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Is the Conscience Respected?

An Overview by Carl Anderson

NEW YORK, MARCH 19, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a text by Carl Anderson, vice president of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, regarding the respect for conscience in life issues.

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Respect for Conscience in Common Law Countries

Carl Anderson
Vice President, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
Supreme Knight, Knight of Columbus
Pontifical Academy for Life XIII General Assembly February 24, 2007

St. Thomas More is recognized in our time as one of the great defenders of human dignity and the rights of human conscience. We are all familiar with the famous lines from "A Man for All Seasons" regarding the role of conscience: In his refusal to sign the oath, More says "what matters to me is not whether it's true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it to be true, but that I believe it."[1]

St. Thomas More is also rightly regarded as the model Catholic government official when he says earlier in the play, "when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos."[2]

And how simply, yet profoundly, he set the standard for all those of the Christian faith who serve in government when he said at the end, "Tell the King, I die the King's loyal servant, but God's first."

Perhaps we might do well to regard Thomas More as a sure guide for politicians, reminding them of his approach to government service. As "A Man for all Seasons" recounts More as saying of his work as chancellor of England, "I wish no man harm, I speak no man harm, I do no man harm and if this be not good enough then "

We might also regard St. Thomas More as a patron of husbands and fathers. We may recall the way in which More is depicted at the end of his trial in "A Man for All Seasons." He declares to the court which has just condemned him that "It was not for the oath but because I would not consent to the marriage."

Everything we know about St. Thomas More tells us that he cared deeply for his family and that one of the reasons why he sought so desperately to avoid a confrontation with the king was to protect his family. Yet, finally, More was to sacrifice both his life and his family's security for a principle that gave an eternal meaning and an eternal unity to his family; that is, the sacramental nature of marriage.

Unquestionably, in agreeing to the dissolution of the king's marriage there was also an implicit acceding to the possible dissolution of any marriage. This was a point that could not have been lost on the chancellor of England and a lawyer of the brilliance of Thomas More. Thus, one of history's great statesman and men of conscience went to his death for a principled defense of the sacramental unity of marriage.

Having said this we should remember the observation of Clarence Miller, one of several editors of the "Complete Works of St. Thomas More." He enumerates what scholars give as the various "grounds for More's martyrdom: the integrity of the self as witnessed by an oath, the irreducible freedom of the individual conscience in the face of an authoritarian state, papal supremacy as a sign of the supra-national unity of Western Christendom, past and present."

Then Miller writes, "All of these are true as far as they go. But in the last analysis More did not die for any principle, or idea, or tradition, or even doctrine, but for a person, for Christ. As Bolt himself made More say in the play: "Well finally it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love."[3]

And so, I think it is entirely appropriate to remember St. Thomas More as we explore the richness of the encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" and its call to the Catholic people to build a culture of life and a civilization of love. We should begin with recognition that "Evangelium Vitae" rests, to a considerable extent, upon the foundation provided by John Paul II's great encyclical on the "Splendor of Truth" and the moral conscience.

"Veritatis Splendor" takes up the question of the obligations which truth imposes on Catholics in democratic societies. It observes that the demands of universal and unchanging moral laws may seem to contradict "the uniqueness and individuality of the person" and even "represent a threat to his freedom and dignity" (No. 85). The encyclical also admits that "in a widely de-Christianized culture, the criteria employed by believers themselves in making judgments and decisions often appear extraneous or even contrary to those of the Gospel" (No. 88).

But then John Paul II writes what could have come from the thought or, perhaps more accurately, from the spirituality of Thomas ...

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