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Friday, 31 March 2017

'Conscience, St Thomas More and 'Amoris Laetitia''


The  apostolic exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’ by Pope Francis, published in April 2016, has received strong criticism from many quarters, ecclesiastical and lay, on the grounds that it legitimises the concept of  divorced/separated  Catholics who, while living active sex lives in a second relationship, avail themselves of Holy Communion. The exhortation has been described at best as ‘ambiguous’, and at worst contrary to Christ’s teaching, and the Pope has been asked publicly by four Cardinals, in the form of a Dubia, to clarify certain ambiguities inherent in the exhortation. 

It has been suggested that in ‘Amoris Laetitia’, the Pope places great emphasis on the inner workings of individual ‘conscience’, to the extent that a subjective viewpoint based on one’s own conscience, could in certain circumstances, effectively overturn the objective meaning and clarity of God’s commandments and the teaching of the Church, specifically  concerning  marriage and the Holy Eucharist.
           The teaching of the Church on marriage and receiving Holy Communion has always been clear and straightforward, yet now it appears that the Church might have been wrong – which in view of Christ’s promise is surely not possible? This post is not to discuss this particular matter at any length, but the question of ‘individual conscience’ over-riding God’s commandments, has existed since the fall of Adam.

 I have recently been reading a biography of Margaret Roper, the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas More, in which the matters of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Queen Catherine and his marriage to Ann Boleyn, followed by his self-appointment as Supreme Head of the Catholic Church in England, play a pivotal role in the history of that period, and indeed thereafter to the present day. Every person in the land was obliged by law and under oath, to sign their agreement and acquiescence to the King’s actions, failing which they incurred severe financial and status penalties, imprisonment,  and even execution on the gallows. To be sure, the reality of signing did not necessarily reflect agreement, and undoubtedly many signed contrary to their beliefs, probably taking the pragmatic view that they had no choice. It may well be that in conscience they were not unduly troubled, perhaps  believing that matters would right themselves in the future. Thomas More, who in conscience refused to take the oath, declined to blame any person or organisation i.e. Parliament, for supporting the King, considering that, on this question, the decision of every individual was theirs alone, and that each person had  responsibility for their own eternal destiny.  Nevertheless history has shown that governments and leaders of nations who choose in their laws and actions to ignore  God’s Commandments, and force this unbelief on their people, will inevitably create an ungodly nation, which in the case of England under King Henry VIII, resulted in the persecution and almost total destruction of the Catholic Church in England, and the rise of Protestantism.

In his book ‘Margaret Roper’ by E.E.Reynolds, the author considers the relationship between Thomas More and his married daughter, Margaret Roper, with special emphasis on the period April 1534 to July 1535, when More was in prison awaiting trial on a charge of treason for failing to recognise the validity of King Henry VIII’s ‘marriage’ to Ann Boleyn, and for refusing to accept the King as Head of the Catholic Church in England. More was brought to trial on 1st July 1535, found guilty of 'treason', and executed on the scaffold on 6th July at Tower Hill in London.
         Whilst in prison, there was considerable correspondence by letter between  More and Margaret Roper, the eldest of his three daughters.  Some of this correspondence, reproduced in this biography, reveals the strong filial love and respect in which Margaret Roper held her father, even though at times, they appeared to have conflicting opinions, particularly relating to the ‘right’ response to the question of the King’s marriage to Ann Boleyn. Margaret Roper endeavoured to persuade her father to agree first on the Act of Succession (legitimising the right to the throne of any  offspring from the union of Henry and Ann Boleyn), and then the Act of Supremacy (the self-appointment of Henry as head of the Catholic Church in England), basing her arguments on the fact that, with the exception of Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, all the bishops and most of the clergy, and most of the nobility and persons of civic importance, many of whom were personal friends of her father, had signed these agreements, and surely her father should also sign.

