God, the King, and the Trial of Thomas More

Benedict XVI Addresses the British Parliament

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By William Newton

TRUMAU, Austria, SEPT. 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Mark Twain famously said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Last Friday at Westminster Hall in London was one of those occasions.

In that hall on July 1, 1535, St. Thomas More was condemned to death for treason because he would not recognize the supreme authority of the temporal ruler, the king, over the authority of the Church and over the Pope. It has taken nearly 500 years, but on Friday evening last week, John Bercow, the successor of St. Thomas More as the Speaker of the House of Commons, welcomed the successor of Pope Clement VII to address the assembled British Parliament.

Benedict was fully aware of the significance of the occasion and he was not afraid to remind the Parliamentarians gathered in that place what was at stake in the trial of St. Thomas More. Benedict noted that “the dilemma which faced More in those difficult times” was “the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.” The aim of Benedict XVI’s address — and one senses of his whole visit to the United Kingdom — was, therefore, “to reflect … on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.”

Benedict XVI went on to point out that “the fundamental questions at stake in More’s trial continue to present themselves” today and among these questions the most important is this: “By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?”

More, and all men and women of his time in England, were forced — on pain of death — to ask and answer this question: On what basis should the moral question of divorce and remarriage be decided? Was it on the basis of the opinion of the one who held political power (King Henry VIII), or on the basis of perennial moral principles: principles championed by the Church?


Much has changed in England politically in the ensuing 500 years, but the question remains: Are there any ethical foundations to civil and political society that simply cannot be changed by those who wield power — even when the power is democratic?

Benedict XVI’s answer is, of course, yes, because “if the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the [democratic] process becomes all too evident.” Here, no doubt, the Holy Father is thinking of, among other things, the anti-life laws passed by the British Parliament and other modern democracies in recent decades at the behest of the “social consensus,” but contrary to the true good of society.

Benedict XVI did not directly mention abortion, euthanasia, and embryo experimentation, but he did provide another example of sacrificing the moral foundations of society. Pointing to the current global financial crisis, he reminded his audience that this demonstrates to society what can be expected when sound ethical foundations are sacrificed to private interest and to pragmatism. He stated that “there is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave [economic] difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.”

Pressing his point home, he reminded the Parliamentarians of “one of British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements,” namely the abolition of the slave trade. The Holy Father noted that “the campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built “not upon a ground swell of public opinion” (in fact the population was ambivalent at best), but “upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law” and, one might add, championed by dedicated Christians such as William Wilberforce.

Having impressed upon the dignitaries the need for political society to be ultimately founded upon a solid ethical foundation, and not the whim of “social consensus,” Benedict XVI went on the address the obvious rejoinder: “Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?” He answered this by pointing out that “objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.” Contrary to the claims of relativism, human reason can know what is true and what is right. Here, of course, he is pointing to nothing less than natural law.

Guiding light

If then, the objective moral norms can be known by human reason, even without revelation, what is the role of religion, and particularly the Christian faith, in society? It is not, Benedict XVI stated, to supply these moral norms and, of course, it is not to present a detailed blueprint for the structuring of the political and economic life of a nation. Rather, it is “to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.”

Accordingly, it is, in many cases, a “corrective” role, meaning that it helps steer reason in its search for moral norms and their concrete application, a guidance that is needed because sin often hinders reason in its search for the truth. The Holy Father warned that “without the corrective supplied by religion … reason [too] can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.”

Benedict XVI reminded his audience that “such misuse of reason … was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place,” since this trade was founded upon the denial of moral principles that reason alone should have affirmed, namely the equality of all men and of their inherent dignity.

The Pontiff noted that this “corrective” function of faith and revelation is not always welcome in many modern democratic societies. He admitted that there are sometimes good reasons for this. Here, he referred to sectarianism and fundamentalism, which he characterized as religious faith devoid of reason.

The point is that reason needs faith, and faith needs reason: “It is a two-way process.” This being the case, Benedict XVI appealed to his audience — the men and women with political power in the United Kingdom — to do what they can to ensure “a profound and ongoing dialogue” between “the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief” for “the good of our civilization.”

In light of the critical importance of this dialogue between reason and faith, Benedict XVI said that “he cannot but voice [his] concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly Christianity, that is taking place” in many nations, including the United Kingdom.

He also spoke of “worrying signs of a failure to appreciate … the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” Here, no doubt, he is thinking of recently established (so-called) anti-discriminatory laws passed by the British Parliament that, among other things, give exaggerated rights to homosexual persons (including the right of adoption) at the expense of religious freedom. Catholic adoption agencies have been compelled to conform to this or close.


The Pope also noted that “there are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.”

Significantly, speaking the next day at the vigil for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Benedict XVI said that “Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter.”

In light of this “privatizing” trend, that the Pope was invited to visit the United Kingdom by the queen and her government (and not the bishops) — that the visit was a state visit — is of immense significance. Benedict XVI, in deed as much as word, is pressing home the truth that modern societies, including modern democracies, cannot do without “religion in the public square.”

St. Thomas More, after all was not just
the king’s good servant and God’s better; he was the king’s good servant because he was God’s better. The political community needs the influence of Christianity if it is to achieve its goal.

In the unprecedented invitation to the Holy Father to address the British Parliament, something simply inconceivable even a few years ago, there radiates a beacon of hope that Christianity can remain a guiding light for society.

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William Newton is an assistant professor (MMF) at the International Theological Institute, Trumau, Austria, and associate member of faculty at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, U.K.

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