With the battle raging between the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Federal government on the HHS Mandate, some writers have likened their case to the trial of St. Thomas More as seen in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons or Fred Zinnemann’s famous film adaption. Zinnemann’s film and Bolt’s play, however, inaccurately convey Thomas More’s idea of conscience.
In the play’s preface, Bolt decries the loss of the “individual Man,” an archetypal figure to whom one can compare him or herself and Zinnemann’s film adaptation reinforces Thomas More as an “individual man,” a man of great selfhood to whom one can compare his own way of life, and to whom one can aspire to become. First, Bolt states, “A man takes an oath when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee.” This “guarantee to offer,” necessitates a strong idea of the self. For Bolt and Zinnemann, More can resist the many temptations of court because he has a strong sense of selfhood, a selfhood that is uncompromising.
This triumph of the selfhood is inconsistent with the teaching of conscience that More presents in his Dialogue on Conscience. The movie fails to demonstrate More’s view on the significance of a community, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, on the formation of a conscience: Although More is seen as a defender of the faith, More’s conscience seems most rooted in his intelligence and wit than in his conviction to safeguarding his salvation that relies on the Church that forms how he will act.
For More, one develops a well-formed conscience according to intense study of both the civic law and God’s law; what he knows he is bound to follow, the salvation of his soul is at stake if he does not. More suggests that one must follow the civic law, and that to deny the authority of civic law makes one liable to both civic penalties and to “God’s displeasure.” At the same time, it is not guaranteed that these laws are just laws, especially if they were to be contradict the laws of the Church in a general Council. More thus states, “But if, indeed, on the other hand, a person were on some issue to take a way all by himself, going by his mind alone, or with some few, or with however many, against an evident truth appearing by the common faith of Christendom, this conscience is very damnable, yes.”
The film and the play distort More’s actual views of conscience since it is the individual, the courageous selfhood and individuality of More, that supplies the reason for his refusal to take the oath. More, on the contrary, refuses the oath because he sees that the law made by Henry VIII lacks “consensus” with the law of God as revealed in the General Councils.
This personal and private conscience, the pseudo-Morean conscience of the Zinnemann film or Bolt play, is the kind of conscience best exemplified by opponents of the Little Sisters. It’s implied when the New York Times claims that the Little Sisters’ suit “boils down to an unjustified attempt by an employer to impose its religious views on workers.” It’s individual against individual, where conscience has ceased, in the current public sphere, to participate in a collective memory of moral truthsrelated to Plato’s anamnesis or Thomas Aquinas’s synderesis. The Little Sisters indeed hold Thomas More’s idea of conscience, but it’s not the same as that man for all seasons that our popular memory esteems.