More's Understanding of Conscience

Thomas More stood up for freedom of Conscience

By Louis W. Karlin & David R. Oakley

I nside the Mind of Thomas More

Part of the Saints of Freedom Writings

MORE DIED FOR CONSCIENCE. He refused to accept that Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legitimate and that the king in Parliament had the authority to compel a citizen to affirm the state’s pronouncement. For that he resigned, was arrested, convicted of misprision of treason, and sentenced to life in prison. While incarcerated, he refused to acknowledge that Henry VIII was Supreme Head of the Church in England. For that he was convicted of high treason and executed. Meanwhile, with rare exception, the English bishops and statesmen capitulated. The contrast is simple and obvious. The more we learn about his final years, the more we appreciate his compelling example of individual adherence to the truth. But, first, however, we need to appreciate the nature of conscience for More, its proper formation, and the scope of its demands. There is a risk of substituting the current prevailing view of conscience for More’s and, perhaps, of undercutting the magnitude of his sacrifice.

More’s understanding of conscience is one with the Catholic Church’s perennial teaching. To be clear, it is not simply an exercise of personal autonomy. For More and the Catholic tradition, man’s nobility does not reside in the mere assertion of the self over and against the demands of the community or the state. To be sure, conscience has a significant, irreplaceable subjective component; but it also has an equally important objective component. “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil. . . . It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” 1 Virtue implies the power to ascertain the truths of morality and faith, apply them to concrete situations, and adhere to those judgments despite the cost. Here is the objective component: this judgment aims to be in conformity with what is truly just and good according to natural reason and the law of God. An upright conscience, then, is informed by education and by the Word of God. There is a truth that one is obliged to seek out and to discern in all its demands; More’s adherence to conscience is incoherent without a claim to truth. 2 “He believed in a created order which human beings could come to know and which included an objective law of nature written in the human heart, one that anyone can know by reason. . . . Conscience, then, provides the metaphysical foundation and the ultimate binding force of law, arising from the very structure of one’s being and not merely as the result of threatened punishment.” 3

At the same time, the exercise of conscience is subjective because only the individual can judge for himself. Nobody is infallible; the judgment of conscience can err. Nevertheless, one is obliged to obey it. As the Church has always taught, “[a] human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.” 4 Of course, one might be culpable of failing to inform his conscience, culpable of voluntary or semi-voluntary ignorance. Even then, however, one is not relieved of the responsibility of following the judgment of conscience. For More, as for the Church, conscience is founded upon a radical sense of freedom and corresponding responsibility: a person must seek the truth and do what he believes is right in light of the truth.

In the case of More, the question of adherence to conscience was tried in the crucible of the controversies concerning the vexed question of the unity of the Catholic Church. As he (and few of his countrymen) saw it, the Crown and Parliament were requiring him to affirm a falsehood, namely, that the Church in England could claim autonomy over Christian consciences, independent of the rest of Christendom and the pope in Rome. We should distinguish several stages in the personal and historical drama that ensued: resignation, arrest, and execution. In all these periods, More acquitted himself with a heroic adherence to the principle of the indivisibility of the Catholic Church. What distinguishes More’s heroism was that it was not rash or single-minded, but characterized by prudence and exercised with integrity, that is, with due regard to other obligations—to his family, his own life, the realm and, even, the king—until adherence to the supreme Good made conciliation impossible.opposition to the Oath of Succession solely on conscience’s subjective component, with seeming indifference to objective truth: “What matters is not that it’s true, but that I believe it; or no, not that I believe but that I believe” (emphasis in original). Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 91.

Louis W. Karlin is an appellate attorney with the State of California, who lives in Los Angeles, CA.

David R. Oakley is a criminal trial attorney, who lives in Princeton, NJ. The authors are both Fellows of the Center for Thomas More Studies, University of Dallas. They became friends as freshmen at Columbia University (class of 1985) while arguing the meaning and merits of Utopia. Over the past fifteen years, they have collaborated on numerous legal education seminars and articles about St. Thomas More

1 . United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), no. 1777.

2 . In this regard, Robert Bolt’s play is, strictly speaking, historically inaccurate insofar as More (in the play) bases his

3. Gerard Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 73.

4.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1790.

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