          The argument was misguided, but it was presented by a loving daughter desperate to save her father’s life.  More understood this, but remained steadfast in  his loyalty to God and his opposition to the King’s course of action. After his trial at Westminster Hall and finding of guilt, he was taken back to the Tower. On his journey he was met by his daughter Margaret, who bid him an emotional and loving farewell. The account of this final meeting recorded by William Roper, Margaret’s husband, speaks for itself:-
‘When Sir Thomas More came from Westminster to the Towerward again, his daughter, my wife, desirous to see her father, whom she thought she should never see in this world after, and also to have his final blessing, gave attendance about the Tower Wharf, where she knew he should pass by before he could enter into the Tower, there tarrying for his coming. As soon as she saw him, after his blessing on her knees reverently received, she, hasting towards him, and, without consideration or care of herself, pressing in among the middest of the throng and company of the guard that with halberds and bills went round about him, hastily ran to him, and there openly in the sight of them all, embraced him, took him about the neck and kissed him.  Who, well liking her most natural and dear daughterly affection towards him, gave her his fatherly blessing and many godly words of comfort besides. From whom after she was departed, she, not satisfied with the former sight of him, and like one that had forgotten herself, being all ravished with the entire love of her dear father, having respect neither to herself, nor to the press of people and multitude that were there about him, suddenly turned back again, ran to him as before, took him about the neck and divers times together most lovingly kissed him, and at last, with a full heavy heart, was fain to depart from him, the beholding whereof was to many of them that were present thereat so lamentable, that it made them for very sorrow thereof, to mourn and weep.’

          Thomas More’s reported last words to Margaret, epitomise his love of God and the close empathy between father and daughter:-   ‘Have patience, Margaret.  Don’t torment yourself. It is the will of God. You have long known the secret of my heart.'

              Thomas More'  by Hans Holbein the Younger -1527

During his incarceration in the Tower and prior to his trial and conviction, More wrote numerous letters to his daughter who was persistent in her efforts to persuade him to change his mind. In one he writes:

“But whereas you think Margaret, that they be so many more than there are on the other side that think in this thing as I think, surely for your own comfort that you shall not take thought, thinking that your father casteth himself away like a fool, that he would jeopardy the loss of his substance, and peradventure his body, without any cause why he so should for the peril of his soul, but rather his soul in peril thereby too, to this shall I say to thee, Marget, that in some of my causes I nothing doubt at all, but that though not in this realm, yet in Christendom about, of those well learned men and virtuous that are yet alive, they be not the fewer part that are of my mind.  Besides that, that it were you wot well possible that some men in this realm too, think not so clear the contrary, as by the oath received they have sworn to say.

          “Now this far forth I say for them that are yet alive. But go we now to them that are dead before, and that are I trust in heaven, I am sure it is not the fewer part of them that all the time while they lived, thought in some of the things the way that I think now. I am also Margaret, of this thing sure enough, that of those holy doctors and saints, which to be with God in heaven long ago no Christian man doubteth, whose books yet in this day remain here in men’s hands, there thought in some such things, as I think now. I say not that they thought all so, but surely such and so many as will well appear by their writing, that I pray God give me grace that my soul may follow theirs. And yet I show you not all, Margaret, that have for myself in the sure discharge of my conscience. But for the conclusion daughter Margaret, of all this matter, as I have often told you, I take not upon me neither to define nor dispute in these matters, nor I rebuke not nor impugn other man’s deed, nor I never wrote, nor so much as spake in any company, any word of reproach in anything that the Parliament had passed, nor I meddled not with the conscience of any other man, that either thinketh or sayeth he thinketh, contrary unto mine.  But as concerning mine own self, for thy comfort shall I say, daughter, to thee, that mine own conscience in this matter (I damn none other man’s) is such, as may well stand with mine own salvation, thereof am I, Meg, so sure, as that is, God is in heaven. And therefore as for all the remnant, goods, lands, and life both (if the chance should so fortune) since this conscience is sure for me, I verily trust God he shall rather strengthen me to bear the loss, than against this conscience to swear and put my soul in peril, since all the causes that I perceive move other men to the contrary, seem not such unto me, as in my conscience make any change.”  
           In another letter, he writes, “Marry, Marget, for the part that you play, you play it not much amiss.  But Margaret first, as for the law of the land, though every man being born and inhabiting therein, is bound to the keeping in every case upon such temporal pain, and in many cases upon pain of God’s displeasure too, yet is there no man bound to swear that every law is well made, nor bound upon the pain of God’s displeasure, to perform any such point of the law as were indeed unleafal (unlawful).  Of which manner kind, that there may such hap to be made in any part of Christendom, I suppose no man doubteth, the General Council of the whole body of Christendom evermore to that point excepted; which, though it may make some things better than other, and some things may grow to that point, that by another law they may need to be reformed, yet to institute anything in such wise, to God’s displeasure, as at the making might not lawfully be performed, the spirit of God that governeth His Church never hath it suffered nor never hereafter shall, His whole Catholic Church lawfully gathered together in a General Council, as Christ hath made plain promises in Scripture.

