I Love my King But I love my God More!
(or why Government domination of religion is unacceptable)
It is alleged that when St. Thomas More, once the Chancellor of England, was being led to the gallows to be beheaded, he said those powerful words quoted in the title. He was being punished, in effect, for refusing to renounce his Roman Catholic Religion as required by his King. He believed that by following his conscience and disobeying his worldly Master, he avoided eternal damnation and received the eternal happiness of Heaven promised by Jesus to those who would acknowledge the Father in heaven "before men." Chillingly, Jesus also highlighted the price one would pay for refusing to publicly acknowledge Him.
Inherent in More's choice is the recognition that true Conscience does not create truth but discovers it. The word "conscience" derives from two Latin words—cum meaning with and scientia meaning knowledge. Conscience means
Many of his contemporaries, including his own family, believed that he could and should somehow bend his conscience sufficiently to allow him to escape the penalty of death. They argued that others followed their personal "conscience" and bent to the King's wishes with full approval from God. In effect, they argued, Truth is relative. It simply depends, they said, upon how one sees things. Even were that so, Thomas would have been bound to do what he did. any other stance would have put him in the role of hypocrite. However, it is more than a question of hypocrisy. It involves the whole foundation of human morality.
The present Pontiff, Benedict XVI, has consistently held that a fundamental error in human thinking is Moral Relativism. While his observation of the widespread modern reality of relativism is true, certainly, it is nothing new in human history. We have always had those who rationalized evil into good in order to escape difficulties or gain some desired object. And often under the guise of "conscience." (The Catholic Church has always held to the supremacy of properly formed conscience not of any kind of conscience.)
But, likewise, there have always been martyrs whose consciences put them in uncomfortable places because of their belief in unchanging truth. For example, Thomas a Becket got into difficulty, in 1164, with his King for conscience reasons similar to More's. In T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral there is a line (p.74) which portrays the underlying theme. "…… I give my life to the Law of God above the law of man…." A Catholic Archbishop is murdered because he will not bend to the attacks of a political leader who demands that the Church accept a view contrary to Church belief. There are numerous historical precedents showing that people die for perennial truths in the face of relativism. They obviously believed that even great pressures from powerful sources cannot change reality.
The Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in 1991 that "…..Morality of conscience and morality of authority, as two opposing models, appear to be locked in struggle with each other…" (10th Bishops' Workshop of Nat'l Bioethics Center.) Catholics and many other fellow Americans presently are "locked" in a struggle for human conscience, specifically religious liberty, with the present Federal administration. The manifest sore of the conflict centers around the Administration's insistence that all health insurance programs provide for abortion inducing medication, sterilization and contraception. As clamoring as these subjects are for attention, more deeply and strongly screaming is the question of basic freedom. Specifically, Religious freedom but not merely the right to worship only within the walls of the church, synagogue or mosque, but freedom of religious thought, expression and viewpoint in every public square.
Cardinal Dolan, speaking for the Bishops of the United States noted: "Never before has the Federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy products that violate their consciences. This should not happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights." It is interesting to note that the important expression is free exercise of religion not of worship which inexorably confines the practice of religion to the physical strictures of buildings. archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia described this mandate as "coercive and deeply troubling in its implications for the rights of conscience."
Of course, there then arises the thorny question: What is a rightly formed conscience? How does one decide which is which? Is there any authority with the power and insight to be the "Ultimate" Voice? Doesn't everyone have the right to form his own conscience? To follow his own star?
If the role of conscience is to discover the good and the true, how would one square the "conscience" of the Nazi Doctor in the camps who experimented on human beings for the sake of what he called "good"? Can one question the legitimacy of the Nuremberg trials, in light of some modern notions of Conscience? If those on trial testified they did what they thought was right in following orders, how could the modern condemn them since they were following their own star? If one holds that there is some kind of human consensus about rights and life, does this not place the world on a shaky basis? Hitler, Stalin, and others in history have worked from a consensus. Remember the consensus of the French Revolution with its unspeakable barbarisms? Perhaps, It is my Jewish genes again but I quake at consensus since Dachau is not far behind.
In the early 20th century people said "It's simply not possible It couldn't be. We wouldn't kill millions of babies by making abortion legal. Impossible. Men marry men. Impossible Women marry women. Impossible. Kill people simply because they are Jewish. Impossible. Government enslaving millions of people. Impossible. Governments crushing religious freedom. Impossible. Government telling citizens what is right and wrong. Just couldn't be possible."
It is all possible if conscience is decided by consensus. If there is not some kind of fixed absolute norm apart from any government or viewpoint there is potential for disaster. Unless conscience is entwined with human nature itself, everything is relative and flexible capable of becoming whatever consensus decides. Who or what decides how far is too far? This is not evolution or growth. This is denial with potential for chaos. The complexity is clear when even a Supreme Court Justice suggests, relative to the Constitution, that "it means what we say it means." This would seem to me to imply that the Constitution's meaning could possibly change with the advent of any new panel of Justices who have a different view. An absolute and objective truth might be a factor more utilitarian than utilitarianism.
Is there some kind of absolute which exists beyond government and convenience? I sensed a direction to the answer in Jeremiah 31,33 where the Lord declares: "I will place My law within them and write it upon their hearts." Some great human thinkers seem to me to follow this point. Thomas Aquinas, for example, in his Disputed Questions on Truth writes that the judgment of conscience is made by considering an action in the light of the principles of the Natural Law placed in our souls by God Himself. So it is the duty of good people to search for this Truth already within them. Congenial to this insight is the conclusion that a rightly formed conscience must be respected. Conscience is the voice of God and the echo of God's law within us. Catholics believe that the clarification of this "Natural" law is through the Catholic Church's Magisterium whereby God Himself teaches the full Truth. This is based on Jesus Himself Who founded His own Church for precisely this purpose. (Matt, 16,18) with His own backing of the Church's Leadership.
Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote that "conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator." And this is why the Obama administration is so clearly wrong when it offers to those who oppose it, in the MHS mandate, the opportunity to "adapt" their consciences to the new rule. Catholic Tradition and teaching insist that the judgments of conscience are to be preserved, nurtured and respected
In the end it comes down to the requirement of Jesus to give to Caesar what is Caesar's but give to God what is God's. It may require that the Catholic Church in America be forced to exit the good works of hospitals and schools and clinics and orphanages and old age homes. This is tragic and unnecessary. Millions will suffer for this but it is brought on by the invasion of religious rights so preciously guaranteed not only by our Declaration of Independence and of our founding Fathers but by the very nature of being human. Our right to follow our conscience comes from God not from any ruling group or smiling oppressor. Apocryphal or not, a ruling principle of integrity is that earlier attributed to St. Thomas More:
" I love my God and am his loyal servant but God's more."