Sir Thomas More and the Christian Conscience
There are clearly inconsistencies in how we view Sir Thomas More. The image that most of us grew up with, although clearly incomplete was the Sir Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons”, where More stubbornly refuses to give consent to an oath making Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England. It is, for him, a matter of personal conscience, and to do it would be to betray who he is, his inner core.
But we know that More was not like that. He also terrorised heretics, and thought that if their souls could be saved, they could be burnt. This More just hovers on the margins of Bolt’s play, and is almost unseen.
Alistair Fox tries to reconcile the two by having a kinder, more gentle More, at home with humanists like Erasmus, and the later Lord Chancellor who terrorised the heretics. But that does not fit with Bolt’s play, which has the later More as the urbane, civilised figure.
As we have seen in the adaptation of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s More is much more unfeeling and fanatical towards heretics.
This duality persists to the present day. As Christopher Daly notes:
“Not long before the current pope, John Paul II, appointed More the patron saint of politicians, a popular biographer (Jasper Ridley) portrayed a gleeful hunter and persecutor of religious dissidents, made gloating and giddy by his own fanaticism” (1)
There is a preface to “A Man for All Seasons”, and Robert Bolt makes it clear how he saw Sir Thomas More. As Terrence Merrigan notes:
“Thomas More became for [him] a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases [and] ... he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigour, and could no more be budged than a cliff. “(2
That primacy of conscience and self is clear when Bolt has More saying the following about the apostolic succession and the primacy of the Pope: "But what matters to me is not whether it's true or not, but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it."
But where More’s stance is actually located is slightly different. It is not just a matter of private conscience. More says:
"If there were no one but my self upon my side and the whole Parliament upon the other, I would be sore afraid.. I am not bounden to change my conscience and conform it to the general council of our realm against the general counsel of Christendom."
As Jack Kenny notes, More was not appealing “to some private soul or self within, but to 'the whole corps of Christendom' without. And what he feared to incur, by taking the oath, was not a metaphysical spilling of self, but the everlasting loss of God." (3)
That is why he could also be fanatical in his pursuit of heretics, and during his two and a half years as Chancellor was ultimately responsible for the execution of five heretics. And that is why he could boast, in a letter of his, that he “was a source of trouble to thieves, murderers, and heretics"
Peter Ackroyd is probably the best historian to tackle this paradox. Ackroyd looks at the exact words that More uses about the general counsel of Christendom, and notes that "conscience was not for More simply or necessarily an individual matter". It was keeping faith with the church.
John Guy notes that much of what comes to us about More comes from later sources, not all of which are without bias. Thomas Stapleton's Life of Thomas More, for example, was written in 1588. More died in 1535. A gap of 53 years divided the two.
Guy also notes, contrary to those who would downplay More and heresy, that he was fanatical:
“There is no dispute over his crusade against heresy. His defence was that heresy was so dangerous, it demanded the `rigour' of the law in every case. His rationale was set out in the Preface to the Confutation of Tyndale's Answer and in his Apology and Debellation of Salem and Bizance. Heresy was a heinous crime. It was treason against God and the Church. It was a crime against the King. It was deserving of capital punishment for the protection of the faithful and the realm.” (4)
As More wrote to Erasmus: “I find that breed of men absolutely loathsome, so much so that, unless they regain their senses, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can possibly be”. Contrary to More, Erasmus thought it right to suppress books, but that burning people for opinions was wrong. But he also saw that burning books was pointless, it would remove them from libraries, but not from people’s minds.
And More himself constructed some of his own legacy. He wrote letters in 1534 to his favourite daughter Margeret, despite the fact that she visited him as well. Guy suggests that he uses the letters to put his own version of history into the records; it is clear that the letters had more than one audience, and More was thinking of posterity.
“Surely the very existence of these letters is significant, when More was so careful to have his other Tower letters returned or destroyed and when, as in Margaret's case, the correspondents spoke face to face” (4)
The biographers who came after seemed to have sometimes created speeches which they put into More’s mouth. William Roper, his son in law, wrote his memoir about 20 years after More’s death. Roper has More say this to his accusers at his trial at Westminster hall on 1 July 1535, giving what he purports to be More’s exact words:
“Forasmuch as … this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and His Holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part whereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual pre-eminence by the mouth of our Saviour himself, personally present upon the earth, only to St Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted, it is therefore in law amongst Christian men insufficient to charge any Christian man.”
