Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Saint Thomas More - Conscience and Integrity

In the Robert Bolt play, A Man for All Seasons, Norfolk points out to Thomas More all the names of the people who had already signed the Oath of Succession and says, ‘Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?’ Thomas More replies, ‘And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

Even when I was attending Protestant churches, I had a deep admiration for Thomas More. And one of the reasons why I admired him so much was that he was a man who followed his conscience – despite the cost.

Even when just about everybody had signed the Oath of Succession and many people were urging him to do the same, Thomas More refused to sign it. Even when his friends and family could not understand his actions, Thomas More still refused to sign. Even when he knew there was a strong probability it would end in his execution, Thomas More refused to sign.

The Oath of Succession declared that Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legal and their children were legitimate heirs. It also involve renouncing the power and of any foreign authority or potentate and repudiating any oaths made to such a person (which would include the Pope). Thomas More was eventually executed for treason on 6 July 1535. Four hundred years later, he was canonised, on 19 May 1935.

Another scene involving Thomas More that I like comes from the television series, The Tudors. Cardinal Wolsey says, ‘Thomas, let me give you a little advice. If you want to keep the love of a prince, this is what you must do: You must be prepared to give him the thing you most care for, in all the world.’ Thomas More replies, ‘The thing I care for most is my integrity.’ Of course what makes that scene so poignant is that, in the end, Thomas More was not prepared to give up his integrity.

Integrity. It is (or at least should be) universally recognised as an admirable trait. But although ‘integrity’ as an idea is generally well thought of, people who actually have integrity are often thought of quite badly. I have never heard anyone say they dislike a person for having too much integrity. And yet people are often disliked for reasons associated with their integrity.

People of integrity do not do the right thing only when it suits them, but all the time. Their actions are not governed by self-interest or appearance, but by their consciences. And they will follow their consciences, even in the face of opposition. And that opposition doesn't usually stand up and applaud them for their decision.

Henry VIII did not give St Thomas More a pat on the back for following his conscience. He chopped off his head. Although it’s not on the same scale, in more recent times, pharmacists have received harsh criticism for refusing to sell contraceptives.

I believe most people think integrity is a good trait, and admire people for following their consciences – provided their conscience doesn’t tell them to do anything they don’t like.

Yet despite my admiration for people who follow their consciences and my belief that people should be allowed to follow their consciences in most cases, I do think conscience can be a bit of a cop out. In the scene from A Man For All Seasons, the inference is that St Thomas More will go to Heaven for following his conscience and everyone who signed the Oath of Succession will go to Heaven for following their consciences and there will be great fellowship in Heaven.

To a certain extent, I believe that people will be judged on how well they follow their consciences. If my conscience (or God) tells me not to do something and I do it, I expect I will be judged more harshly by God than those who were not told the same thing.

Yet at the same time, it creates a very relative idea of conscience. As though conscience were this thing that was wholly dependent on the person. And what may be right for one person may be completely wrong for another person. Maybe that’s sometimes the case. But surely not always.

Are we seriously to expect that every person who signed the Oath of Succession was following their conscience? Or that God wanted them to sign it and that Thomas More and John Fisher were the only two people he decided shouldn’t sign it?

Once we start saying you follow your conscience and I’ll follow mine, it makes it very easy for people to decide their conscience is telling them to do whatever works best for them. Perhaps the people who signed the Oath of Succession did not feel their conscience was telling them to do any different. But maybe this was because they refused to listen to their conscience for fear of what it might say. It is very easy to examine our consciences and pray for God’s guidance when the decisions we make will involve no sacrifice. But when these decisions may cost us greatly, we’re not so eager to see what God or our consciences has to say.

Not everybody shares my admiration for Thomas More. The Catholic Church views him as a saint. To some Protestants, he is seen more as a villain. This image of Thomas More was no doubt exacerbated by claims made in Foxe's Book of Martyrs that Thomas More used torture on heretics. Yet Thomas More denied these charges throughout his life and many scholars believe the charges are false. But Thomas More certainly saw heresy as a threat and seems to have approved the burning of heretics. (Although he did not, as some portrayals would have it, burn them himself.) That’s a hard thing for Protestants to accept. To be truthful, it’s sometimes a hard thing for me to accept. Yet I also know that I cannot judge the people of the past by the standards of today. What now seems like unjust cruelty may then have appeared the only option. From Thomas More’s perspective, it would have seemed better for a few to die than for many souls to be lost.

Men of integrity will always do things that others do not understand. St Thomas More made decisions that were criticised then, are criticised now and, no doubt, will be criticised for years to come. But I somehow think Thomas More would be quite fine with that. For Thomas More did not seek the approval of men. He sought the approval of God, in the best way he knew how, to follow his conscience wherever it led him.

To me, Saint Thomas More is a hero. A man worthy of respect and admiration. To others, he is nothing of the sort. But even those who disagree with him, even those who dislike him, should be able to see that he was a man of integrity. And surely St Thomas More has something to teach all of us about following our consciences, even when it costs us.


  1. You won't get any arguments from me when it comes to admiring St Thomas More.

    He's one of my favourite saints. The story I like most about his life is how he had the choice of two daughters to marry, and chose the one he thought would be good for his soul.

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    He's one of my favourite saints too. The picture I chose for this post used to be the background picture on my computer. But then I changed it for one of Erasmus.

    I have just finished reading Peter Ackroyd's 'The Life of Thomas More', which was an excellent book. I also have the biography of St Thomas More by his son-in-law, William Roper, but haven't read that one yet.

    If I could travel back in time, besides going back to when Jesus lived, I would go to the England at the time of the Reformation. And I would absolutely love to have a conversation with Margaret Roper. Not only would it be fantastic just to talk with St Thomas More's daughter, but it would be very interesting to hear a woman's perspective on what he was like and what was going on in England at the time.


  3. So wonderfully well put! Writing a paper on More now, agree completely with everything said here. He truly is a hero.



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