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A Minute More: A Letter To Margaret Roper

“… I shall never be forsworn nor swear against my conscience.”

Letter to Margaret Roper (More’s eldest daughter) 17 April 1534 Tower of London

St. Thomas More uses the word conscience at least seventeen times in this letter written shortly after his imprisonment.  It may be tempting in our day to project a modern connotation to the word that would not do justice to the broader and more collective meaning that the word carried for More in the early sixteenth century. We tend to view matters of conscience today as deeply personal and highly individual. But More’s sense of conscience was not a simple, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion.” It had none of the attributes of moral relativism whereby your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth.

More appreciated a well-formed conscience that enabled a person to make moral judgments.  A well-formed conscience was formed by study and reason in the context of the whole of Christendom. Discerning what was right for More was not done in isolation from the teaching of the Church and the teachings of Christ. We should avoid the temptation to privatize the concept of the integrity of conscience for which More died. He did not die simply for his own private beliefs. It was not simply a matter of individual liberty. The former Lord Chancellor was taking a stand against the ability of the State, in the person of the King, to order subjects to renounce the teachings of the Church that were no longer compatible with the King’s desires. He found this to be, “against the greater council of Christendom.”

St. Thomas More’s witness has renewed relevance in our day. We must guard against the tendency to relegate our beliefs to a purely private realm divorced from living the Gospel that we believe. We must be ready to take the stand against that which demands of us to swear against a well-formed conscience.

Robert S. McCord, Esq.