Thomas More and today's crisis in faith and morals

Thomas More and today's crisis in faith and morals

John Finnis

Dr John Finniss is Australian-born and a former Rhodes scholar. He is Professor of Law and Dean of the Law Faculty at Oxford University. Below is the text of the second half of his address at the inaugural public function of the Thomas More Centre in August 1989.

The crisis of faith and morals in our day is in some respects more profound and far-reaching than the crisis in which Thomas More lived and died.

One of its manifestations is the misunderstanding and abuse of the idea of conscience in relation to Christian moral teachings - particularly those teachings about sex and about respect for innocent human life, which contradict the morals of the surrounding non-Christian and half-Christian culture.

Of course, it is true, as Aquinas says in the most explicit terms, that if someone after serious reflection judges that he should contracept or she should abort her baby (Aquinas's examples are: fornicate and deny Christ's divinity), then he or she sins gravely in not acting accordingly. But if one is going to recall that truth, one had better recall its companion: if one reaches such a judgement one has made a serious moral error, is entangled in ethical incoherence and corruption, has wandered away from God's law and therefore from God's wisdom and from the terms of the divine offer of friendship and adoptive sonship, and if one has heard the Gospel preached in its integrity, such an error is scarcely possible without a sinful failure of faith, hope and love, threatening salvation at its root. For, to repeat, in forming one's conscience one is not so much seeking to form oneself, or to secure one's personal integrity and authenticity, as to discern the truth about the meaning and worth which human existence is meant by its divine author to have, and does in each human life have, for good or ill, for heaven-haven or shipwreck.

Theological crisis

But the follies of a legalistic moral and pastoral theology, which swings between presenting morality as if it were ecclesiastical law and proposing conscience as a licence to ferret out loopholes, are follies quite superficial, compared with other expressions and sources of today's crisis in moral theology and pastoral practice.

Some of those expressions and sources are interestingly close, even in content, to the moral teachings which More and soon the Council of Trent had to confront and reject.

Thirsting for the feeling of certitude of salvation, Luther glorified and made central to Christian life a certain experiential surrender to Christ in faith, a feeling faith which was not itself chosen and which rendered free choices of moral. good and ill, right and wrong, at best irrelevant. Quite reminiscent of that is the teaching of those who today profess as Catholic a theology in which no sin can be mortal, can exclude one from the grace of God's friendship, however freely and knowingly it is committed, unless it amounts to a reversal of one's so-called "fundamental option", an orientation of one's whole self towards, or, as the case may be, away from God, an orientation which (on one theologically widespread version of the theory) occurs, mysteriously, below the level of consciousness and reflective self- consciousness and is indeed not itself a free choice between alternatives.

Free choice

A Catholic theology of course knows of a fundamental option, and identifies it plainly enough: it is the option of faith, and it is a free choice to accept, consciously, the proposal to believe in God and to accept his offer of adoption into his family, here on earth his Church.

This faith is not itself abandoned when one freely and consciously makes a seriously immoral choice, such as adultery or abortion or contraception: but it is rendered ineffectual - "dead" is Trent's term (after James 2:20) - because by an immoral choice of that sort one turns one's back on the divine friendship whose existence and availability one's faith acknowledges. Only the choice, by God's grace, to repent - again a perfectly unmysterious, particular free choice - enables that friendship to be resumed. Thus Trent, John Paul II, the Church's millennial sacramental practice, the New Testament, the tradition of the Two Ways - of Life and Death - which we find even earlier than most of the New Testament.

But in the teaching of the "new men", which you will find amply represented, virtually unopposed, in the theology and catechetical shelves of (I dare say) your local Catholic booksellers, the neo-Lutherite conception of fundamental option is only one thread in a web of positions which offer to replace the Catholic conception of morals, which More would have acknowledged as his own in the second-century fathers and the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II. All these threads radiate out from, and circle about, a certain state of experience and a certain conception of the foundational role of experience in the reality of faith.

