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📖(11 min. read) Conscience

Anthony Cullinan became brother Thomas Anthony in religious life to put himself under the patronage of Thomas More. This essay uses Bolt’s play ‘A Man for All Seasons’ to reflect on how conscience is formed by the search for truth rather than the search for integrity. 2715 words


I was at college when Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” was first performed. We got a party together to see it, and I remember joining in unanimous praise and gratitude.

It was shortly afterwards, hearing a radio talk by Anthony Kenny on the play, that I realised what a fundamental question Bolt had raised about ‘conscience’ and the extent to which I was a child of my time in being quite unaware of what was at stake.

In his preface to the play Bolt explains that he sees More as having a supreme sense of his own self and that it was on that self that he took his ultimate stand. Bolt admits he is taking a Christian saint and presenting him as an existentialist hero. The result, however, is that the one Samuel Johnson called “The man of greatest virtue these islands ever produced” is turned into an egoist.

Three passages from the play will illustrate this:

When he is Lord Chancellor More is asked to approve Henry’s divorce from Catherine and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He refuses and explains to his increasingly frightened wife: “I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little … little area … where I must rule myself.”

Again he explains to the Duke of Norfolk that as regards the Pope’s position it matters not whether it is true, only that he, More, is committed to it: “What matters to me is not whether it is true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.”

Lastly, at the trial Thomas Cromwell confronts More who retorts: “In matters of conscience the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his own conscience than to any other thing.” Cromwell fires back: “And so provide a noble motive for frivolous self-conceit!” “It is not so Master Cromwell – very and pure necessity for respect of my own soul.” “Your own self you mean!” “Yes, man’s soul is his self.”

These passages do not give a biased view of Bolt’s play. It is true that he does make use of plenty of dialogue from accounts of More’s day. But for all that his basic idea of conscience is not one that More would or could agree with. It is a modern existentialist idea which sees conscience as that by which I am true to myself rather than that by which I submit myself to reality and truth.

In the former idea it does not much matter what I believe, it does not much matter whether I spend time and prayer on perceiving the reality of situations – of becoming truly ‘conscious’ – what matters is sincerity. Conscience demands my obedience rather than enabling me to be obedient.

For the historical Thomas More conscience was not at all like that. It was not an alibi for keeping one’s ‘self’ intact come what, come who, may. There was no glory in being a martyr to a cause, if that cause was not discerned as true, and, in the end, of God. For More the word ‘conscience’ still conveyed something of its original meaning: consciousness. Or in the awkward English version of Latin American jargon: conscientisation. We cannot respond lovingly to what ‘is’ without giving ourselves to a long journey of analysis, reflection and self-forgetfulness. That is true of our daily affairs, but it is even more true in the ambiguities of political and environmental issues.

Paul VI said, in his precise way, “Conscience is an inner eye which sees; it is not itself the light which gives light … It can only command in so far as it obeys.”


There were two aspects of More’s behaviour which tended to baffle people then, and which are often misunderstood today. Indeed they are used to claim More as an ‘existentialist hero’. One was his continued silence about his reasons. The other was his refusal to judge others.

The first of these - his refusal to state his reasons for not signing the oath of supremacy – was for technical legal reasons. He knew that evidence was being or would be collected for use during his trial, and that refusal to give his reasons, even to his closest family, was simple prudence. But it was also because in complex matters where genuine difference could arise he did not want others to follow him merely out of admiration, loyalty or martyr-complex. No one could be let off responsibility in the matter. Indeed when he told Cranmer that it would be against his conscience to swear the oath he was quick to add “I have not informed my conscience either suddenly or slightly but by long leisure and diligent search for the matter.” This obligation to seek by long leisure and diligent search could not be side-stepped by hitching one’s conscience to another. When, for instance, his daughter told him in the Tower that some were saying that he was merely going along with John Fisher he says “I never intend to pin my soul to another man’s back, not even the best man that I know this day living, for I know not whither he may hope to carry it.” And on another occasion “There is no man living of whom while he liveth I may make myself sure. Some may do for favour, and some may do for fear, and so might they carry my soul a wrong way.”

