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The Conscience of Thomas More
Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
October 15, 2010
Less than a month ago, on September 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed at Westminster Hall in London by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons. In that same hall, nearly 500 years before, on July 1, 1535, John Bercow’s predecessor, Thomas More, was condemned to death on the charge of treason because he refused to recognize Henry VIII, the King of England, as the supreme authority over the Church and over the pope. Recalling that earlier event, our Holy Father spoke of “the dilemma which faced More in those difficult times;” one which he described as “the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.” I cannot help but think of that historic event of last month as we celebrate this Red Mass in Kansas City, and as we pray for lawyers and statesmen, judges and other public officials.
I thank Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Bishop Robert Finn for their kind invitation and gracious welcome. It is a joy and honor for me to join these courageous successors of the Apostles at this Mass. I am also delighted to return to the heartlands where I grew up and especially to celebrate this Red Mass with the members of the St. Thomas More Society and the distinguished public officials who join us this evening. Thank you for your public service.
Thomas More was a man of quick wit and a judge of impeccable integrity, a statesman of rare abilities and Lord Chancellor of England. Of greater importance to him than these duties were his good friends and especially his wife, his family, and his Catholic faith. But the defining characteristic of Thomas More was his conscience. Pope John Paul II, in his Motu Propio proclaiming St. Thomas More the Patron of Statesmen and politicians, said: “Thomas More witnessed the primacy of truth over power…He died as a martyr because of his passion for truth… for him his moral conscience was a defining voice, the voice of God in his soul.”
At this Red Mass when we honor and pray for lawyers, judges, politicians and others who serve in the legal profession and public office, let us, with the help of the Sacred Scriptures and the personal writings of our patron saint, consider the role of conscience in the life of a follower of Christ, especially one called to serve in public office. Perhaps it’s best to begin at the end.
In the final weeks before he was put to death for refusing to subscribe the Oath of Supremacy demanded by King Henry VIII, nearly everyone in England, his peers, his foes and his friends, even the vast majority of the bishops and priests of his country, lined up on the side opposed to Thomas More. Lord Audley, his successor as Chancellor of England, called him ‘a foolish scrupulous ass;” King Henry screamed that he was “a traitor.” His own wife Lady Alice openly opposed her husband’s “scruple of conscience.” Even his beloved daughter Meg, his closest and dearest confidante in the last years of his life, failed to understand her father, and repeatedly tried to convince him to change his stand. This was what weighed heaviest on his heart, the fact that his own wife and all his children could not understand and openly disagreed with his decision. How, then, did he remain steadfast to the end? How did he remain true to his conscience in the face of such a barrage of scorn and pleading and tears, and in view of the dire consequences of his stand? To answer that, we need to go back to his early years when he was a student of the law in London.
His ultimate decision was determined a long time before his imprisonment in the Tower of London and his execution nearby. It was the consequence of years of searching God’s will and striving to develop the virtues to be able, in good times and in bad, to be guided by truth and love. His conscience was founded on a lifelong habit of daily prayer and sacrifice.
In his biography of Thomas More, Professor Gerard B. Wegemer describes More’s first four years after leaving home to begin his law studies (p. 15), “During these years, More worked at developing his prayer life and achieving self-mastery…As a result, he began the spiritual practices he would maintain for the rest of his life. Until the time of his imprisonment, he started each day with private prayer, study and Mass…He also limited the number of hours he slept, fasted regularly, and strove to teach his quick tongue to seek charity rather than victory.” Thomas More knew, from his early twenties, that the greatest threat to freedom of conscience did not come from outside a man but from within his own heart. That freedom had to be won anew, day after day, through the discipline of self-sacrifice, ongoing conversion and prayer. Freedom of conscience required freedom from self-deception, freedom from fear, and freedom from pride.
It is instructive to recall that Thomas More’s first book was not about the law but about the spiritual life. In it, he gives the following instruction on how to pray (Idem, 21), “I care not how long or how short your prayer is, and how effectual, how ardent, how interrupted and broken with sighs...if you desire to be secure from the snares of the devil, from the storms of this world, from the hands of your enemies; if you long to be acceptable to God; if you covet everlasting happiness—then let no day pass without at least once presenting yourself to God in prayer, falling down before Him flat on the ground with a humble affection and a devout mind; not merely with your lips, but from the innermost recesses of your heart, crying out these words of the prophet: ‘The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not, but in your mercy remember me because of your goodness [Ps 25:7).”
His daily prayer was built around the Eucharist and the Sacred Scriptures. Without a doubt, then, he read and prayed over God’s word to us at this Red Mass; and used these inspired words to examine his conscience. In our First Reading, the Epistle to the Galatians (5:18-25), St. Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” with “the fruit of the Spirit”. He writes: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
“In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.”
As St. Paul makes clear, as Thomas More knew well, and as we experience in our own lives, every human being is engaged in a spiritual battle, a struggle between the flesh and the spirit, i.e. between earthly desires that lead to the works of darkness, and eternal realities that lead upward to the light of truth and love. Thomas More, from his first days in law school, prepared himself for this battle and waged it from morning to night until the day he died.
