The Trial of Sir Thomas More: The Historical, Legal, and Political Background
An outspoken critic and a man of silence, firm in his conscience, a counselor to the King, Royal Chancellor, famous author, and successful businessman: Sir Thomas More remains a curious figure of English history.
The Thomas More Society of the Notre Dame Law School and the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religious and Public Life hosted Louis W. Karlin and David R. Oakley in Biolchini Hall on Thursday, April 5th, to discuss the trial of Sir Thomas More and their new book, Inside the Mind of Thomas More, The Witness of His Writings.
Karlin, Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice, and Oakley, partner at Anderl & Oakley, P.C. (Princeton, NJ) presented on the historical, legal, and political background of the famous saint and lawyer. Taking turns on the podium, the two authors presented an overview of the trial and the man himself to a room full of ND law students and faculty. Following their talk, the two men led a discussion with undergraduates and law students titled, “Thomas More on Conscience and the Rule of Law: A Discussion of More’s Thoughts and Actions, Focusing on His Dialogue on Conscience.”
Student Discussion on Law and Conscience: A Reflection
Our discussion of A Dialogue on Conscience was deeply analytical, informative (especially to a non-PLS major who hasn’t read More before), and most importantly, thought provoking. The important questions: what is the basis of conscience, what gives certain beliefs the moral force of conscience, and to what extent can we act in accordance with our consciences if the law requires otherwise? And, At a societal level, what are the proper roles and duties of political leaders and citizens in determining and following law? While we didn’t fully answer these questions, we developed a better understanding of how to think about conscience and think through its relationship with law.
The readings were two letters about the efforts of More’s daughters to convince him to take the Oath of Succession. They feared the consequences of his refusal to do so, but More had legitimate, well-reasoned objections to the oath. King Henry VIII had recently divorced his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon and the oath required subjects to recognize Anne Boleyn as the King’s lawful wife. This would, in More’s view, impermissibly separate the church in England from the authority of the Catholic Church on the basis of the Church’s teachings on divorce. More’s daughters and many of his friends simply did not see this point objectionable to the degree that More did.
The discussion focused on More’s responses to his daughter’s plea. More possessed unshakable faith. This faith grounded his argument that there is only one authority––God––to which he must answer. By refusing the oath, he acted in accordance with a good conscience that he had formed through deep reflection on his values and faith. To take the oath would mean to intentionally act contrary to his conscience, and such an act would not bode well for his salvation.
He could not take the oath simply because others asked him too. In a parable he asked if those who wished him to take the oath would, in return, follow him to Hell when God judged that he had acted contrary to his conscience. He could not take the oath in spite of threats of imprisonment or physical harm, including death. Indeed, he was unwilling to take the oath for any reason less than a fundamental change in his personal conscience. This message is powerful.
On the relationship between law and conscience, More recognized that the proper role of the citizen is to obey laws, behavior which sustains societal order. But laws, as in the case of the oath, are not always right, just, or able to be followed in good conscience. More’s example suggests an indirect and thoughtful approach to conscientious objection. He remained personally unwilling to take the oath, did not fault others for taking the oath on an assumption of good conscience, and appealed to a higher authority––the General Council of the Church––to provide moral judgement and prevent a slide into relativism.
More’s example offers a few enduring lessons. We pay a price for acting in accordance with our conscience when it leads us in a direction contrary to mainstream opinion. But the price pales in comparison to the immortal value of commitment to conscience. We should be wary of the often fickle nature of majority opinion, especially on moral matters. We are better off pursuing the formation of our consciences without undue deference to the general public. Such a duty requires us to not passively succumb the scruples of the time, but rather to think hard about tough questions of religion, tradition, and more. The road less traveled is not easy, but we should appreciate––as I think More was trying to communicate––that it is through fulfilling our duty to good conscience that we become better practitioners of faith.
Nick Marr is a sophomore from Southern California. He lives in Knott Hall and studies history and political theory. As a 10 year old he argued with a Supreme Court Justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Soren Hansen is a junior and a Lewis Chick hailing from San Diego, CA. She is an enthusiastic PLS major and Constitutional Studies minor. Her interests include philosophical discussions over pizza and dressing professionally, always. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org