Thomas More was well aware of how difficult it is to see clearly within the ambiguities of social realities. He was well aware of how easy it is to read those realities not in a self-forgetting way, but in such a way as to strengthen our vested interests, our club loyalties, our preconceived ideas. Some may do for favour, and some may do for fear …

But for all that he also recognised that honest people could, with long leisure and diligent search arrive at different conclusions – at least when the matter was debatable. Every age has its vital issues which because they are new cannot be handled with the criteria received from earlier ages. I think today that environmental questions are of that sort, as are those of nuclear deterrence and warfare. In More’s day the whole question of the unity of christians and the dangers of national sovereignty were likewise questions of honest doubt yet so important that one could put one’s life at risk for them.

In a long letter written to his family at Chelsea, when he was being interrogated by the Commissioners of the oath at Lambeth, he wrote: “Howbeit, as help me God, as touching the whole oath (he was happy to swear to the act of succession, but not the oath as presented which implied Henry’s supremacy of the Church), I never withdrew any man from it, nor never advised any man to refuse it, nor never put, nor will put any scruple in any man’s head but leave every man to his own conscience. And methinketh in good faith that so it were good reason that every man should leave me to mine.”

And again, at the same visit to the Tower by his daughter Margaret as I mentioned before, he said “I meddle not with the conscience of any man that hath sworne (the oath); nor I take not upon me to be their judge.”

This refusal to judge other people was not at all because More thought it irrelevant or secondary what a person believes as long as one is sincere in that belief. It was because he saw the matter in hand as coming within that restricted area of conscience in which there was scope for genuine dispute. He was insistent that everyone, especially in public office, had an obligation to inform one’s conscience. And that ‘informing’, far from being an introspective search into one’s ‘self’ was a search away from self to a study of scripture, the genuine traditions of the Church, the advice of wise counsellors, and an ability to see local issues with broad settings.

This became clear when, during his trial, he no longer needed to retain his silence, once condemned. He explains the scriptural evidence for the Pope as centre of unity in Christendom (Thomas was far from a rabid papalist); he appeals to Magna Carta and to the King’s coronation oath; he recalls the history of English Christianity from Augustine; and especially he compares the opinions of ‘well-learned bishops and virtuous men’ within the English scene with those past and present within Christendom at large. This is no claim to selfhood and indeed Thomas explained that “If there were no one but myself upon my side, and the whole of Parlement upon the other, I would be sore afraid; (but) I am not bounden to change my conscience and conform it to the council of our realm, against the council of Christendom.”

Robert Bolt makes verbatim uses of this final speech of More. But it is less than clear how it fits his earlier thesis that it matters not whether a thing be true or not, only that I believe it!


The numbered pages stop at this point but the text continues …

True integrity flowers only in the soil of humility, patience, the ability to suffer for what is just, and immense love of people. Integrity is claimed by those of lesser spirit whose martyrdom for self or martyrdom for a cause are no more than pride masquerading as integrity. But Thomas was as fearful of the evil influence and intolerance of religious enthusiasts as he was of the manipulations of the worldly wise. He was indeed the most reluctant of prophets. Yet he never suffered from indifference and it was his love of truth and detachment from the outcome of true integrity which in the end won him an amazing freedom of spirit. His take off point into freedom seems to have come when, summoned from Chelsea by the Lords at Lambeth, he took leave of his wife and family and took his boat up the Thames with his son in law, Roper, who records: “Wherein sitting sadly a while, at last he suddenly rounded me in the ear, and said, ‘Son Roper, I thank our Lord the field is won.’ What he meant thereby I then wist not, yet, loth to seem ignorant, I answered, ‘Sir, I am thereof very glad.’”