The widespread but unjustifiable theory of fundamental option as the only instantiation of mortal sin articulates a recoil from, a passionate unwillingness to accept, the tension of living in a relationship (with God) which can be broken off by a single, simple choice to do what one's friends are doing, and restored by a single choice to repent, to be reconciled, for example in a standard, mundane sacramental act.

And what shall we say of the widespread theory that there are no specific moral absolutes, no exceptionless negative norms or precepts, but that all the precepts which every previous generation of Jews and Christians took to be (when exactly stated) unconditional, exceptionless, are really no more than generalisations of the way in which, subject to exceptions to be identified by individual conscience, the one true moral principle applies - the principle that one should bring about the state of affairs which involve greater good, or less evil in the world?

This theory, which has no support in the Church's tradition or Scripture, and which is exposed to devastating philosophical objections well-developed by secular as well as Christian philosophers, is supported really by an appeal to the "experience of the faithful today", of those contemporary Christians who feel that there are situations in which they can do more good, or avoid greater harm, by aborting babies, trying out sexual compatibility before marriage, winning wars or securing peace by carrying out or planning massacres of civilians, finding a new sexual partner after a failed marriage, contracepting to prevent the bad effects of having another baby now - and so forth.

Moved by "the Spirit"

These opinions of contemporary Christians are ascribed by the theological "new men" to a movement of the Spirit, who is guiding the faithful to mirror faithfully these moral opinions of the surrounding pagan culture of the wealthy West and the Marxist East, and who is not guiding the Pope or the bishops faithful to his teaching on these matters.

Divine revelation they locate really in religious experience and conscientious judgements, witnessed by a supposed contemporary "consensus" the "sensus fidelium", and is only imperfectly symbolised in Scripture and traditional dogmas and doctrines on matters of faith and morals.

To the extent that the Church's magisterium clings to a different conception of revelation and therefore reasserts the old doctrine, including moral doctrines, in the very sense and with the same meaning that they had in the tradition - eodem sensu, eadem sententia: see, I Corinthians 1:10 (Vulgate); More, Dialogue Concerning Heresies II, 9; Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 62 - to that extent the magisterium is a less truthful witness to revelation than is the "consensus theologorum", the consensus of those theologians who reflect "contemporary Christian experience" and articulate it directly to and for contemporary Catholics, thereby correcting the magisterium (partly expressly and mainly by extensive omissions and tacit negations).

If this view of revelation and faith finds no support in Vatican II or the tradition, no matter - it can be given the support of a version of John XXIII's opening address to that Council, in which (they say) the Pope said that what matters is the substance of the tradition, the Pope (they say) did not say what he is recorded in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis and in Gaudium et Spes, 62 (the Council's final document) as saying - that the Church and Council and faithful must hold to the precise meaning of, and position affirmed in traditional doctrines. The new men's version of Pope John's address you will find in the Abbott and Gallagher Documents of Vatican II p.715, fourth paragraph; but cf. the first paragraph on p. 715.

It is argued to be authentic in Peter Hebblethwaite's biography of John XXIII, which claims that the Vatican bureaucracy subsequently falsified his opening address by inserting into the Acta, the Vatican's official Gazette, the words which you find attributed to Pope John there, and in Gaudium et Spes and in the Council's own official record of the Pope's address.

When one discovers that no changes were made in the version in the Acta, that the Osservatore Romano report of John XXIII's address the day after it was given (Oss. Rom. 12 Oct 62, p.2 col. 3) says exactly what the Acta weeks later said; that Hebblethwaite's tale of subsequent curial falsification is itself a reckless falsehood; and that the mythical version of John XXIII's address is far more widely quoted and well known than the one he actually delivered (reaffirming, at this precise point, the First Vatican Council's teaching on revelation and the immutability of the content of doctrine) one then experiences again the exasperation of Thomas More at the sheer scale of falsification of Catholic teaching to be found in the Reformers' writings, and at the success of bad money in driving out good in the small change of theological currency which finds its way into everyone's pocket or purse.

Time-honoured judgement

Against the conception of revelation, faith and doctrine proposed or, more often, presupposed by the new men much may be said. But in meeting it at the level to which and at which it appeals, Thomas More's consistently reiterated appeal is most helpful - his appeal to the true sensus and consensus fidelium.

