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Historia Ecclesiastica

Was Thomas More a Hypocrite?

On the problem of conscience.


Historians—and others, including playwrights from Shakespeare to Robert Bolt and novelists such as Hilary Mantel of the Wolf Hall series—have pondered Thomas More’s actions and fate and have tried to fathom why he did what he did. They have produced as many questions as answers. More’s own contemporaries likewise found his stance baffling. No one—not his enemies, not his friends, not his daughter Meg who knew his mind best and whom he loved more than anyone else in the world, certainly not his wife Alice—seemed able to understand what he was doing, or what he was saying (or refusing to say). A sympathetic twentieth-century Catholic, Hilaire Belloc, observed that “to his own family as a whole probably, to his wife certainly, to nearly all his friends and to the mass of Englishmen of his time, his position was not heroic but absurd.”

Consider the basic pertinent facts. More was arrested because he refused to take an oath affirming that Anne Boleyn was the rightful queen and, by implication, that Henry VIII was the head of the Church. Over the next fourteen months, from the time of his arrest up to and even on the very day of his trial, More was assured, over and over again, that he could regain his freedom and eminent position simply by affirming the words of the prescribed oath. He didn’t have to believe the words; he only needed to affirm them. The king’s men urged him to do that. So did his friends, and his family, in a “vehement piteous manner,” as he put it.

Some of the arguments that were pressed upon him addressed his position, insofar as it could be discerned, on the merits. Others emphasized the consequences of his intransigence. Taken together, they added up to a seemingly inarguable case in favor of taking the oath. Start with the consequence-oriented arguments. The most immediate adverse consequence of More’s stance was obvious enough: by refusing to take the oath, he faced the present certainty of indefinite imprisonment, to be terminated (as seemed likely, and as in fact occurred) by a public trial and painful execution. The history of Christianity has, to be sure, featured heroic—or perhaps perverse—souls who have eagerly sought martyrdom, but More does not belong in that select company.

On the contrary, he dreaded “the terrible prospect of death,” as he put it in one of his last meditations. Actually, it was not exactly dying itself that principally concerned him but rather the intense pain that would accompany that transition. Or so he said. “A man may lose his head and have no harm,” he quipped, and he professed himself “well content to go, if God call me hence tomorrow.” He looked forward to “the bliss of heaven.” “If anything should hap to me that you would be loath,” he counseled Meg, “pray to God for me, but trouble not yourself: as I shall full heartily pray for us all, that we may meet together once in heaven, where we shall make merry for ever, and never have trouble after.”

Was he as calmly confident as he sounds in these pronouncements? Maybe, maybe not: who can say? Either way, he trembled before the agonizing prospect of pain associated with his execution. After all, torture—an art that had been refined by the Tudor period—was a real possibility. “He envisaged torture upon the rack and terrible pain inflicted by more ingenious instruments,” Peter Ackroyd writes in his biography. “He envisaged death by disembowelling, his heart torn out of his body and shown to him while he was still alive.” And even if he could have counted on the king’s clemency commuting his sentence to mere beheading, there was no assurance that the job would be completed with one swing of the axe: when the Duke of Buckingham had suffered a like fate a few years earlier, three strokes had been needed to finish the job. More’s writings from the Tower were thus filled with meditations and prayers pleading with God to strengthen him so that he could endure the ordeal (or, should he flinch, to forgive him). His commentary-reflection on The Sadness of Christ, written while he was imprisoned in the Tower, is essentially an extended meditation and prayer on this theme. More confessed at one point that he found “my flesh much more shrinking from pain and death than me thought it the part of a faithful Christian man.”

There was also the matter of his good name, or his reputation. Meg reported to him that even his friends looked upon him (as his Alice openly did) not as some paragon of courage but rather as a pig-headed fool. In fact, More was already well aware that people regarded his stance as reflecting, as he put it, mere “stubbornness and obstinacy.”

Nor was it only More himself who would suffer for his silence: his refusal and likely conviction for treason placed his family in grave danger of losing their property, or worse. It was one thing to accept the personal consequences of his silence, but was it right of him to invite the possibility of disinheritance (or worse) for his family? Alice certainly didn’t think so, and she told him as much—emphatically, accusing him of being a “fool.” And indeed, More confessed to Meg that it was “a deadly grief unto me, and much more deadly than to hear of mine own death . . . [to] perceive my good son your husband, and you my good daughter, and my good wife, and mine other good children and innocent friends, in great displeasure and danger of great harm.”

