It is easy to become disenchanted with politicians. But historically, and even in modern times, there have been some admirable ones. Some have even become saints.
St Thomas More, the 16th-century martyr – executed by King Henry VIII for refusing to condone the annulment of Henry’s marriage and to place Henry’s authority above the pope’s – has always been the gold standard for Catholic statesmen, and for good reason. Few Catholic politicians have ever stood their ground as More did, and none has ever displayed more fortitude and grace.
Often depicted as a crusading, unyielding idealist, the real Thomas More was not naïve about efforts to perfect society on earth, nor was he opposed to compromise, saying: “What you cannot turn to the good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.” More’s famous last words at the scaffold – “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” – have also been misquoted. What he actually said was: “I die the King’s good servant and God’s first.” As the More scholar Matthew Mehan explains: “More’s final words were ones not of conflict or tragedy, but of hopefulness and harmony between God and man, Church and state, the individual and the collective.”
More tried ardently to influence King Henry and his followers – including, alas, all of England’s bishops, save for St John Fisher. Only when it became clear that these wayward souls had no intention of obeying God’s will did More accept the path of martyrdom, along with Fisher.
Two modern Catholic politicians who also lived out their faith, with astonishing strength, were Engelbert Dollfuss and Giorgio La Pira.
In 1932, with Hitler soon to obtain power in Germany, and Nazism already spreading in Austria, Dollfuss was offered the office of Austrian Chancellor. He accepted, though only after a night of intense prayer and reflection. From that moment on, Dollfuss, who stood barely five feet tall but was a man of indomitable courage, did everything he could to preserve Catholic values in Austria. Dollfuss was compelled to put down a dangerous socialist uprising, so he was branded a Catholic despot by his enemies.
But as the memoirs of the great anti-Nazi Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand demonstrate, Dollfuss was the only European statesman at that time who took a resolute stand against Hitler; and, far from being a power-hungry dictator, Dollfuss was a conservative Christian statesman who yearned for peace and stability. He was assassinated by Nazi agents in 1934, with Time magazine accurately capturing the moment with its subsequent cover story: “Austria: Death for Freedom”. Some 500,000 Austrians (in a country of only six million) attended his funeral.
Giorgio La Pira, mayor of Florence from 1951 to 1965, helped to write Italy’s constitution after the war. As mayor, he was a tireless advocate for the poor and workers’ rights, and passionately promoted international peace: travelling the globe, La Pira formed unlikely but fruitful alliances toward that end.
What motivated La Pira most was his deep spiritual life. As a young man, he became a Third Order Dominican, and even after becoming a successful politician he still chose to live in a monastery cell, maintaining the discipline he had always practised. Beloved to this day in Italy, La Pira was declared Venerable by Pope Francis last week, thus setting his Cause well on its way.
It was an unmistakable message that, even in the shadowy world of politics, Catholic politicians who hold on to eternal truths and refuse to cave in to unholy pressure can still become holy themselves.
William Doino Jr is a writer who contributes to First Things and Inside the Vatican