This is not the judgement of our generation of Christians more or less comfortable in a secular culture. It is the judgement of the many generations of Christians before us, very many of whom like More knew vast tracts of the Scriptures by heart, prayed not for minutes but for hours daily, and yet who lived in cultures which posed moral questions no less complex than today's.

This appeal neither denies nor ignores the development of Christian doctrine. Development of moral teaching can involve the identification of new options for morally upright choice, as when there emerges, alongside the old, immoral option of usury the new or newly clarified option of charging interest on loans at a rate, established by a capital market, which fairly reflects the lender's entitlement to compensation for his risk and for forgoing participation in the equity, the profit, of other economic enterprises. Or such development can occur whereby one undifferentiated and erroneous position or conception, such as the conception of "religious liberty", which the French revolutionaries said was incompatible with religious vows and indeed with any unconditional religious profession, and which was therefore condemned by the Popes, is replaced by two, differentiated positions, one position erroneous and still condemned, such as the "religious liberty" of indifferentism or of rationalist rejection of religious commitment or vows, but the other clearly distinguished from the first, and affirmed, as the religious liberty affirmed by Vatican II.


But such developments, though they may involve some reversal of some verbal formulations, involve no contradiction or reversal of any proposition, any position (sententia, judgement) which was accepted in the tradition as a position which Christians must definitively hold to - positions such as exclude the intentional killing of any innocent person, whether as an end or as a means, or adultery or any other way of securing sexual satisfaction outside marriage, or preventing one's act of sexual intercourse from having the procreative consequence which it might otherwise have had.

On such matters our situation is in all essentials humanly the same as our Christian forebears; our options, however elaborated at the level of technique, are in terms of intentionality (and therefore of moral assessment) the same options, and the moral judgement to be made on them is in all essentials to be found in the public revelation completed in Christ and the reception of his words and deeds by his Apostles and thence by the apostolic community established by Christ to transmit those words and deeds through the remainder of human history.

In the Catholic conception of faith for which More died, one's personal faith which one has by the grace of the Holy Spirit, is only a fully adequate and appropriate response to that grace when it is a sharing in the faith of the Church. And that faith is (a) a reception of a divine revelation completed by the historical words and deeds of Jesus, and (b) a transmission of what God thus entrusted to the community of those, the Apostles, who had thus received him in faith.

So More, in his very last work, De Tristitia Christi (On the Sorrow of Christ), in the very midst of what is a devotional meditation on the Passion, and very much as the devotional purpose, goes about to establish (a) the factual truthfulness of the Gospel accounts, and to vindicate their historical credibility against sceptical doubts. And in all his defences of the faith, he strives (b) to put us in the presence of the great company of our fellow Christians of every earlier age: as we make our way through life, as "through the broad High Street of a great long city" [Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, 237] we are accompanied on the one side by the voices and gestures of our dissenting contemporaries but on the other side by a much more numerous and honourable company, the communion of those who have gone before us to heaven, along that way, and whose voice we hear in the writings of the saints and doctors of the Church, and in the acts of its Councils - Councils which in turn direct us to the successors of Peter.

Clergy formation

The present crisis of faith and morals, like the crisis in More's time, centres on the clergy, their formation, their esprit de corps, their preaching. When did I last hear a sermon which tried to explicate, vindicate or make real the factual truthfulness of what they commonly and misleadingly call the "stories" of the Gospel? Or which explicated the appointed scriptural writings by putting us in the presence of the meditations and explanations of one or more of the Fathers, or by showing us the interpretation of that text in the Councils? Or indeed which expounded for us a sentence, let alone a paragraph or a page or a chapter, of any of the constitutions of Vatican II, a Council which simply has never been preached and which remains substantially unread even by many quite learned clerics.

Anyone today who would learn from Thomas More could do no better than to read and re-read (ideally with the texts cited in its precise footnotes) the 20 pages of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation, unprejudiced by the misleading claims of those, far or near, who invite you to be less impressed by the text than by its differences (which they hugely exaggerate) from earlier drafts.