Other arguments appealed to More’s character, and to his judgement. He was often reminded that all of the learned men and clerics in the realm (save for Bishop John Fisher) had deemed it proper to take the oath. This number included prelates whom More respected, including Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London and a longtime friend and ally in the fight against heresy. His own family had also taken the oath. “Why should you refuse to swear, Father?” Meg pleaded, “for I have sworn myself.” More regarded pride as the basest and most dangerous of sins. But wasn’t it prideful of him—arrogant and presumptuous—to set up his own opinion against that of so many learned and pious men and women?

And not only prideful but also ungrateful, because he was spurning the king, his friend, who had done him so much kindness by elevating him to high office. Meg reminded him of his debt to Henry and cautiously suggested that in remaining obdurate he might actually be incurring “peril unto your own soul also.”

She also tried to use his own teachings to soften him. He had believed and taught that what matters to God is what a person believes in his heart, not what he says with his lips. Bolt reconstructed the exchange when he had Meg say to More: “‘God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth.’ Or so you’ve always told me.” In keeping with this principle, Meg urged her father to “say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.”

Perhaps, we might suppose, More was one of those rare individuals who believes that truth-telling is an absolute or categorical obligation, without possibility of exception. Kant took such a view. So did Saint Augustine—the Church father whom More most admired. And yet it seems that More was not in fact so rigorous, or so rigid, in his commitment to truth-telling. He was, after all, a lawyer. He had long been a minister of state. And in performing his lawyerly and ministerial duties, he had demonstrated the necessary ability, on appropriate occasions, to finesse the truth. Ackroyd notes that “as he admitted himself, on occasions [More] did not shrink from ‘mendaciolum’ or a small lie.” So then why on this occasion did he find himself unable to recite a mere legal formula?

Indeed, would it even have been necessary to lie, exactly? Surely, brilliant lawyer that he was, More might have come up with some construction, however strained, that would have permitted him to avoid the dire consequences that his refusal entailed. Ackroyd notes that More was adept at “putting a lawyer’s gloss upon ambiguous circumstances.” Could there have been a more opportune time to employ this lawyerly skill?

And what would have been the harm anyway? After all, in taking the oath More would not have been misleading anyone: everyone would have known that he was opposed to the divorce and even more opposed to the king’s assumption of authority over the Church. Conversely, his death did no earthly good; it amounted to a kind of personal retreat and surrender in what he perceived to be a desperate “battle for the soul of England,” as one historian has described it. If the defense of the Church’s position in that battle was so imperative, wouldn’t it have been more prudent—more virtuous, really, even more unselfish—to take the oath (with mental reservations if necessary) and live on to defend that cause, a task for which More was uniquely qualified? He couldn’t have known it, but within less than a year Queen Anne with her seductive wiles and her Protestant impulses would follow him to the Tower and the scaffold. And Henry, though infatuated, was still fundamentally Catholic, attending three Masses a day on hunting days, sometimes five on other days. If only Thomas More, whom the king loved and admired, had still been around to guide him.

Or let us stipulate that no meliorating construction was available, so that in taking the oath More would unavoidably have been affirming something he did not actually believe. Even so, wasn’t there something grossly disproportionate about his position? Was the wrongfulness of uttering a few words at variance with his belief really so weighty as to justify the loss of his life and the serious risks and deprivations he was imposing on his family? Was his refusal really a matter of conscience, we might ask? Or rather, as his family and friends hinted and more than hinted, was it more in the nature of a finicky, unmoored, perhaps even self-indulgent scrupulosity, which in Christian tradition has been regarded as a sin? What about hypocrisy?

The question arises because in More’s case there is an additional and troubling complication—one that historians and novelists and interested spectators have debated endlessly in the centuries since. We have already seen that in defending his refusal to take the oath, More repeatedly and eloquently invoked the idea of conscience. One of the prison letters describing a conversation with Meg has been compared to a Platonic dialogue on the subject of conscience. And More had indicated that conscience creates reciprocal obligations. Once again: “I . . . leave every man to his own conscience. And me thinketh in good faith that so were it good reason that every man should leave me to mine.” And yet in his career as a government minister and especially as lord chancellor, More had seemingly shown little enough respect for the consciences of Protestant dissenters. On the contrary, he had vigorously pursued them, hounded them, burned their books, and sometimes burned them if they refused to recant what he regarded as their heresies.

So, wasn’t it hypocritical of More, now that he was the one in the dock, to pronounce piously on the sanctity of conscience when in more felicitous times he had shown so little respect for the consciences of his opponents? In asking what conscience meant to More and why it was so imperative as to lead him to his death, we have thus come upon a number of questions. What did More understand conscience to be? Why was it so important? And how, if at all, could he square his proclaimed respect for conscience with his persecution of Protestants?