          “Now if it so hap, that in any particular part of Christendom, there be any law made, that be such as for some part thereof some men think that the law of God cannot bear it, and some other think yes, the thing being in such manner in question that through diverse quarters of Christendom, some that are good men and cunning (learned), both of our own days and before our days, think some one way, and some other of like learning and goodness think the contrary, in this case he that thinketh against the law, neither may swear that law lawfully was made, standing his own conscience to the contrary, nor is bounden upon pain of God’s displeasure to change his own conscience therein, for any particular law made anywhere, other than by General Council or by a general faith grown by the working of God universally through all Christian nations, not other authority than one of these twain, except special revelation and express commandment of God, since the contrary opinions of good men and well learned, as I put you the case, made the understanding of the Scriptures doubtful, I can see none that lawfully may command and compel any man to change his own opinion, and to translate his conscience from the one side to the other.


    Margaret Roper - a copy (1593) of a lost work by Hans Holbein

In an account of a meeting with her father, Margaret Roper writes:-

“With this my father smiled upon me and said, “What, Mistress Eve (as I called you when you first came), hath my daughter Alington played the serpent with you, and with a letter set you a-work to come tempt your father again, and for the favour that you bear him labour to make him swear against his conscience, and so send him to the devil?”  And after that, he looked sadly again and earnestly said to me, “Daughter Margaret, we two have talked of this thing ofter than twice or thrice, and that same tale in effect that you now tell me therein, and the same fear too, have you twice told me before, and I have twice answered you too, that in this matter if it were possible for me to do the thing that might content the King’s Grace, and God therewith not offended, there hath no man taken this oath already more gladly than I would do, as he that reckoneth himself more deeply bounden unto the King’s Highness for his most singular bounty, many ways showed and declared, than any of them all beside. But since standing my conscience, I can in no wise do it, and that for the instruction of my conscience, in this matter, not slightly looked, but by many years studied and advisedly considered, and never could yet see or hear that thing, nor I think never shall, that could induce my own mind to think otherwise than I do, I have no manner remedy, but God hath given me to the straight, that either I must deadly displease Him, or abide any earthly harm that he shall for mine other sins, under name of this thing, suffer to fall upon me.  Whereof (as I before this have told you) I have ere I came here, not left unbethought nor unconsidered, the very worst and the uttermost that can by possibility fall.  And albeit that I know my own frailty full well and the natural faintness of my own heart, yet if I had not trusted that God should give me strength rather to endure all things, than offend him by swearing ungodly against my own conscience, you may be very sure I would not have come here. And since I look in this matter but only unto God, it maketh me little matter, though men call as it pleaseth them and say it is no conscience but a foolish scruple.”

            Thomas More was executed nearly five hundred years ago. His conscience was firmly attuned to God’s commandments and the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church. He was a humanist and a man of considerable learning and fame, with many friends in Court and the universities. His appointment as Chancellor by the King, laid on him many duties of State, at the same time and incumbent with his responsibilities, he must himself have adopted a certain pragmatism when dealing with the many matters on which he had to take decisions, and which did not involve contrariness  to God's laws. On a worldly basis his loyalty to God and His Church was disastrous, losing his freedom and ultimately his life. On a spiritual basis he gained a crown of inestimable glory, recognised by the Church by his canonisation by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

           Today the Church is suffering physically and spiritually throughout the world. Communism, violent and radical Islam, aggressive liberalism and anti-Catholicism, materialism and secularism, combine to attempt to destroy the Church and all it stands for. There have been scandals within the Church, particularly relating to sexual abuse of minors within the Church's care, also widespread evidence of active homosexuality within all levels of the Church, particularly in certain seminaries. Modernism and liturgical anarchy following Vatican II  have also taken a heavy toll, particularly evident in the western world by a serious shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

                                                                       Pope Francis

Certain unclear and confusing pronouncements by the current Pope concerning matters of faith have created great unrest and dissension in the Church itself, this being particularly the case with the apostolic exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’, in which it seems that the individual conscience has been elevated in importance to a level higher than that of God’s commandments and the perennial teaching of the Church. Some would say that subjective opinion appears to have taken precedence over objective truth. The Pope may yet satisfactorily clarify matters, in which case I unreservedly and humbly withdraw any criticism made or implied.

"St Thomas More, discerner of truth, pray for our Church and our country."

Ack. ‘Margaret Roper’ by E.E.Reynolds.  Published by Burns & Oates, London. 1960.

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