Study Guide

A Man for All Seasons Religion

By Robert Bolt

Religion

MORE: (Sits) A dispensation was granted so that the King might marry Queen Catherine, for state reasons. Now we are to ask the Pope to—dispense with his dispensation, also for state reasons? (1.219)

If this seems like a strange quote to kick off a section about religion, then you're not wrong—that's just how things roll in A Man for All Seasons. In the modern world, we talk a lot about the barrier between church and state, but that concept was pretty much unheard of in 16th-century England. For them, politics and religion were deeply intertwined.

MORE: As Your Grace pleases.

WOLSEY: As God wills!

MORE: Perhaps, You Grace. (1.241-243)

Note the subtle contradiction between More's and Cardinal Wolsey's words. Basically, More is insinuating that Wolsey isn't acting in a Christ-like fashion.

MORE: [...] Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you're a passionate—Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head's finished turning, your face is to the front again. (1.333)

And here's the sick burn courtesy of our main man Thomas More. Better start looking for some aloe, Roper. Jokes aside, this statement illustrates More's beef with most of his aristocratic peers: their beliefs go whichever way the wind blows—even their religious beliefs.

HENRY: [...] Yes, he wanted to be the Bishop of Rome. I'll tell you something, Thomas, and you can check this for yourself—it was never merry in England while we had Cardinals amongst us. (1.548)

Although we know that the real reason King Henry wants to distance himself from the Catholic Church is his desire for a divorce, he attempts to couch his objections in theological terms. It's not very believable. By the way, calling the Pope the "Bishop of Rome" is a not-so-subtle jab: it evokes the Protestant argument that the Pope was originally meant to be a normal bishop, not an all-powerful leader.

HENRY: [...] I stand in peril of my soul. It was no marriage; she was my brother's widow. Leviticus: "Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife." (1.560)

Do you really think that Henry gives two hoots about the laws of the Old Testament? If he did, he'd have to give up shellfish, too, but we doubt he's doing that. And, oh, yeah—if he cared that much, he probably wouldn't have married his brother's widow, either. Henry is clearly just grasping at straws in order to facilitate his divorce with Catherine (not to mention ease his own conscience).

HENRY: (Reprovingly) Thomas, Thomas, does a man need a Pope to tell him when he's sinned? It was a sin, Thomas; I admit it; I repent. (1.564)

If this is true, then why does Henry need to start a new religion? We're not taking the Pope's side or anything, but it's clear by now that most of Henry's issues with the Church are political rather than spiritual in nature, even though he attempts to frame them in theological terms.

MORE: I? What stands between them is a sacrament of the Church. I'm less important than you think, Alice. (1.612)

For his part, More is absolutely dedicated to the Catholic Church, which is maybe a little odd when you think about it. After all, it's not like he's especially spiritual. He's not even much of a fan of the current Pope. Regardless, the age-old traditions of Catholicism are what keep him coming back.

ROPER: My god wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else!

MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God? He sounds like Moloch. (1.699-700)

Talk about a difference of opinions. While Roper is an absolute fanatic in his ever-shifting beliefs, More believes that logic is God's greatest gift to humankind.

CHAPUYS: (Approaching MORE, thrillingly) And how much longer shall we hear the holy language in these shores?

MORE: (Alert, poker-faced) 'Tisn't "holy," Your Excellency; just old. (2.49-50)

More might be religious, but he's a realist to the core. His beef with Henry isn't about foundational religious principles or mystical truths or life-changing spiritual principles. It's simply about his own unwavering personal commitment to his faith. That really bucks modern stereotypes about religious folks, huh?

MORE: [...] The [...] Act of Parliament [...] is directly repugnant to the Law of God. The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! (2.783)

With his execution finally decided, More comes clean about his reason for refusing to sign Parliament's oath. In quintessentially More-like fashion, his opposition is based in legal reasoning—More believes that there should be a fifty-foot-high wall between political and religious matters. That's an incredibly forward-thinking mindset for the time.