On the Private Conscience of Statesmen

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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