The answer turns in part on a semantic point. If we limit the meaning of conscience to its tautological core—doing what (you believe) is right—then it seems most plausible to conclude that the Protestants were acting on conscience, and More was therefore acting inconsistently in claiming respect for his own conscience while punishing the Protestants for exercising theirs. But if we understand conscience more substantively as acting on beliefs based on the collective understanding of Christendom, as More did, then it seems that he was not being inconsistent after all. That is because, sincere or not, the Protestants were not acting on conscience—not as he understood it. Rather, they were acting against conscience. Indeed, they were openly and unapologetically acting against conscience by setting up their own personal judgement in opposition to and in defiance of the doctrines held by the Church and by Christians generally. Martin Luther had been proudly explicit at Worms on exactly this point (“Here I stand, I can do no other”). For More, this course was not only hubristic and reckless and self-contradictory; it was precisely the opposite of what it meant to act on conscience.

But in More’s view the Protestants were acting against conscience in an even more basic and threatening way. They were not merely acting against conscience themselves; they were working to make it impossible for Christians generally to act on conscience.

How so? As we have seen, for More, to act on conscience is to act in accordance with the collective understanding of Christians through the centuries. But this is a possibility only if there is a united Christianity to which you can look in shaping your beliefs and actions. Conversely, if Christianity is split into two contending factions—or three, or a hundred—the very possibility of acting on conscience will tend to disappear. How can you shape your beliefs by what Christians have everywhere and always taught when it becomes painfully apparent that Christians have been and are in fact teaching very different things on even the central matters of the faith? Now it seems you will have little choice except to look to the sources—scripture, perhaps, or personal intuition or inspiration, or whatever—and make your own independent judgement about what the truth is. That sort of private personal judgement might become necessary, but it is not conscience.

This prospect—a world in which private judgement in something like Luther’s sense is pretty much the only option—may seem exhilarating, or it may seem terrifying. Either way, it will not be a world in which acting according to conscience as More understood conscience will be easy, or perhaps even possible. But this was just the kind of world, as More perceived, that the Protestants were bringing into being. That is, they were actively and knowingly working to break Christianity into many pieces.

In any case, it was already becoming apparent that “Lutheran” and “Catholic” were not the only alternatives in the new dispensation. From the outset, Luther had quarreled with his even more radical colleague Andreas Karlstadt over their profound theological differences. Then there had been the so-called Zwickau prophets, who came to Wittenberg claiming to have learned directly from the Holy Spirit that infant baptism, the Mass, confession, images, relics, and oaths were all to be abolished. And there was Thomas Müntzer, who took Luther’s teachings and example in a radical political direction and led a bloody rebellion in the mid-1520s, leading to an immense destruction of property and the loss of thousands of lives. Luther vehemently denounced these would-be reformers, and he got into an angry shouting match with Ulrich Zwingli when the various Protestant leaders attempted in vain to reach a consensus about the Eucharist in a meeting at Marburg Castle. And even as More languished in the Tower, an Anabaptist insurrectionist group was establishing theocracy, communism, and polygamy in Münster, Germany, before being crushed by an army supported by both Catholics and Lutherans.

As he observed these developments, More commented caustically that these modern men who have sprouted up overnight as theologians professing to know everything not only disagree about the meaning of scripture with all those men who led such heavenly lives but also fail to agree among themselves concerning the great dogmas of the Christian faith. Rather, each of them, whoever he may be, insisting that he sees the truth, conquers the rest and is in turn conquered by them. But they are all alike in opposing the Catholic faith.

In short, Protestant positions and factions were already proliferating. And this fragmentation was inevitable, really, and obviously so. It is fine to say that every person should interpret the Bible for himself or herself, unbeholden to the Church. But the Bible is a big and complicated book, and individual Christians are endlessly diverse in their hermeneutical capacities, perspectives, and inclinations. It is utterly predictable that if people are left to interpret the Bible for themselves, as individuals, they are going to interpret it in a thousand different ways.

To More, conscience meant acting in accordance with the uniform opinion of Christendom. He perceived early on that the Protestants of his day were acting to ensure that there would be no uniform opinion of Christendom. Indeed, they were threatening Christianity itself. Languishing in the Tower, More wondered whether “the time approaches when . . . the mystical body of Christ, the church of Christ, namely the Christian people, will be brought to ruin at the hands of wicked men.” That would be a world in which the conditions for acting in accordance with conscience would no longer obtain. Conversely, in attempting to preserve the unity of Christianity, More was struggling to hold onto a world in which acting from conscience would be a real possibility.

This essay is adapted from The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity (Catholic Ideas for a Secular World), published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Steven D. Smith is a professor of law at the University of San Diego.