The feast of St Thomas More, which falls on the June 22, has a special piquancy this year. On Friday, September 17, Pope Benedict XVI will address representatives of British society in Westminster Hall, the very place where More was put on trial and condemned to death on July 1 1535. There is a plaque in the floor of Westminster Hall commemorating this event; among the representatives of British society gathered to hear the Pope will be, one imagines, the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Lord Chancellor – all offices that were once held by Thomas More himself.
That trial, back in July 1535, was a disgraceful event. More, being a lawyer, knew that he could not be convicted if he kept silence; however, Richard Rich, an enthusiastic servant of the Crown, testified that More had told him in conversation that he did not believe in the Royal Supremacy, and it was this perjured evidence that led to More’s conviction and death. Richard Rich has subsequently suffered the fate of being held up as the epitome of all that is bad in politics. There was certainly something wrong with Tudor justice, and More was not its only victim; very few of those who fell foul of the Tudor monarchy deserved death even according to the laws of the day. More was the victim of arbitrary rule, an example offered to England and the rest of Europe of what happened to those who stood in the way of the royal will.
But the whole point of England, as More certainly believed, was that the King was not all-powerful. The royal will had to take account of Parliament, the rule of law, as well as the highest law of all, the law of God, known to humans through natural law. These were necessary breaks on the tendency to tyranny. And history has proved More right. Henry VIII was the nearest thing we ever had to an absolute monarch, but his reign marked the furthest reach of royal power. No monarch after him was ever able to wield so much power, though several would have loved to have done so. It is thanks to Thomas More, and people like him, that the temper of this land has never been sympathetic to dictatorship.
Dictatorship is something that Benedict XVI knows something about. His teenage years were spent in a Catholic land, Bavaria, which had, and still has, a very profound sense of itself as a country under God’s law, and which never fully embraced the outrageous claims to state power made by the National Socialist party in the way that other parts of Germany did. Shortly before his election Benedict XVI coined the memorable phrase “the dictatorship of relativism”. He said, in his sermon of April 18 2005: “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
What was the Pope talking about here? The last phrase is perhaps instructive, for it brings to mind the philosophy of Nietzsche which promoted the will as the fundamental basis for human action. In other words, the right thing to do is what we choose to do, and the force of our will makes it right. This lay beneath the National Socialist idea called the Führerprinzip; but it was the guiding principal of all tyrants such as Henry VIII, whose personal will had to be given the force of law – a will, moreover, that was never constant, but always changing. But faced with the ego and desires of his royal master, More, ever the King’s good servant but God’s first, would not abandon the truth that there are certain principles that cannot change, no matter how many people take an oath to say that they have. It is worth dwelling on this matter, for it is central to the problems we face today. Are good and evil absolutes, or are they things that really all depend on circumstances? Can Parliament make something that is wrong be right, if the circumstances are pressing enough, or if the right set of conditions make that something expedient? Can a court, for example, condemn someone to death on the grounds that, though not guilty, political necessity demands that they die, as was the case with More?
Put like that, no one would ever agree with such a statement, to wit, that your life or mine depends on the right set of circumstances constantly assuring society that no greater good would be achieved by our deaths. For if that were the case each of us would be living a most precarious life. If there is no absolute or definitive value that underpins my right to life, I must spend my entire life looking over my shoulder. That would be intolerable: personal security must be an absolute, if any form of social life is to be possible.
Not everything, then, can be reduced to purely utilitarian terms. If all is relative, then it will be the most strongly held opinions that will prevail; in other words, every conversation will descend into a shouting match, and anyone who disagrees with those who shout loudest will be bullied into silence. Thomas More espoused the minority view and was bullied to death by the Tudor state, which denied the absolute value of respect for conscientious objection. In our own day anyone who refuses to accept the dictatorship of relativism – that is, the idea that you can believe anything as long as your belief is not a belief in an absolute truth – is abused, ridiculed, slandered, threatened with arrest, accused of crimes without any serious evidence to back up such accusations, and told to shut up. Thus it has been with Benedict XVI in the British press: he has been bullied and slandered while many who ought to have been on the side of freedom of conscience have stood by in silence. So it was with Thomas More, a martyr of conscience. Not a voice was raised in England when he went to the block, though all must have known that this was judicial murder.
I have no idea what the Pope will say when he stands at the spot where St Thomas More was condemned, but I am sure he will stand up for truth with all the fortitude of St Thomas More. The very fact of his presence will be an assertion of the right to freedom of conscience, and freedom of association, both freedoms so very repugnant to this present age.