If More strives to put us in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth and into the presence of the saints and doctors who have gone before us, he strives also to show us the true horizons of our earthly existence, the true range and depth of our morally significant choices. He wants to put us always in mind of heaven and hell, which have disappeared from the moral/ theological treatises of the new men and which in most contemporary preaching appear only in the form of a fatuous, unexamined presumption that God, before whom no- one need stand in holy fear, will with the entirely limitless indulgence of an irresponsible late twentieth century father somehow extend the comforts of our prosperity forever.

Few things are more foolish than the claim of the new men that the Bible has been newly opened to our generation of Catholics, when in fact it has never been so heavily censored as it is by a theology and catechesis which covers with silence the Bible's supreme theme of Genesis and Apocalypse, of creation, which initiates time, and redemption, which is completed only in eternity at the close of historical time. The faith and vision of Thomas More is closed to us if we do not live within the horizons thus pointed out to us.


We now cross the river from Lambeth Palace to Westminster Hall where More, on Thursday 1 July 1535, after nearly sixty weeks' imprisonment, stands before his eighteen judges (including the new Queen's father and brother). They have just condemned him for the capital treason of attempting (allegedly in a casual conversation with the Solicitor General in the Tower while the Privy Council's servants were taking away all More's books) "wholly to deprive our sovereign Lord the King of his dignity title and name of Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England" (the title statutorily conferred by the Act of Supremacy 1534 along with the royal power to judge errors and heresies with finality).

More has just been condemned - at that point, it seems, to be hanged, disembowelled alive, and quartered. He is allowed a final speech.

"More have I not to say, my Lords, but like as the blessed Apostle St Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of St Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever, so I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have here now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation".

Left unspoken, but hanging in the air between More and his judges, in the Christian consciousness they shared, is the precondition of Paul's salvation: his conversion and repentance. In his De Tristitia Christi, More had prayed that the new men will repent and come home to God, as Judas could have repented even after his betrayal of Jesus.

The most urgent task for a truly Christian theology and catechesis of faith and morals is to recover for us all the treasure of the truth conveyed in so many words of Jesus, and presupposed in his willingness to remain faithful to his vocation at the cost of gruesome execution: the truth that this life is lived towards a destiny that, body and soul together, far outruns the existence of all other bodies known to us, the whole matter of our apparently expanding universe; and that this destiny of adoption into the family of the Creator is, for one who can choose, conditional on one's choices.

And it is conditional, not according to a will and judicial judgement and order like the commands, judgements and orders (however just) of human legislators and judges, but by an appropriateness, a fittingness, an inevitability (given, on the one side, God's promises of salvation and, on the other side the inherent power of free choice to terminate an interpersonal relationship) in the structure of personal relationships between Creator and created persons.

That structure is a vast set of relationships to live within which completely and lastingly is heaven, and to break off which will prove to have been the beginnings of a loss that, when things are seen and felt without distraction, is all that Jesus holds before us as the fire of hell. (The Lord's discourse here is not, as some theologians like, dismissively, to say "threat-discourse"; it is "warning- discourse", utterly serious but devoid of threat. God makes promises, but no threats.)


More's Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation shows that he knows that atheists are not so rare (see p. 194), and that he knows how even the faithful recoil with revulsion from reflecting on the prospect of hell (see p. 249). The four-and-a-half centuries since More's death have brought atheism even closer into the Christian consciousness, have greatly deepened that revulsion, have made more intolerable anything savouring of arbitrariness, of a divine voluntarism, in the structure of human destiny, have therefore made more urgent and necessary the responsibility of taking this part of the Gospel seriously.

The failure to take this responsibility seriously, a failure which has many more aspects and origins than I have been able even to touch upon, is the heart of the crisis of faith and morals. Only if we take it seriously can we experience a hope, which goes beyond words, to meet St Thomas More, merrily, in heaven.

Note: Quotations from and citations to the Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation are to the very readable modernised edition by Sr Monica Stevens, published by Sheed and Ward, London, 1951.

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