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On the Private Conscience of Statesmen Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 03 September 2013
 

In A Man for All Seasons, to a subtle offer by Cardinal Wolsey about how to save the Church for England by giving the King another wife, More responds: “When statesman forsake their own private consciences for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

This memorable line seems prophetic. It illuminates, if not skewers, the public figures we call “statesmen” today. We think especially of those who maintain that they “follow” their consciences even (perhaps especially) when formed contradictory to reason and Church teachings. The issue becomes stickier when we recall that Aquinas told us that we should, in fact, follow a sincerely erroneous conscience precisely for the reason that More gave – i.e. to avert moral chaos. But More’s conscience was not erroneous, even if most of the English aristocracy at the time thought that it was.

With the exception of John Fisher, the bishops of England at the time of Henry’s matrimonial problems had little problem with their consciences. They went with Henry, not the chopping block. Henry himself protested that his own conscience was unsettled by the prohibitions in the Book of Leviticus about marrying a brother’s widow. The same Book’s restrictions did not bother his conscience so much when dealing with the wives following Anne Boleyn.

In 1929, Ronald Knox (in “The Charge of Religious Intolerance”) had blunt things to say about those responsible for More’s death, words that we seldom hear in these ecumenical days:

A great crime was committed four hundred years ago, one of the foulest crimes in history. And while it is true that the principal author of it was a king for whom very few people have a good word nowadays, in a sense the responsible author of that crime was Protestant England. Not in the sense that when it took place England was a Protestant country; but in the sense – that the England that took that crime lying down, which raised no voice of protest against it and continued to make a hero of the bloody tyrant who was guilty of it, was an England whose conscience was already debauched.

Some five hundred years after the royal execution of More (July 6, 1535), the question is not whether England is Protestant, but whether it might more easily become Muslim, or even, less likely, Catholic.


          Sir Thomas More and His Daughter by John Rogers Herbert, 1844

But the ease with which the English Catholic prelates and people went along with More’s killing has to do with the prevalence of what Knox called a “debauched conscience.” The death of More did not involve just Henry. It involved the whole society, which merely watched.

We speak of democracy as if its choices exempt us from the personal moral responsibility that we bear in going along with its immoral laws and decrees. Our recent elections and court decisions are fraught with the judgment that Knox implied. Unworthy men and women rule by popular choice. Aristotle had warned us about the same thing, but he did not locate the problem in the “debauched conscience,” where it really lies.

As I read Knox’s comments, I thought of John Paul II’s controversial efforts to show sorrow and repentance for sins of the past committed by Catholics, especially popes. To my knowledge, no similar official effort occurred in England to express sorrow for the killing of More. That would, I suppose, involve questioning the foundation of the regime that followed Henry. Better to let sleeping dogs lie. Not all evils need to be requited in this world.

Yet on reading these comments, we have an eerie feeling. Many fellow believers in our time have little problem in embracing positions that are far more disordering of soul than the English bishops’ acting in behalf of Henry’s divorce, though divorce may, in fact, be at the bottom of much of our moral disorder today.

Ignatius Press published a small book of Joseph Ratzinger’s on conscience. In it, Ratzinger carefully dealt with the erroneous conscience. If one has taken little or no effort to “form” his conscience, it’s being erroneous looks less noble. The present day followers of consciences formed against basic orthodox teaching are a key to public life. In effect, they substitute their consciences for the law, then judge the law and those who stand for God’s law to be inhuman or out-of-date.

If we reread More’s statement, however, we see, I think, that he was right. When a statesman violates his own conscience or fails to form it so that he can judge reality, he does lead the community into chaos. Who can doubt that it is to this chaos that we are inexorably being led by such “statesmen” who make their own “debauched” consciences the norm of rule for all? 

 
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own. 
 

