Near the end of the classic movie and screenplay about St. Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons,” More finds himself imprisoned for not signing King Henry VIII’s Act of Succession. More will not reveal to anyone why he does not sign it, but only refers again and again to “matters of conscience.” I have always found this movie powerful, but I was reminded of this particular scene as I reflected on the different choices many are making today, and the deep Christian belief in the human conscience.
The scene opens with a tired Thomas, after months of imprisonment in the Tower, standing in front of a small tribunal made up of Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk (Thomas’ friend), and a Bishop.
Duke: Sit down.
Cromwell: This is the Seventh Commission to inquire into the case of Sir Thomas More, appointed by His Majesty’s Council. Have you anything to say?
Cromwell: Seen this document before?
More: Many times.
Cromwell: It is the Act of Succession. These are the names of those who’ve sworn to it.
More: I have, as you say, seen it before.
Cromwell: Will you swear to it?
Duke: Thomas, we must know– We must know plainly whether you recognise the offspring of Queen Anne… as heirs to the throne.
More: The King and Parliament tells me that they are. Of course I recognise them.
Duke: Will you swear that you do?
Duke: Then why won’t he swear to the act?
Cromwell: Because there is more than that in the act.
Bishop: Just so. Sir Thomas, it states in the preamble that the King’s former marriage to the Lady Catherine was unlawful… she being his brother’s widow and the Pope having no authority to sanction it. Is that what you deny? Is that what you dispute? Is that what you are not sure of?
Duke: Thomas, ye insult His Majesty and Council in the person of the Lord Archbishop!
More: I insult no one. I will not take the oath. I will not tell you why I will not.
Duke: Then your reasons must be treasonable!
More: Not “must be,” may be.
Duke: It’s a fair assumption.
More: The law requires more than an assumption. The law requires a fact.
Bishop: Of course, I cannot judge your legal standing in the case… but until I know the ground of your objections… I can only guess your spiritual standing, too.
More: If you’re willing to guess that, it should be small matter to guess my objections.
Cromwell: Then you do have objections to the act!
Duke: Well, we know that, Cromwell!
More: No, my lord, you don’t. You may suppose I have objections, all you know is that I will not swear to it… for which you cannot lawfully harm me further. But if you were right in supposing me to have objections, and right again in supposing my objections to be treasonable… the law would let you cut my head off.
Duke: Oh, yes.
Cromwell: Well done, Sir Thomas. I’ve been trying to make that clear to His Grace for some time.
Duke: Oh, confound all this! I’m not a scholar. I don’t know if the marriage was lawful or not… but damn it, Thomas, look at these names. Why can’t you do as I did and come with us for fellowship?
More: 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?
Bishop: So, those of us whose names are there, are damned, Sir Thomas?
More: I have no window to look into another man’s conscience. I condemn no one.
Blessed voting, friends.