CAMBRIDGE, England (LifeSiteNews) — On November 24, an historic occasion took place in Cambridge University, when a prominent member of the Catholic hierarchy delivered a lecture of university grounds highlighting the role of conscience in society and citing the example of English martyr St. Thomas More.
Addressing a full crowd – including this LifeSiteNews correspondent – in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Astana’s auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider delivered a lecture entitled “Political authority and the role of conscience.”
“A man or woman concerned primarily about the judgment of conscience will be a far better public servant than one only moved by the judgment of the crowds,” he stated. “Indeed in the right understanding an exercise of political authority related to the duties of conscience depend the true well-being and happiness of the human person in human society.”
Bishop Schneider – well known for his pronouncements regarding Catholic truths and doctrine – presented his lecture to a crowd comprised of young and old, students and professors, with the body of students drawn not just from Cambridge University itself but from centers of education across the country.
The visit, organized by the Cambridge-based Centre for the Study of Philosophy, Politics, and Religion, is notable event even in itself. Speaking at the politics department, Schneider was an official guest of the university, something which was not even the case in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 1988 lecture at the Cambridge University Catholic chaplaincy.
Drawing especially from the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, along with English Catholic saints St. John-Henry Newman and St. Thomas More, Schneider expanded on the nature and origin of authority, along with the manner of assent which is due to it.
“St. Thomas Aquinas,” noted Schneider, “answers that laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience from the eternal law whence they are derived.”
But the bishop also noted how laws may be unjust, a crucial distinction in a time when legislation is increasingly spreading throughout every part of life. He warned against unjust laws which are “contrary to human good,” along with laws “opposed to Divine good.”
“As stated in the acts of the Apostles, we ought to obey God rather than men,” he said, in reference to times when human laws are in juxtaposition to the law of God.
But the auxiliary bishop also noted the correlation between just laws and the natural law, citing St. Thomas Aquinas to explain the natural law as “the eternal law of God impresses itself on rational creatures and endows them with an inclination toward their proper actions and ends.”
The guiding principle of natural law has increasingly been abandoned in modern culture, without leaving England unscathed: it is now over 10 years since Parliament approved legislation to permit same-sex “marriage,” and abortion has been a widespread practice in the country since 1967.
Indeed, while various forms of divorce law existed in England prior to 1969, it was in that year that the Divorce Recognition Act passed. So-called “no fault divorce” became even easier thanks to the passage of the 2020 Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, which came into force in 2022.
With such elements so firmly established in English culture, Schneider’s exposition of the role of natural law in politics was perhaps only outshone in significance by his reference to St. Thomas More – the Lord High Chancellor for King Henry VIII, who died a martyr on the order of his friend the King for refusing to recognize Henry VIII’s divorce and “re-marriage,” and his assumption of the title of head of the Church in England.
More’s death, accompanied by Henry VIII’s apostasy from the Catholic Church, pushed England into adopting a new identity – namely, Protestantism and rejection of the Catholic Church and the Pope.
With such a societal backdrop, Schneider asked: “may we ever refuse obedience to civil or ecclesiastical authorities?” “Yes,” he noted, since “as with all unjust laws, one may refuse obedience to any superior under the condition that when they demand something opposed to natural law or opposed to divine law, as grasped by a properly formed conscience.” He continued:
England became renowned through two teachers on conscience. That is to say, Thomas More and John Henry Newman.
Thomas More stresses the communal nature of conscience. Thomas More was, after all, imprisoned precisely because he could not in good conscience swear allegiance to Henry VIII’s oath.
Drawing from Pope John Paul II, Schneider quoted the Polish Pope’s comments on St. Thomas More:
The life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More have been the source of a message which spans the centuries and which speaks to people everywhere of the inalienable dignity of the human conscience, which the Second Vatican Council reminds us is the most intimate center and sanctuary of a person in which he or she is alone with God.
Whenever men or women heed the call of truth, their conscience then guides their actions reliably towards good. Precisely because of the witness which Thomas More bore – even at the price of his life – to the primacy of truth over power, Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity.
Continuing his quotation from John Paul II’s 2000 motu proprio on the saint, Schneider stated: “What enlightened his [More’s] conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.”
The import of such words are not to be left unrecognized. St. Thomas More’s name is not one commonly heard in an English university, and even less so the fact of his opposition to the heretical actions of Henry VIII and his martyrdom. For a Catholic prelate to expound on the virtues of More, along with how his defiance of the King was “an act of obedience to truth and thus, in his view, an act of genuine liberty,” is almost unprecedented.
“In contrast to the modern claim that the individual can create his own moral values, Thomas More saw the formation of conscience as the fruit of an education into truth,” said Schneider, adding:
Far from being the arbitrator and creator of its own moral order, the human conscience is in need of conforming to the truth. For Thomas More the formation of conscience is the result of a long process in which one discovers a pre existing, created moral order. Nothing underscores the profound differences between Thomas More’s and the modernists’ understanding of conscience more than this fact.
That is to say, various modern thought views the individual’s conscience as being above all other authorities. Thomas More’s conscience testifies to the superiority of the Church authority to the king’s authority in the case of Henry VIII.
With Schneider’s visit to Cambridge University, the quiet yet undaunted heroes of English Catholicism were raised to prominence once again, and the role of a properly formed conscience in relation to political authority presented as it should be – oriented firstly towards God.