The Thinking 

Much Ado About a Hat

January 23, 2013


Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein, the Younger


The most senior Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, is in the news again, but this time not on the basis of a blistering dissent in a Court decision, or some commentary he made about a contentious issue. In fact, the current controversy centers on not what he wrote, but what he wore.

While attending the second inauguration of President Obama, Justice Scalia was seen wearing a hat that was commonly used by English jurists during the 16th century, but in particular the favored headdress of St. Thomas More, who, during the reign of Henry VIII, was martyred and then canonized as a saint of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1935. St. Thomas More, who is the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen, is shown wearing a similar hat in the widely known portrait done by the artist, Hans Holbein.

The recent publication of Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, has brought St. Thomas More back into the historical spotlight, but not in the same glowing and appreciative light that More was earlier treated in Robert Bolt’s play – later made into the 1960 movie – A Man For All Seasons. In both the stage and movie productions, More, trusting his fate to the English law, attempted to remain detached from Henry’s attempt to annul the marriage to his Spanish wife, Caterina, and marry the younger, and by then pregnant, Ann Boleyn. Neither More nor his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, both acting as Lord Chancellors of England, was able to get Vatican approval for the annulment of the marriage. Wolsey died without a trial; More was not that lucky. He was beheaded in July, 1536, instead of suffering the fate of those who were drawn and quartered for treason.

Mantel’s revisionism has not gone unnoticed. The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, O.F.M. (a Native American of the Potawatomi Tribe) has recently responded to Mantel’s description of More as a ruthless, sexually repressed rage addict in an article published in Public Discourse, the magazine of Princeton University’s Witherspoon Institute. Aside from Bolt’s portrayal, Bishop Chaput cites scores of influential Englishman, including the Anglo-Irish writer, Jonathan Swift, who claimed that More was “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom (England) ever produced.” Europeans (it was Erasmus of Rotterdam who called More, a man “omnium horarum“), have also confirmed the Bolt interpretation. One can only suspect that Mantel, who Bishop Chaput calls “a lapsed Catholic, whose disgust for the Church is on public record,” had an ulterior motive. In any case, the BBC will begin a mini-series based on the novel this year.

Before his execution, More was able to smuggle out of the Tower a brief piece called, The Sadness of Christ. In it, More insisted that for the English bishops to accommodate this attack on the Church would put, “virtue and the faith in jeopardy.”

But to return to Justice Scalia. How is one to read his wearing of a More type headdress to President Obama’s inaugural? I suspect that the Justice is aware that all religious bodies who oppose the Affordable Care Act will now be facing the most serious threat to their independence, guaranteed under the First Amendment, but deliberately challenged by an administration that seeks to roll over all opposition. I believe that the Justice wore that particular headdress for a specific reason, but I am equally convinced that it was not intended as a fashion statement.

Laura writes:

Scalia may indeed have worn this hat, which was a gift from the St. Thomas More Society of Richmond, Virginia, as a statement of his Catholic identity. But it is a stretch to interpret it as a form of protest, as has been suggested by various commentators and news organs, including The Christian Post. Scalia wore a similar black skullcap four years ago at Obama’s first inauguration. Also there is a tradition, now disappearing, of justices wearing four-cornered skullcaps to public events, as Tony Mauro writes at a blog for the Legal Times.

In any case, if it were a symbolic protest, it would amount to a weak gesture, especially in comparison to Thomas More’s acts of defiance.

Share:Email this to someoneShare on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest0Share on Google+0