Thomas, I'll have no opposition," warned Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons. The scene in Robert Bolt's play takes place in Sir Thomas More's garden. Henry has just learned that More does not support his plans to unmake his marriage.
"No opposition, I say!" he roared. "No opposition! Your conscience is your own affair, but you are my chancellor!"
"I'll leave you out of it," growls the king. "But I don't take it kindly, Thomas, and I'll have no opposition! . . . Lie low if you will, but I'll brook no opposition – no words, no signs, no letters, no pamphlets – mind that, Thomas – no writings against me!"
A Man for All Seasons follows More as he resigns his office and retires to private life, avoiding comment upon the king's marriage. But, ultimately, "lying low" isn't enough.
More's silence, complains Thomas Cromwell, "is bellowing up and down Europe," and, what's worse, Henry can hear it. "The king's a man of conscience," says Cromwell, "and he wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed."
For individuals who wish to follow and act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, it is sometimes necessary to resist, even in heroic manner, the directives of the state, a court, a king, a prime minister or an organization that tries to force them to go against their convictions in matter of faith and morals. Freedom of conscience means that the person has the right to follow, according to the awareness of his or her duty, the will of God and his law.
Some people will brook no conscientious objection as a fundamental expression of the freedom of conscience and religion. Such an adamant stance is grounded in faulty connections between conscience, truth and authority (whether civil or ecclesial), and a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of tolerance and conscience.
Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it's a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil.
The roots of the word imply bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It is not a virtue like justice, charity, mercy, courage or wisdom. Virtue flows from an understanding of truth, unchanging, that exists and obligates us, whether we like it or not. Marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Despite the "enlightened" Paul Martin, some of us still consider "gay" marriage immoral and merely tolerate a bad law.
St. Thomas More
Conscience is never merely a matter of personal preference or opinion. Nor is it a self-esteem coach. Conscience, despite the caricature, is not a sort of angelic voice distinct from our own reasoning which comes, as it were, from outside ourselves. If we hear voices, commanding or complaining, a rival to our own moral thinking, we should probably see a doctor.
There are three acts or dimensions of conscience: the perception of the principles of morality; their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reason and good; and finally judgments about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed.
The first act is the perception of the basic principles of practical reason accessible to all people of good will and right reason: transmit and preserve life, refine and develop the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good, contemplate beauty, serve God, honour parents.
This requires openness to all human goods, even those not directly pursued, and never choosing directly against participation by anyone in any of them. These principles provide us with the bases both for self-criticism and social criticism.
With further reflection, a series of intermediate principles and more specific norms can be derived. This is the natural law known even to non-believers and Christian faith recalls and confirms it.
Because revelation affects the whole way we understand God, each other, the world and ourselves, it inevitably colours the application of these natural principles and brings some new norms. The Church comes in such a context as teacher-counsellor helping us reach maturity.
Morality is not an imposition of an external authority, but an internal pattern of life which challenges us to be more reasonable, mature and flourishing.
The second act is the application of principles to given circumstances by the practical discernment of reasons and goods. In the process of deliberation, the mind often faces temptations, dilemmas, confusion and apparent conflicts. Conscience must be well-formed and well-informed.
The third act is our best judgment of what to do or refrain from doing in the here and now (or in the past). Conscience is only worthy of respect when it can bite, that is when it can tell us what to do that we might otherwise be disinclined to do, or vice versa, or give us reason for remorse.
There is plenty of ground for error here. Just as memory is in remembering accurately, so the value of conscience is in yielding the right choice. Truth always has primacy.
Conscience presupposes an optimistic view of human capacities to discern the good. However, if conscience is reduced from objective principles to subjective sincerity or from shared principles to private ones, it is hard to see why we would take people's conscience so seriously.
Too often in recent years those desperate for moral education or advice have been fobbed off with "follow your conscience" or indulged with "do what you think is best." Without shared objective principles, conscientious belief becomes window dressing for raw preference or power and we have no way of knowing whether our conscience is well-formed or not, well-functioning or not, accurate or disastrously off-course.
Too often human rights documents have become weapons against the fundamental rights of religious believers as we are told repeatedly: "Lie low if you will, but I'll brook no opposition – no words, no signs, no letters, no pamphlets – mind that, Thomas – no writings against me!"