Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Thomas More on Ethics, Law, and Liberty

I spent this past Friday and Saturday with an exceptionally congenial group of scholars, at a symposium the Murphy Institute co-sponsored with the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas.  Under the extremely able guidance of the Center's Director, Dr. Gerard Wegemer, and two of its Fellows, David Oakley and Louis Karlin, we read and discussed portions of More's Utopia, Richard III, Tyrannicide, documents about his trial, and various letters, including the Dialogue on Conscience.  Participants included a number of fellow MOJ-ers (Marc DeGirolami, the Michaels Moreland & Scaperlanda, Tom Berg, and Susan Stabile), as well as  other legal scholars from here and abroad. 

I had always admired More for the courage of his witness, but never read his work.  Reading such a wide swath of his work under such informed guidance was a revelation.  We were challenged to think about More's actions and his writings as lawyers, not just scholars -- a rich exercise for bringing to life both the stakes and the contemporary relevance of his actions and his words (and his silences).  Wegemer, Oakley, and Karlin are all contributors to a valuable new resource for anyone who might want to use More as the subject of any law school class: Thomas More's Trial by Jury: A Procedural and Legal Review with a Collection of Documents.  (The volume also includes contributions from two of the other participants in our symposium, Sir Michael Tugendhut, Justice of the Queen's Bench, and Richard Helmholtz.) 

But the symposium certainly helped me appreciate that More's writings deserve attention for more than just the lessons of conscience and principle on display in his trial.  Some of our criminal law professors at the symposium were struck by how effective Raphael Hytholoday's account of his conversation with Cardinal Morton on how to properly punish thieves (in Book I of Utopia) might be in teaching theories of punishment in a criminal law class. 

One of the pieces I personally found most intriguing is from the Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, an essay entitled On Private Property, Riches, and Poverty, in which More attempts to sort through some of Jesus' most challenging charges:  "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:26) and: "whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:33).  In the essay More (as is typical for him) teases out the many complex layers of the practical implications of what those charges might mean for us.  In our symposium, Steve Smith made the point that More's analysis might be a helpful contribution in many of our contemporary political debates, such as immigration.  I agree.  It seems to me that More's work might be a helpful supplement to some arguments typically made in terms of subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor, or Aquinas' 'order of charity'.

More writes, for example:  ". . . though I am obliged to meet in some way the needs of every kind of person, whether friend or foe, Christian or heathen, my obligation is not the same toward every person, nor toward any one person in every situation.  A difference in circumstances greatly affects the matter. . . . Those are ours who belong to our charge either by nature, by law, or by some commandment of God. . . . Once God has by such chance sent [some stranger in need] to me, and has matched me with him, I consider myself definitely responsible for him until I can be rightly and decently, without any risk to his life, discharged of that responsibility. . . . [On the other hand] as much as God and nature both bind me to the sustenance of my own father, his need may be so little (though it is something), and a stranger's need so great, their needs may be so unequal, that both nature and God would have me releive that urgent necessity of a stanger -- even if it's an enemy of mine and God's too . . . -- before releiving a little need that is unlikely to do great harm to my father and my mother too."

I highly recommend the resources of the Center for Thomas More Studies -- both on their website and in on their staff -- for anyone interested in studying this great saint.


Schiltz, Elizabeth | Permalink


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