Wednesday, February 15, 2012

First Serve God

Originally published in The Bluffton Packet, February 15, 2012:

One of my favorite films is A Man for All Seasons.  Released in 1966,  it is an adaptation of the play by Robert Bolt and based on the life  of St. Thomas More.  If you haven’t seen it, the cliffnotes version is that King Henry VIII wants to divorce the queen to marry Anne Boleyn.  Furious that the Pope won’t grant a divorce, King Henry VIII demands  that his subjects take an oath declaring him the head of the Church of England.  St. Thomas More—a good friend of the King—refuses and is eventually beheaded for treason stating, “ I die his Majesty's good
servant but God's first.”

As everyone in England signs the oath, More’s colleagues see the danger in his refusal.  The Duke of Norfolk beseeches: “Thomas, look at these names! Why can't you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!” to which More replies, “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?”

What exactly is More talking about here, and with such strong language?  For a simple explanation of conscience, let’s remember what we learned from Pinochio:  it tells us  what’s right and wrong.  A more poetic description is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, describing it as “a law…not laid upon himself but which he must obey.   Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at
the right moment…  For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God”  (paragraph #1776).

Our nation has always valued our freedom to follow our conscience, making religious freedom the first in the Bill of Rights and historically respecting the individual’s right to practice their faith.  Archbishop Timothy Dolan
explained just how broad a spectrum there is in the U.S. in his recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, saying, “The Amish do not carry health insurance.  The government respects their  principles.  Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone…  Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the
government respects that principle for conscientious objectors”. 
The topic of conscience and religious freedom has been in the news a lot these past few weeks, especially with regards to the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception and the nationwide mandate for Contraception and sterilization coverage.  While people may disagree with what the Catholic Church—or any faith—teaches, the right to follow one’s conscience is fundamental. James Madison, in defending the First Amendment, explained that “conscience is the most sacred of all property”.  The concerns currently being raised by the Catholic Church are not about imposing their beliefs on others, but about being free to follow their own beliefs and be good servants of God.

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