He was convinced that to be a good lawyer he needed first to be a good man. He needed to excel in his knowledge of the law and his practice of argumentation; but even more he needed to excel in virtue and integrity. The same virtues that helped him grow in love also helped him to serve in the courtroom, to lead in the public square, and to offer sound advice to the king. A clear and well formed conscience allowed him the freedom to choose what was right and to reject what was wrong, both personally and professionally.
When one’s heart is set upon the things of this world then it lacks the freedom to put persons above things, and to decide on the basis of truth and charity; it wants only what will benefit itself.
On the other hand, the person with a well formed conscience, while aware of the ever present possibility of selfishness, grows ever more capable of receiving good advice, of remembering solid moral principles and of applying those principles to the duties at hand. Any person who is free from fear and from pride is capable of living the truth in love.
Recall with me, for a moment, the Church’s teaching on conscience. We read in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (#16), “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
Our conscience is so closely linked to our dignity as a person that we are obliged to follow it, even if it is erroneous. In other words, our integrity requires that we do what we think is right, even if in reality our thinking is wrong. This is why Thomas More could honestly tell his daughter Meg that it was important that she follow her conscience even when it disagreed with his.
He also knew, however, that when we act on an erroneous conscience, even if done in good faith and thus without subjective guilt for the sin, harm still results, and we and others will suffer the consequences. Objectively evil acts always cause harm, even when there is no subjective guilt. This is why we have the grave obligation to form our conscience in accord with the truth. Our knowledge of what is true helps us to realize those good things which ought to be pursued and those evil things which ought to be rejected. Thus, conscience is closely connected to prudence by which we can know what is good and also the right means of pursuing it.
We may be tempted to think that a good conscience, while being important for one’s personal life, makes little difference in the public square. Thomas More would totally disagree. His conscience was a bright light in the dark evil of tyranny that Henry VIII and his sycophant collaborators brought over England 500 years ago.
What is it that shapes history? Is it political and economic forces? Is it military might or terrorism? Or is it something much closer to the question of conscience. John Paul II, who witnessed firsthand the totalitarian ravages of Nazi terror and Communist oppression, was convinced that these powerful regimes, built on lies and brut force, could not last. For all their frightening power and catastrophic violence, they had nothing within them that could endure the test of time. Culture, the late Holy Father contended, is what shapes history through the ages and stands the test of time. By culture, he meant what men and women cherish and honor, what they believe and worship, what gives their lives meaning and is worth dying for, what they discover and hold to in conscience—that is what forms and transforms culture. In other words, people of conscience shape history.
An intellectual colleague and old friend of John Paul II, Father Jozef Tischner, when speaking of the impact of the Polish pope’s first pastoral visit to his homeland as Successor of St. Peter and the subsequent emergence of the Solidarity movement, described it as a “huge forest planted by awakened consciences.”
My dear brothers and sister in Christ, all who serve others in public office and through the legal, judicial and political processes, I urge you to follow the example of Thomas More, to be men and women of conscience. We find ourselves today immersed in a media-hyped, pop culture that claims to be free and that prides itself on “choice”; but it refuses to give due attention to the consequences of the choice or to the actual dependencies and addictions that run rampant in society and create havoc around us—things like alcoholism and drug abuse, unfettered greed, pornography, contraception and abortion.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II graphically described how legalized abortion has crippled the ability of many to form their conscience properly. He writes (#58), “The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an unspeakable crime. But today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness’ (Is 5:20)”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus looks the truth in the eye and calls things by their proper name when he confronts the lawyers of his day (Lk 11:46), “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.”
Lawyers in Jesus’ days enjoyed special status, were given places of honor at public functions, and dressed in distinctive robes but they used their office to exploit others rather than to serve them. They sought their own advantage rather than the good of their clients. Their public office, intended for service and the common good, became an empty façade rather than a respectable reality. So, out of love rooted in truth, Christ called them to conversion, just as He calls every one of His followers to be converted and live.
A person of conscience welcomes correction that is motivated by love and that is rooted in truth. He wants his life to be built, not on sand but on solid rock.
Thomas More “had to work hard to use the sharp blade of his wit to heal and construct, rather than to injure and dominate… [He] was a great talker and a constant joker. Such qualities can endear, but they can often irritate. When moderated they can become virtues, but when indulged they necessarily cause strife. More also recognized the inordinate strength of his attachment to the comforts and pleasures of life…But the fault that worried him the most was pride. In confronting these weaknesses, More did not try to excuse his faults by calling them virtues. This clarity of judgment led him to decide early in life to train himself with great diligence and care. Otherwise, he realized, he would stand to lose the battles that mattered most.”
John Donne said that Thomas More was “a man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Augustine.” Anglican clergyman Jonathan Swift described him as “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced.”
G.K. Chesterton wrote, in 1929, “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.” It has been nearly a hundred years since those words were spoken by Chesterton.
Tonight, let us give thanks to God for the example of courage and faith left to us by our patron saint Thomas More, a lawyer, a judge, a public servant, a husband and father, a follower of Christ in fact and not just in name, a martyr for love of God, and a man who remained faithful to the end to a well formed conscience.