. Like Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, the Cardinal chooses compromise. When he does the Jesuit fathers must also choose. Do they compromise and leave their calling and their people? Do they obey the church even when she makes a manifestly unjust and worldly decision or do they rebel against the established church and state and take up arms?

Three of the Jesuits choose rebellion, resort to killing and are themselves slain. Their leader, Father Gabriel, celebrates a final Mass, then processes towards the attacking soldiers with his people, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, only to fall at the last, accepting, like St Thomas More, to die the martyr rather than the rebel.

Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt died an agnostic, but as one of the most consummate screenwriters of his generation, he has left us two the fine Catholic films. A classic film deals with timeless themes and A Man for All Seasons and The Mission have become classics because they make real the perennial clash between this world and the next, between faith and utilitarianism, between the sacred and the secular.

In both films the soul’s stark choice emerges: when faced with an evil earthly power will the Christian compromise or rebel (in which the soul is lost) or be a loyal citizen of the secular power while never betraying the sacred trust? The challenge is, as More himself put it before the axe fell, to “die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

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12 replies to this post
  1. No, when the established order, whether secular or religious or both, is evil, one must resist it. The Bible does not require us to support evil. Bolt should have read writings such as “Lex, Rex”, by the Rev. Samuel B. Rutherford (published 1644) and those of the Framers of the American Constitutional Republic. Evil, wherever it shows its ugly face, is to be fought and defeated. The Old Testament Prophets were uncompromising manly men who rebuked evil in the kings, the established priests of Baal, and the people.
    The doctrine of “divine right of kings” is a false doctrine. God NEVER delegated autonomous authority to the civil rulers or to the “church”. They deserve the support of the people only when they rule according to God’s law. When they depart from God’s Law, they are to be rebuked and disobeyed. Remember the midwives who protected the babies!

  2. Thank you for this post……..two of my longtime favorite films…… and for some reason, lately, the film “The Mission” has been on my mind……….probably because of our current state.Good insight.

  3. How I relish my weekly Longenecker “fix”! But Mr Publius, did Our Lord “render unto Caesar” and even submit to the state in His crucifixion, or lead a violent revolt or escape to the mountains? I’d put His messages ahead of those of whatever Founders some deify.

  4. The question is: WHO decides what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Your unstated presupposition seems to be that Caesar decides.

    But the Bible says the civil authorities are to submit to God’s Will and rule by God’s laws. I’m taking the liberty of linking to another site:

    And the Bible tells us over & over that the World [which God created and said was Good] and everything in it belongs to God.

    Our Lord submitted to the state for crucifixion b/c it was His purpose to die: To uphold the law that the penalty for sin is death.

    And don’t forget that He fashioned a whip and drove the defilers out of the temple. And He constantly criticized the ruling authorities of the perverted form of religion of His time.

  5. Fine words when the assumed conflict is between a secular state and a Christian opponent. We enter the era of the declared caliphate.

  6. Dear Fr. Dwight Longenecker,
    King Henry loved Thomas. All the King asked of his beloved friend finally, after it was clear that Thomas would not condone by law the King’s marriage to Anne, was that he should go home and mind his own business.and as he was not the Archbishop of Canterbury or even a cleric and no longer the Chancellor, the King’s plans were no longer any of his business. Rather it was then his business to protect his family and himself by discreet silence. But no, he began publishing pamphlets against the Sovereign and thus causing his own death and the complete annihilation of his family, Rather murderously egotistical I would say, Didn’t he know that the Almighty accepts the sincere intentions of the individual soul and does not require what is not in the individual’s power. He should have listened to the pleas of his family!
    Going further I would say that the Church badly mishandled the case of King Henry. He had been a faithful and knowledgeable Catholic and could not accept the Pope’s meddling in his sexual and dynastic affairs….after all,he was the King and the Pope far from infallible in the field of politics could have shown more patience and better understanding. In the end he lost England to the Church..

    • ‘Murderous egotism’ would certainly explain his persecution of William Tyndale; and any treatment of More’s life which fails to account for it might be catagorized ‘easy hagiography.’

  7. If the Founders followed this logic, the United States would not exist. Still, this is a dilemma for all Christians. Do we stand for truth and justice in this world or trust that God will deliver justice in the next? I prefer to take a stand in this world, especially when it involves the protection of the innocent and the resistance of tyranny. I cannot sit idly by and watch as evil rampages. God made me that way and I will have to face the consequences. Unlike Jesus, I am not strong enough to turn the other cheek. As a Catholic, I hope to have the opportunity for one last confession before I die to seek forgiveness for all the times I fail to live up to His standards.

  8. I hope IC will publish my answer to “smasty”. My heart is heavy b/c America – the United States – is collapsing; and I believe that BAD theology is the cause. If what I wrote is false, I trust others will correct me. If what I wrote is true, then should it not be heard?

  9. From the article: “In other words, when the Christian is in conflict with the secular power he may not compromise his beliefs, but neither may he rebel and break the law of the secular power–even when the secular power is evil.”

    Interesting and challenging claim, to be sure, but an unjust law is not a law, and obedience to an unjust law is not mandatory. In the right circumstances, a Christian most certainly “may rebel and break the law”. Indeed, not doing so may very well “compromise his beliefs”.

  10. On the other hand, because of More, (one might say) Gandhi could operate a program of lawbreaking and martyrdom in India, and MLK could do the same in America, and succeed. Gandhi would have lasted five minutes in Nazi Germany. Without the Fed, MLK would have lasted –not long –in Alabama. Only in a nation which combines the Rule of Law with the Rule of Conscience could such men even exist.

    Neither “Order at all costs”, nor “Liberty at all costs” is a conservative sentiment.

    With the emphasis on Obedience and Order, we end in a corporate police state. With the emphasis on freedom and independence, we end in nihilistic violence and the rule of feudal crimelords.

    What is required is balance and non-reflexive thinking.

  11. God requires us to disobey civil authorities who violate God’s Laws – that is why the OT prophets rebuked the civil rulers, John rebuked Herod, and Jesus rebuked the corrupt religious leaders of His time. We are to obey God, not man. Furthermore, God punishes The People when they go along with the sins of the civil authorities!

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