I’ve enjoyed reading about the life of St. Thomas More, in, Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2003). What I enjoy about this book, besides the excellent editing work of John Thornton and Susan Varenne, is the preface to the book, written by the Jesuit, Joseph W. Koterski. In the preface, Koterski gives us a concise and to-the-point outlook and overview of the significance of St. Thomas More’s life. His analysis of the “judgments of conscience” is most striking.
Some background about the life of St. Thomas More is in order. St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was a scholar, lawyer, statesman & humanist. More lived in England during a time of “new learning” in Europe. As a friend of the remarkable Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, More contributed greatly to the scholasticism of his day. His literary works (e.g., Utopia and The Sadness of Christ) showcase an understanding of a wide range of theological and philosophical subjects. As a lawyer and commoner, More ascended to the highest levels of diplomacy in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), More was executed by Henry VIII in 1535 because of his silence on the issue of Henry VIII’s desire to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, so to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, which, according to Koterski, involved “a question of a truth based on revelation and the determination of authority [by the Roman Pontiff]” (xii, xvii). More’s trial was tense, to say the least. It is supposed that More was eventually charged with treason only because Sir Richard Rich (1496-1567), a prominent lawyer himself, committed perjury. Notwithstanding, once More was charged with treason, he chose to no longer keep silent about the issues surrounding his sentencing, and so he discharged his views about Henry VIII’s actions and the sentencing thereof. More’s “stance” at trial still serves as a remarkable testimony to truth and law. He said:
“And forasmuch as this Idictment 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 earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, Bishops of the same See, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law, amongst Christians, insufficient to charge any Christian man.” (xiii)
On a spring day in 1535, More was executed. At his execution, it is written he said, “I die the king’s good servant but God’s first”. He knelt down, prayed the Miserere (Psalm 51), kissed his executioner in “an act of forgiveness”, and then succumbed to the swift blow of the executioner’s ax (lxiv). More was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius Xi in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Pope Pius XI praised More as an example of “Christian fortitude” and described him as a “star of sanctity that traced a luminous path across that dark period of history” (lxvi). St. Thomas More’s patronage in the Catholic Church includes lawyers, statesman and politicians. He stands as an witness to law, truth, wisdom and knowledge amidst the fiery trials of martyrdom, and he stood for it all in the face of tremendous political adversity.
But how did he “stand” for it all?
It is said that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, dictated two sources by which he would relegate himself to a trial of authority: (1) by testimony of Holy Scripture; and (2) by his own conscience. Thomas More is said to have done so by two related sources: (1) by the authority of Christ’s Holy Church; and (2) by the “inner seat of reasoning and judgment about moral matters” (xv). On account of both of these sources, More stood before the world-court with a formed conscience, a conscience that exercised “proper authority and reason’s discovery of the natural law” (xv). Indeed, he stood before the world-court with a strong conscience.
Thomas More appears as someone who demonstrated an unusual sense of wisdom in relation to law and the governance thereof. His unusual sense of wisdom in relation to such is most likely due to a few reasons. One reason is that More was associated with the Carthusian Order in his youth, and so he most likely participated in the monks’ spiritual exercises of meditation and prayer (xxxvii). He also most likely read St. Thomas Aquinas on the judgments of conscience: i.e., a three-fold exercise that More could use in conjunction with the Carthusian spiritual exercises. The three-fold division of the judgments of conscience includes:
“(1) The recognition that we have done or have not done something (in this regard, conscience is said to be a witness);
(2) the judgment that something should be done or should not be done (here conscience binds and incites us to some action); and
(3) the judgment that something is well done or ill done (thus conscience is said to excuse, accuse, or torment us).” (xv)
The first of these judgments of conscience may be known to many, to Christians in particular, as an “examination of conscience”. It is important to note that the first step of the judgments of conscience, (“the recognition that we have done or have not done something”), is not the same as steps two and three of the same. In steps two and three of the judgments of conscience, there is a judgment done to the conscience. As such, steps two and three of the judgments of conscience are not strictly identical to the recognition or examination of the judgment of conscience, also known here as step one of the judgments of conscience. Examining or recognizing one’s conscience is not a direct judgment upon one’s conscience, but rather merely only an examination or recognition of the conscience that may lead to formal judgment of the conscience. In other words, examination or recognition of the judgments of conscience is not in-itself a judgment of the conscience. It is, rather, a step in bearing out actual judgment upon the conscience. The judgments of conscience themselves are, on the other hand, a step-beyond only examination or recognition of the conscience or of the judgments of conscience, for the judgments of conscience bear down on the conscience, convicting it, accusing it, tormenting it, binding it, inciting it, and so on. So it is steps two and three of the judgments of conscience I am most concerned with here, for these are crucial in identifying the life of a Martyr and Saint; they are crucial in identifying the life of St. Thomas More.
In conclusion, we might all do well to transition from merely examining or recognizing the judgments of conscience to actually judging the conscience. This sort of exercise of the conscience is what Martyrs and Saints are made of. And if you “delight in the law of God in your inmost self”, perhaps you should make it your exercise too (Romans 7:22).
Lance H. Gracy serves as contributor and editor-in-chief of TheEruditePress. If you want to know more about him, check out the “About the Editor” page.
All in-text citations found in:
Thornton, Varenne (Eds.) (2003). Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics. Print.
Citations from Holy Scripture according to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).