Stalin 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, Ryan’s 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.
In 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.
The 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 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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