The problems with this are manifold. More has been described as a “papal minimalist; he thought that the Pope was not above the General Council of the Church, which could depose an unworthy Pope. That is why he framed his arguments about Christendom, about the church as a whole. It is Bolt, who following Roper, makes More much closer to John Fisher, who really did think the Pope was above the General Council.
As Guy notes, another problem is with multiple attestation. Roper was not present at the trial, “”and yet no one among those who were actually present seemed to notice this section of More's speech”
It reminds me very much of the speech which T.H. Huxley put into his own mouth in the debate over William Wilberforce. The contemporary accounts of the participants were largely replaced by a somewhat embellished version. As Jonathan Smith notes:
“Huxley, the traditional account has it, vanquished Wilberforce by responding to an insulting question about his own ancestry with a masterful rejoinder that exposed the Bishop’s ignorance of science and ungentlemanly behavior. Historians have shown that this traditional account is biased and distorted, a construction many years after the fact “(5)
As Guy notes on Roper’s version of More’s speech:
“Roper's attributed `speech' is almost certainly a `fiction'. It is not what Thomas More said; it is what he ought to have said. Roper's account of More's trial is in the style of a Sun journalist writing for The Times, describing an event that happened 20 years before, which the writer has only heard about from his friends”
And contrary to Robert Bolt’s rendering, More’s attitude to conscience meant conscience should confirm to the the doctrines or traditions which the Catholic Church had established since the time of the Apostles. As Marc Guerra notes in examining More’s letters:
“Nothing underscores the profound differences between More’s and the modernist’s understanding of conscience more than this fact: Whereas modern thought views the individual’s conscience as being above all other authorities, More’s conscience testifies to the superiority of the church’s authority to his king’s. More’s refusal to take Henry’s oath was not an act of civil disobedience but, rather, of obedience to truth and thus, in his view, an act of “genuine liberty.”” (6)
Thomas More who far distant from the rendering by Robert Bolt, who has him say:
“When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their own public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
More’s understanding of conscience is still one which underpins the Catholic teaching on the subject. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it states:
“While all of us have the right and duty to follow our consciences, it is likewise true that our consciences must be correctly formed, and that is truly a lifelong task.”
And it goes on to say:
“In the formation of conscience, the Word of God is the light for our path we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice (cf. Catechism, no. 1785). Further, in forming our consciences, we must be “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” ( cf. Dignitatis Humanae [DH] .”
And it lists ways in which conscience can go astray, among them:
- A rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching
- A mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience
Sir Thomas More would have gladly assented to these propositions, and it is possible to see how this same man who declared the importance of conscience, who would not budge on his beliefs, could at the same time be a hater of the heretics without contradiction.
Wolf Hall may not depict Thomas More in the best of lights, but perhaps that is a much needed corrective to the depiction of Robert Bolt of More as more of a Quaker, which he never was.
If you really want to see a different depiction of conscience, look to the Quakers in the Great War. Their conscious did not permit any endorsement of violence on political or religious grounds. Sir Thomas More’s conscience did.
Of course, centuries separated those periods, but its foundation goes back to the Quakers from the time of their founder, George Fox, where from the start had always rejected violence, while at the same time, seeking to follow their Christian conscience. In 1660, they wrote:
“For this we can say to all the world, we have wronged no man, we have used no force nor violence against any man: we have been found in no plots, nor guilty of sedition. When we have been wronged, we have not sought to revenge ourselves; we have not made resistance against authority; but wherein we could not obey for conscience' sake we have suffered the most of all people in the nation. We have been counted as sheep for the slaughter, persecuted and despised, beaten, stoned, wounded, stocked, whipped, imprisoned, haled out of synagogues, cast into dungeons and noisome vaults, where many have died in bonds , shut up from our friends, denied needful sustenance for many days together, with other the like cruelties.”
(1) The Life of Thomas More, Christopher Daly, Anglican and Episcopal History, 2009
(2) Conscience and Selfhood: Thomas More, John Henry Newman, and the Crisis of the Postmodern Subject, Terrence Merrigan, Theological Studies, 2012
(3) God's Servant First, Jack Kenny, The New American, 2010
(4) The Search for the Historical Thomas More, John Gut, History Review, 2000