Before that time he had been in the turmoil of trying to see clearly and weigh up the implications of one decision against another. “I counted, Margaret, full surely many a restless night, while my wife slept, and (thought) I slept too, what peril were possible for to fall to me, so far forth that I am sure there can come none above. And in devising, daughter, thereupon, I had a full heavy heart.” But once committed to the Tower he enjoys a peace and freedom which casts him, like other great prisoners, no longer as the victim but somehow the master of the stage. His Tower cell becomes for him that monastic cell he had so longed for in his early years; a cell whose bars keep freedom in.

When visiting people in hospital, laid low by sickness and perhaps the shadow of death, I have often been amazed at their transparent peace and inner freedom; all we can do is to share with them and perhaps call to mind what they already know. When a person is laid low or in crisis it is too late to take in any new strength or understanding, and what he or she lives off is their patient experience from the past. What is it then in the earlier daily life of Thomas which made integrity possible when the moment of truth occurred?

In the first place he was constant and devoted to a life of prayer, not only in his early single days when he nearly became a Carthusian, but throughout his busy career and lively family life. It was in prayer that he was united with God and found that wonderful perspective from which to take all things in life both seriously and yet with easy detachment.

As Lord Chancellor, the father of a large family household, and certainly not impecunious, he knew what it was to have power, pleasure and property at his disposal. It is usually these three which men of God renounce, not as evil in themselves but as inevitable pre-occupations ‘from the one thing necessary’. Thomas however is more encouraging for modern men and women involved in the hurly burly of the world. He did not renounce any of them, yet learnt to hold each as if he held it not, and pursued none of the three for its own sake. Indeed when surrounded by all the Vanity Fair of court life he was known as one quite scandalously indifferent to preferment or gain.

This long term practice of practical poverty within a busy life, leading to anecdotes which he loved and remembered, was the seed bed of the spiritual maturity which was poised ready to relinquish each of the three one by one when the call came. It is God’s most precious gifts which he himself has given which he is likely to ask of those able to give them; as Abraham with his God-given son Isaac, the readiness is all.

Thomas was stripped off his office, he was reduced with his family (the hardest blow) to penury, and finally taken from his family itself. It is worth from time to time passing over all our commitments and involvements in life and asking: am I in readiness to be without? We do not enjoy them as God-given until we can answer “yes”. As Thomas said “A man can lose his head and not come to hurt.”


I have stayed for some pages with Thomas More and the question of conscience because he has much to teach us in transitional times such as our own.

In the early days of the anti-slavery campaign I imagine there were many devout and sincere men in Liverpool and Bristol deeply offended at what was being suggested. Brought up and dependent on the acceptance of slavery as the basis of an intricate economic system, they must have felt deeply insulted at suggestions that consideration and kindness to slaves were insufficient and that the system itself was unjust. Surprised indeed as St Paul would have been on the same issue.

But which of us today does not take quite for granted that it was indeed unjust (and indeed still is in its various less public forms today.)?

In most Christian churches at the present time there are many members who feel strangers in their church, they themselves have caught a renewed meaning of the good news of Christ as utterly incarnational, embedded in the social and political realities in which people live. They have felt within themselves something of the massive injustice in our world and especially perhaps how the self-contained and self-generating spirals created by the established or well-to-do work to keep those in the margins within their vicious circles. When a person has felt in his guts, and much of the gospel has suddenly taken off for the first time, what is he to do when surrounded by fellow Christians who seem to be living a loyal but irrelevant faith? How is he to avoid being self-righteous, retreating into immature I’m-right-they’re-all-wrong security? How is he to relate to what he feels so distant from, and remain open and creative?

Is it not the same experience men have always had when new understanding is brought to bear on existing and embedded forms?

Thomas More, a man for all seasons, can help us see how issues can be unclear (so that honest men can search honestly and yet differ) and yet momentous (in being able to make ultimate demands on us); can help us seek truth and love it and yet remain unjudgmental of others; and perhaps above all can help us know inwardly and freely that we are answerable, in the end, to our Father in heaven, and to him alone.


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