While attending an event at Georgetown with Father Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the director of the Vatican Observatory, a few friends and I took an Uber over to the campus of The Catholic University of America and the National Shrine to Saint John Paul II to visit an exhibition they are currently hosting on Saint Thomas More.
The collection of vestments, artwork, books, relics and cultural artifacts related to the life and death of the English martyr was well worth the visit (despite the horrific Washington traffic through various demonstrations and protests).
Interestingly, many of the elements of the exhibit came from Stonyhurst College in the United Kingdom, where a British descendant of More’s had long ago donated them to the Jesuits. John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown University and first bishop in America, may have seen some of the artifacts personally when he was a student at Saint Omer (the antecedent to Stonyhurst) before crossing the pond.
More was the famed Chancellor to King Henry VIII, whose conscience prevented him from supporting the monarch’s salacious affair with Anne Boleyn, and subsequent establishing himself as the Head of the Church of England.
More, a lay man with a wife and children, was imprisoned and eventually beheaded for refusing to mitigate his position when Pope Clement VII refused to bless Henry’s extramarital tryst. More supposedly joked to the executioner to avoid his beard with the axe, for at the very least, it had committed no crime. His last words, often misquoted, were “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”
The culmination of the exhibit was a fragment of the jawbone of the saint, presumably taken after his head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge as a deterrent to “treason and sedition.”
Today Catholics and Anglicans have a much closer, collaborative relationship than during the height of the hostilities between them, thanks especially to the ecumenical movement and increasing openness to dialogue. Yet, I could not help but feel a certain degree of sadness that some seemingly preventable historical events have caused so much pain and division since these fateful decisions were made, both in the drama surrounding the actors involved and on into our own day. (Look at Northern Ireland for instance.)
And yet, the inspirational testament to the inviolability of human conscience, where a person remains utterly alone with God, was unmistakably brought to light by the exhibition. Conscience is a notoriously challenging reality to study and analyze, especially when factors of authority, power, mental acuity, spiritual formation, and invincible or culpable ignorance enter the equation. And yet, Catholics recognize that it is in this innermost chamber of the soul where God sometimes speaks to us more clearly and profoundly than in any other dimension of life. That’s precisely why Hermann Göring’s confession remains so haunting: “I have no conscience. Adolf Hitler is my conscience.”
More remains the antithesis to such a perspective, representing the ultimate duty to choose principle over preservation, and Providence over politics.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.