Wednesday, June 3, 2015

480 Years Ago Today: St. Thomas More to his Daughter Meg

Thomas More wrote to his daughter Meg on June 3, 1535 describing the latest interrogation he'd been called to in the Tower of London. He had not been questioned about his response to the Succession and Supremacy since late April 1535 (he wrote to Meg on May 2). Cromwell and the others wanted him to reveal why he wouldn't swear the oaths:

To this it was said by my Lord Chancellor and Master Secretary both that the King might by his laws compel me to make a plain answer there­to, either the one way or the other. 

Whereunto I answered I would not dispute the King's authority, what his Highness might do in such case, but I said that verily under correction it seemed to me somewhat hard. For if it so were that my conscience gave me against the statutes (wherein how my mind giveth me I make no dec­laration), then I nothing doing nor nothing saying against the statute, it were a very hard thing to compel me to say either precisely with it against my conscience to the loss of my soul, or precisely against it to the destruc­tion of my body. 

Cromwell tried to compare More's conscience to the consciences of the heretics which More had investigated as Chancellor:

To this Master Secretary said that I had before this when I was Chan­cellor examined heretics and thieves and other malefactors and gave me a great praise above my deserving in that behalf. And he said that I then, as he thought and at the leastwise Bishops did use to examine heretics, whether they believed the Pope to be the head of the Church and used to compel them to make a precise answer thereto. And why should not then the King, since it is a law made here that his Grace is Head of the Church, here compel men to answer precisely to the law here as they did then concerning the Pope. 

I answered and said that I protested that I intended not to defend any part or stand in contention; but I said there was a difference between those two cases because at that time, as well here as elsewhere through the corps of Christendom, the Pope's power was recognized for an undoubted thing which seems not like a thing agreed in this realm and the contrary taken for truth in other realms. Whereunto Master Secretary answered that they were as well burned for the denying of that as they be beheaded for deny­ing of this, and therefore as good reason to compel them to make precise answer to the one as to the other. 

Whereto I answered that since in this case a man is not by a law of one realm so bound in his conscience, where there is a law of the whole corps of Christendom to the contrary in matter touching belief, as he is by a law of the whole corps though there hap to be made in some place a local law to the contrary, the reasonableness or the unreasonableness in binding a man to precise answer, standeth not in the respect or difference between beheading and burning, but because of the difference in charge of con­science, the difference standeth between beheading and hell. 

This is crucial to our understanding of More's integrity, as Richard Rex noted in his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More: when More investigated charges of heresy, Rex notes, he referred to the egotism of the heretic, interpreting The Holy Bible idiosyncratically and ignoring the authority of the Church. He was acting upon his conscience as formed by the Church, not his own view and interpretation. The Acton Institute blog offers another summary of this distinction, commenting several years ago on The Last Letters of Thomas More edited by Father Alvaro De Silva:

Whereas modern doctrines of conscience characteristically emphasize the self-sufficiency of the individual’s judgment, More stresses its communal nature. More, to be sure, recognized the uniqueness of the individual conscience. More was, after all, imprisoned precisely because he could not, in good conscience, swear allegiance to Henry VIII’s oath. But in contrast to the modern claim that the individual can create his own moral values, More saw the “formation of conscience” as “the fruit” of an education “in the truth.” Far from being the arbitrator and creator of its own moral order, the human conscience is in need of conforming to the truth. For More, the formation of conscience is the result of a long process in which one discovers a preexisting created moral order. This was, in some sense, the issue in More’s dispute with Henry. Henry sought to substitute his own law for the “higher law of God and Christ’s Church.” 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.”

More makes this point in a long, artful letter in which he relates to his daughter the story of “Company.” The letter opens with Margaret urging her father to take Henry’s oath in order to regain his freedom. More proceeds to tell her about Company, “an honest man from another quarter,” who cannot agree with the questionable verdict rendered by his fellow eleven jurors. Angered that Company is stubbornly getting in the way of their decision, the eleven urge him to be “Good Company” and agree with their verdict. Open to the possibility of correction, Company says that while he already has considered the matter, he would like the eleven “to talk upon the matter and tell him … reasons“ he should change his mind. After the jury declines his offer, Company decides to keep to his own company; otherwise, ”the passage of [his] poor soul would passeth all good company.“ As More reminds Margaret, he himself ”never intended (God being my good lord) to pin my soul to another man’s back … for I know not whether he may hap to carry it."

More would again explain his views on conscience when at trial on July 1, 1535.

No comments:

Post a Comment