Thursday, July 16, 2009

Conscience clause, c. 1535

Re-reading R. W. Chambers' classic biography of Thomas More, I was struck by this quotation from Judge Rastell's contemporary notes on Parliamentary debate over the infamous Act of Succession, which required all subjects of Henry VIII to swear an oath acknowledging him as Supreme Head of the Church in England:

Note diligently here that the bill was earnestly withstood, and could not be suffered to pass, unless the rigour of it were qualified with this word maliciously; and so not every speaking against the Supremacy to be treason, but only maliciously speaking. And so for more plain declaration thereof, the word maliciously was twice put into the Act.

And yet afterwards, in putting the Act in execution against Bishop Fisher, Sir Thomas More, the Carthusians, and others, the word maliciously, plainly expressed in the Act, was adjudged by the King's Commissioners, before whom they were arraigned, to be void. [emphasis added]

If anyone is inclined to accept the current assurances emanating from Washington that this or that new legislation compelling doctors and pharmacists to collaborate in providing abortions will be equipped with a "robust conscience clause" excusing those who decline on moral (for our purposes, Catholic) grounds -- well, just be aware that that particular joke is almost five hundred years old. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...