Beyond the Fictional Thomas More

I would like to raise a warning about the fictional Thomas More, the More who comes to us most notably through Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. I have read the play and watched the movie, but the real St. Thomas More is not completely found in either place. Something of his shadow appears in these works. But not the man. To take an old line, the More that Bolt offers us in this story is not More “as he understood himself.”

What Bolt gives us is a More made more palatable to our own time, because his mind is furnished with familiar clichés. The telling moment comes in an exchange with the Duke of Norfolk on the meaning of the Apostolic Succession, and therefore the authority of the Church. Bolt presents More as saying:

What matters to me is not whether it [Apostolic Succession] is true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it. . . .I trust I make myself obscure?

The question of conscience is put subtly to the side and transmuted: The truth of the Succession is replaced first by a “belief” in that truth, not the truth itself, to be tested and sustained on its own terms. And then, in turn, belief is given its standing only because it is More himself who holds it.

The key to understanding the problem is that this attitude runs so strikingly counter to the foundation of both “conscience” and human dignity set forth by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor:

To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

[But] once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation. . .[32-3]

The Family of Sir Thomas More by Rowland Lockey (after Holbein the Younger) c. 1594

Well, what difference did that make in More’s collision with the law in his confrontation with Henry VIII? The Parliament had prescribed a new order of Succession that would nicely cover the new order of things that came along with Henry’s divorce. And along with the law would come an Oath of Allegiance to this new order. More stood firmly in his refusal to take the oath. But he did not claim an exemption for himself from the laws binding on others, an exemption based on his personal beliefs. He refused to take the oath, because it was a wrongful law, properly binding on no one.

In making that case he appealed first to the fundamental positive law, closer to our constitutional law. He invoked both the Magna Carta and the Coronation Oath of King Henry VIII to establish that the “indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament, directly repugnant to the laws of God.” The Oath was repugnant to the “Holy Church. . .[and] it is therefore in law. . .insufficient to charge any Christian.” But his argument ran even beyond the Church to something closer to what More understood as a version of the natural law: “no more might this Realm of England refuse obedience to the See of Rome, than might a child refuse obedience to his own natural father.”

More saw no conflict, then, between his refusal to take the Oath and his duty to his King. In holding to the deeper law, he was calling into question the lawfulness of the Act of Parliament, and no duty to the King could entail the obligation to perform an unlawful act. And so More could truthfully claim that in going to his death, defending the law, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”  There is no “but,” no conflict for More between his obligations under law and to God.

It marks the most serious inversion, then, to offer More as an exemplar of “conscience” standing against the commands of the law. He did stand against the commands of a corrupted positive law, but what he never did was assert a claim for an exemption for himself, or for like-minded people, from a law rightly binding on everyone else – an exemption that could hinge on sincere beliefs of any kind.

It was only the fictional Thomas More who was willing to resist law on the basis of his idiosyncratic beliefs.  And what is conspicuously missing from that account was St. John Paul II’s understanding of “conscience” as the “knowledge of a universal good,” brought to bear on the case at hand, a case of practical judgment.

What Robert Bolt gave us, in the fictional Thomas More, was a man of an Age – but of our Age, or our epoch. What he screened out was the man connected to the enduring laws, the one who truly was a “Man for All Seasons.”

Gunnar Gundersen is an Affiliated Scholar of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His areas of research include religious freedom, property rights, and jurisprudence.