Learning about conscience, part 1: Saint Thomas More

I was a kid in a time before video on demand services like Netflix. Heck, it was before PVRs and even VCRs. We had one TV in the house, and if you wanted to know what was going on you consulted the newspaper or a print publication like TV Guide. Or, sometimes you'd be channel surfing and if you came across something you wanted to watch, you either just watched it or you let it go.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when A Man for All Seasons came on TV. It was probably between the ages of 7 and 10. It was an afternoon, and I'm pretty sure it was a Saturday. In those days, Saturday morning was a time for kids to watch cartoons, but at a certain point the kids shows stopped and the "grown up" shows took over. My recollection is that I had finished watching "my" shows, and my dad had come downstairs to watch "his show". But as I was getting up to go, my dad invited me to stay and watch the movie with him. I wasn't too sure -- I generally found "grown up" shows boring. But my dad said, "This movie is about someone you are named after." Really? Wow! So I couldn't refuse.

For those who do not know A Man for All Seasons, it is the story of Sir Thomas More (later known as Saint Thomas More). He was the good friend of King Henry VIII, and at one point was Chancellor of England. This was in the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation was in full swing on the Continent. At one point Henry had himself declared the head of the Church in England, and communion disintegrated between himself and the Pope. Sir Thomas More could not accept to go down that path, and he eventually lost everything, including his life.

At my age, I did not understand all that was going on in the story. It was set in another century, the dialogue was a fairly advanced form of English, and I knew very little about the Protestant Reformation except that some kids in our neighbourhood were "protestants" which meant they went to a different church than us. But my dad explained things as needed, and my focus anyway was mainly on the main character who had the same name as me.

The story of Saint Thomas More left a deep impression on me, leaving me perplexed and even disturbed. My father asked me what I thought about the story, and I remember asking him the same question.

"I've always admired Thomas More," my father explained. "For me, he is a model of what it means to follow your conscience."

"Conscience? What's that?" I asked.

My dad did not answer the question directly. Instead of saying what it was, he said what it meant. "To live by your conscience means to always act according to the truth. That's what Thomas More did."

I changed the focus of my questioning. "But why did Sir Thomas go all the way to being killed?"

"He didn't want to die," my father explained. "If you noticed, Thomas was trying to avoid falling into the danger set before him. He didn't go looking for trouble, in fact he did his best to get out of it, but when in the end they backed him into a corner and said he had to deny his commitment or else, he refused to do so."

"That's what conscience means," he continued. "To live by your conscience means you have to have courage. Anybody can find excuses to avoid challenges and suffering, but sometimes there are things we have to be willing to sacrifice for. For example, if someone ever made me have to choose between my life and yours, or my life and the life of your mother, or brother, or sister, I'd choose to die rather than let you die. At least I hope I would, I hope I'd have the courage to do that."

Now that got my attention. My dad didn't know it, but he was teaching me about the difference between courage and daring. People will sometimes do something dangerous on a dare, but real courage is not just about daring. It is about daring to do the right thing, even if it costs you.

This, of course, raised other questions in my mind. After all, if following your conscience could have such high stakes, you had better be pretty sure of what the right thing is. After all, there is no point suffering for the wrong thing!

My father confirmed as much. "To follow your conscience takes courage, but you also have to use your brain," he said. "You have to always be willing to seek the truth and stick with it. But it also takes humility, because no one can ever know the whole truth all at once. You have to be willing to admit you don't know everything, and to be willing to ask questions. It helps to be part of a community that is committed to finding the truth and living it. That's what the Church is for."

Getting back to my story, I remember asking my dad if all this conscience stuff was really worth it. Remember, I was a kid and peer pressure was a fact of life. If joining with my friends was the path of least resistance, why not just do that, at least in the normal course of life? My father reminded me that, in the film, Sir Thomas had a conversation with his good friend the Duke of Norfolk, who had tried to persuade Thomas to take a false oath "for fellowship". Thomas replied, "And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?"

I looked at my father and said that this argument did not sound fair. God was going to punish us for not following our conscience? Is that the ultimate reason why we should seek the truth and be willing to suffer for it -- because we are afraid of God?

With great patience, and with (I believe) some delight in the fact that I was pushing the issue so far, he replied that, in fact, having a strong conscience, one that was anchored in truth and had the courage to live it, was actually the source of one of the greatest assets a personality can have: inner freedom. Saint Thomas, in his struggle, showed himself to be more free than the King himself, even when he was locked up in the Tower of London.

We need that inner freedom, my father explained, to be able to live according to the ultimate law: the law of love. I had heard of this law before, during the Bible readings and sermons and church, such as in the expression "love your neighbour". That law doesn't say we have to like our neighbour, but that we do have to love him. We have to even love our enemies. But, as my father explained, how can we do that unless we have the inner freedom to do so? Real love cannot be forced, it must be free. Having a strong conscience makes us free inside, the kind of freedom that Saint Thomas had to declare that he was "the King's faithful servant, but God's first".

"That's why we wind up in Hell if we disobey our conscience," my father explained. "We can't live real love with out. And God is love, Heaven is love. It's not that God will punish us if we don't follow our conscience, it's that conscience is our guide to Heaven, to being with God. And while God sometimes grants people visions or speaks words to them, it's in our conscience that God ordinarily impresses himself up on. If our conscience isn't clear, we can't have a real relationship with Him."

This conversation had a lasting effect upon me, even until today. For example, as I've gotten older I've come to realise this conversation was the start of my passion for ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue (heck, even dialogue with sincere atheists). I like speaking with people who have convictions and try and live by them. Our convictions may differ, but if those convictions are sincere it means the other person is willing to have them tested in the name of a higher principle, i.e. the principle that The Truth is more important than "this or that" truth. As I would learn later, this perspective would eventually come in handy when I started to have my own "crisis of faith" -- that that is a story for another time.