By Patrick Malone
As a sympathetic portrayal of a saint, we would be surprised if - generally - Catholics had not a soft spot for A Man for All Seasons, both Robert Bolt’s original play and Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation thereof for the silver screen. The real surprise is how such a beloved film can be so tricky to understand properly, especially given that even many Catholics otherwise suspicious of popular culture and cinema make an exception for A Man for All Seasons.
A Man for All Seasons, in brief, depicts the events leading up to and including the killing of St. Thomas More, namely the requirement that he take an oath recognizing King Henry VIII’s self-styled authority over the Church in England to the exclusion of the Pope, and St. Thomas’s righteous refusal to do so. His refusal to confess belief in principles he rejects and defence of the integrity of conscience, especially as Bolt depicts them, ring true for many, Catholic and otherwise, as the epitome of the priority of individual conscience and liberal human rights against a totalitarian. Given our personal history of having studied law on a university campus which included a college under the St. Thomas’s patronage, and having attended Red Masses at that college’s chapel, we have inevitably heard regular panegyrics on the virtues of St. Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers, martyr of conscience, usually citing A Man for All Seasons. Therein lies the rub. What is a “martyr of conscience,” exactly, and how might A Man for All Seasons understand it?
Firstly, we must examine “conscience.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the eventual Pope Benedict XVI, in On Conscience, describes liberalism’s idea of conscience not as being to identify redemptive truth, but as a justification for subjectivity (by liberalism, we mean a system which separated politics from concern with the end of human life and constitutes the doctrine that the central task of politics is to promote individual autonomy and to secure its preconditions; remember that this is an umbrella which covers both “left” and “right” even though in popular parlance “liberal” means “left”).
A healthy conscience, Ratzinger argues, has instead been formed in truth, like a muscle built up by exercise, allowing one to perceive truth and identify proper action. A healthy conscience is concerned not with subjective desires, but external and objective truth. A conscience which has not been so formed is vulnerable to the vagaries of prevailing opinion.
In his encyclical Libertas, Pope Leo XIII teaches that liberty of conscience, truly understood, means that
…every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands… This is the kind of liberty the Apostles claimed for themselves with intrepid constancy, which the apologists of Christianity confirmed by their writings, and which the martyrs in vast numbers consecrated by their blood.
To this extent, the phrase “martyr of conscience” is tautological; all martyrs witness to the truth in which they have been formed: that Christ is King. St. Thomas is no more (or less) a “martyr of conscience” than Stephen, Lini, Cleti, Clementis, Xysti, Cornelii, Cypriani, Laurentii, Chrysogoni, Ioannis et Pauli, Cosmae et Damiani, Ignatio, Alexandro, Marcellino, Petro, Felicitate, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucia, Agnete, Caecilia, et Anastasia.
But we digress. Back to A Man for All Seasons. We recently reread Bolt’s text for the original play, expecting to find St. Thomas portrayed as standing for a type of conscience that is merely a justification of subjectivity, or what Ratzinger calls “liberal” conscience. This is, after all, what so many seem to have taken from the story. Particularly, we remembered the famous lines in which St. Thomas is depicted as comparing oath-taking to holding one’s self in one’s hands like water, and if the hands are opened, one will never find oneself again; there is also the important moment when he states that the thing that matters is that “I believe it” to be true that the Pope is the successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, to whom loyalty is owed. Instead, we were surprised to find St. Thomas depicted as more concerned with truth; yes, he sees the loyal subject as being more bound to conscience than anything else, but this must be understood with reference to his statements that the King’s diktat cannot make the round Earth flat and that the ostensible royal authority over the Church is likewise “directly repugnant to the Law of God.” His conscience is important because it is the voice of divine truth, not his subjectivity. Bolt’s St. Thomas is not a nihilist who would rather die than not get his own way, but a Catholic who would rather die than deny Christ before men.
In a liberal society which enshrines as a fundamental freedom the importance of the fact that, as Bolt’s St. Thomas puts it, “I believe it,” he cannot but be celebrated for his defence of the “I.” A Man for All Seasons cannot but be misread when “conscience” is so pervasively understood not to refer outside oneself to the truth. Bolt’s portrayal of St. Thomas’s reliance on anything resembling modern liberal freedom of conscience must be understood as his last defence against a tyrant, not as heroically promoting a liberal right; as Gregory Caridi says, “an individual’s claim that he has a right to believe something is indicative of defeat of that belief in the public space, which creates a need to protect it in the private space,” and law simply determines how large to make that private space. The price of enshrining that freedom as the supreme point of reference may be the marginalization of questions of truth and its relevance to the common good. This is not to reject that freedom; Pope Benedict XVI does, of course, teach that a God who is love and logos must be encountered in love and reason instead of violent coercion, in accordance with His nature, which informs the manner in which one must appeal to and form another’s conscience, but this is different from a Catholic articulation of the liberal idea of conscience.
It is at best ironic that some contemporary Catholics would miss the point so badly and join in that distortion of A Man for All Seasons, instead of celebrating the defence of truth in the face of a state which rejects the reality of truth in favour of asserting its own power. It reveals the extent of Catholic assimilation into liberalism and its vocabulary that it is the liberal understanding of conscience that comes to mind before that outlined by the Magisterium. Would that the Legion of Decency had warned us of the danger of A Man for All Seasons! More seriously, given that “conscience” is so misunderstood by Catholics, Your Working Boy wonders whether Catholics should stop calling St. Thomas a “martyr of conscience” altogether lest they cause scandal by misrepresenting the good for which he gave his life.
Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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