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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 03, 2013
In fact, Aristotle has some wise words to say on the duty of informing one’s conscience: “All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid; and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse. And consequently, the ignorance which renders actions involuntary and excusable is simply that which relates to the fact and its particular circumstances. In this case the person is excused and forgiven, being considered as having acted contrary to his inclination.” (Ethica Nicomachea Bk III. 1-2)
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written by Manfred, September 03, 2013
Thank you, Father Schall, for a truly excellent article. The More and Knox quotes are priceless. As you say, we do not hear comments like Knox's in these "ecumenical days".
But don't you think that churchmen such as Cdl. "Wolsey" Dolan of N.Y. should be condemned publicly for asserting that "statesman" Andrew Cuomo, who supports abortion, sodomite marriage and is himself living with a women not his wife, "is a Catholic in good standing"? It is fine for you to alert the "choir", but does it really require martyrs to make God's position known? Can't we have a Pope,for example, who between calls to rape victims, lays down the law to every bishop in the world as to what their responsibilities are and the penalty if they do not perform? As More and Fisher demonstrated, everyone is truly on his/her own. Only fractions of even Catholic humanity will ever be saved (which is the ONLY point of being Catholic).
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written by Jacob, September 03, 2013
Why can't we say it?
The Church was formed through Christ's passion, Anglicanism was founded through Henry's lust.
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written by DS, September 03, 2013
We don't hear words like Knox's today because the Church seems to have learned something about ecumenism since 1929. Vatican II had a few things to say on the subject, and Blessed John Paul II teaches about the "necessary purification of past memories" in Ut Unum Sint.

Two other figures - separated by centuries - provide an ironic counterpoint to St. Thomas More. Thomas Cranmer, the English reformer and Archbishop of Canterbury, who was an enabler of More's demise. Talk about a tortured conscience! And Benedict XVI, who paid a state visit to Henry VIII's successor in 2010 and prayed regularly with Cranmer's successor. It was Benedict who incorporated much of Cranmer's English reformed liturgy into the Anglican ordinariate.

Apparently, neither Benedict nor JP-II considered bluntness an effective ecumenical tool.
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written by Manfred, September 03, 2013
"..the Church seems to have learned something about ecumenism since 1929." Dear DS:It is obvious you are not of an Irish background. The Irish suffered horribly both in Ireland and the US (No Irish need apply) for their Catholic Faith from the Protestant elite. It is indeed unfortunate that Vatican II could not have been held in the 17th century instead of the Council of Trent. Then everyone would be getting along just honky dory.
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written by DS, September 03, 2013
Manfred, The Irish indeed suffered horribly. No one would deny that and no one can undo that. My Eastern European ancestors also suffered for their beliefs....and BTW sometimes within the Church from a narrow-minded Irish-American episcopal hierarchy. What are we to do with those facts in the 21st century? Ecumenism is not about settling historical scores, and perhaps Providence gave us Polish and German popes in succession to drive home the point. I'm not sure if Benedict XVI and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams got along hunky dory, but they knelt together and prayed to the crucified and risen Christ. Francis did the same as Cardinal Bergoglio with evangelicals in Argentina. Examples we should pay all pay attention to.
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written by Michael Baker, September 03, 2013
Well said, Fr James. The Catholic politician who prefers his conscience to the Church's teaching is acting as a de facto Protestant for Protestantism is precisely the preference for one's own authority over that of the Church. Note too the splendid comment on the issue of Bishop William Philbin reported in Fr John McKee's 'The Enemy within the Gate' (Lumen Christi, Houston, p. 227) that the Catholic is obliged by his conscience to follow the Church's teaching on moral matters.
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written by Manfred, September 04, 2013
DS: Thank you for your polite reply. My point is that Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of NOTHING. Pope Leo XIII declared the Anglicans had no orders. It was a scandal for the Vicar of Christ to be praying with a fraud, a heretic. That was the whole point of Father's article-England was Protestant before it was de jure Protestant. BTW, "ecumenism" is a Modernist word. "Amen, amen I say to you. This earth shall not pass away until every jot and tittle has been satisfied." I don't see anything flaccid or "huggy-warmy"in that statement of Christ.
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written by Leonard, September 05, 2013
I don't even think reason can inform our conscience. We know practically nothing about anything anymore that isn't shown to us in a little screen by people desperate to show us something, anything, that will maintain our attention for that moment. I only dimly recall, while listening to the statesman John Kerry speak about poison gas in Syria, that Bush and Blair lied to us about those very things and before that being assured by the same statesman Kerry, the two Clintons and even Al Gore, that these weapons were an existential threat. Chaos is the only thing I really have any belief in - I'm sorry.

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