Conscience Versus the Spirit of the Age
Address to the Thomas More Lawyer's Guild,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Convivium, December 2014/January 2015
Reproduced with permission
In this text of his address to the
annual Red Mass dinner hosted by the Thomas More Lawyers'
Guild of Toronto in October 2014, then federal Minister of
Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney called on
assembled lawyers to defend conscience rights as a bulwark
against the spirit of the age running roughshod over us.
It is a great honour to be invited to speak from this distinguished
podium, which has been graced by people far more worthy than I, to invoke
the life, legacy and lessons of our patron saint, Sir Thomas More.
I say "our" patron although I am not a member of your honourable legal
fraternities at the bar and the bench. I labour in a much less august
vineyard, that of the political vocation. But in the Jubilee Year of 2000,
Saint John Paul II decided to add to Saint Thomas More's already heavy
burden as the patron saint of lawyers by also giving him the impossibly
difficult task of acting as the patron saint of politicians.
Earlier this evening, we heard the Gospel reading, "Woe to
you, lawyers!" Lest you feel put out, please remember that the most
prominent politicians in the gospels are King Herod, Pontius Pilate and
Caesar, so the politicians fare much worse!
Poor Saint Thomas, shining light of the Renaissance, the greatest jurist
and statesman of his era, martyred for this faith—and his eternal reward is
now to keep watch over politicians and lawyers. I suspect that he envies
Saint Jude, who is charged only with hopeless causes.
Ladies and gentlemen, as Canadians we are looking ahead to July 1, 2017,
aware that the sesquicentennial of our great dominion is significant not
only for Canadians but, in a certain way, for the world too. For us it will
be an occasion to celebrate our own history. For the world, Canada 150 will
be a hopeful confirmation that responsible government, representative
democracy, widespread religious, political and economic liberty,
unprecedented material prosperity, unity in diversity, linguistic harmony,
that all of this, which we modestly call peace, order and good government,
can endure generation after generation.
It will be an occasion to recall the tradition of ordered liberty through
parliamentary government that began 800 years ago with the Great Charter,
and which has made Canada one of the most blessed places on earth.
July 1 is also an anniversary of relevance to the Thomas More Lawyers'
Guild. It was on that day in 1535 that Thomas was condemned to death at the
Palace of Westminster for his refusal to recognize King Henry VIII as Head
of the Church in England. He would be beheaded days later, on July 6. It was
a day of great sadness for our Mother Parliament, a jarring departure from
that tradition of ordered liberty.
The lessons of July 1, 1535, are relevant to the project that the Fathers
of Confederation began here on July 1, 1867. Representative democracy, our
heritage of liberty and the rule of law—all this depends upon a correct
understanding of the proper spheres of authority and the limited
competencies of state authority.
Saint Thomas More suffered martyrdom because he insisted that there was a
limit to the King's lawful authority, namely that he had to respect the
freedom of the Church, guaranteed by the very nature of the State and the
nature of the Church. These ancient principles were recognized in the first
article of the Magna Carta, which guaranteed the Church's freedom.
When Henry VIII's Parliament voted him Head of the Church, it exceeded its
competence. It was a law, but not lawful, for it violated justice. It did
not give to the Church its due, and granted to the King what was not his
A State cannot endure in "all peaceable freedom and tranquility" if it
does not recognize the due limits to its power. We have seen repeatedly in
our own time that states that claim unlimited power over all spheres of
common life by that very fact limit, sometimes in brutal ways, the liberty,
prosperity and peace enjoyed by their citizens.
In our present Canadian order, these limits are reflected by the
requirement that the State act only in accordance with the Constitution,
including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which begins by stating
that Canada's foundation—July 1, 1867— recognizes "the supremacy of God and
the rule of law"—the very issues that were contested at Westminster on July
This evening I wish to share with you, distinguished members of the bar
gathered under the patronage of Saint Thomas More, some thoughts about the
importance of conscience in the life of legislators like myself and those
who, like yourselves, are charged with the administration and adjudication
of those laws. I seek to do so because history in general— and the history
of Thomas More in particular —teaches us that the recognition of the rights
of conscience is an essential limitation of State power. Put another way,
where the rights of conscience are violated, the prospect of a State that
unjustly limits liberty becomes all too real throughout history.
Saint Thomas More is remembered and celebrated by history precisely
because he refused to do what his conscience judged to be morally
wrong—swear an oath to the supremacy of the King over the Church. As another
great and saintly Englishman, Blessed John Henry Newman explained,
conscience bears witness to the truth. For that reason, he called it the
"aboriginal vicar of Christ." Conscience is not only a distillation of
subjective opinions. We don't praise Thomas More because he did not
compromise on his whims. His friends and family in fact tried to persuade
him that he was being stubborn, which is a matter of unreasonably holding
fast to one's own opinion.
We praise Thomas More because his conscience made a reasoned and accurate
judgment of the truth of the matter, namely that the King was claiming for
himself as Caesar what could only be rendered unto God. Newman reminded us
that conscience has rights because it has duties, and its primary duty is to
discover—not to invent—the truth about moral action, whether alone or in our
Conscience makes use of all the resources available to our judgment. It
begins obviously with our observations of the world around us and our
natural reason. For Christians, it is further formed by Biblical revelation
and lived tradition.
One does not need to be a Christian or a person of faith to recognize
that trampling on the rights of conscience can open a path to the abuse of
power. We Canadians have been blessed to have been spared those consequences
because our tradition of the limited State recognizes that the rights of
conscience must be respected. Indeed, the first liberty listed in our
Charter is found in section 2(a), freedom of conscience and religion,
which is an echo of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience
I propose to you that there is always lurking about a certain spirit of
the age that resents the challenge that is posed by the rights of
conscience. The spirit of the age often rebels against one or another
timeless truth. In the time of King Henry VIII, it was the spirit of
absolute monarchy, fuelled by a certain ambitious nationalism and the zeal
of the Reformation. That spirit was powerful enough to disrupt centuries-old
patterns of religious, social and cultural life in England in which the
Crown respected the sovereign spheres of civil society, what Edmund Burke
called the "little platoons." But faced by the modern spirit of Henry, the
entire establishment of England—including religious, political and
commercial leaders—accommodated themselves to the King's usurpation of their
The spirit of the age can be a powerful juggernaut that is wont to run
roughshod over the consciences of those who would resist it. We remember
Thomas More because he was strong enough to stand against the spirit of the
age. No neck is strong enough to resist the executioner's axe, but a few
courageous souls are strong enough to resist the demands of the one who
commands the executioner. A healthy political culture—the kind with which we
have been blessed since Canada's founding—seeks to prevent a conflict
between the rights and duties of conscience, and the demands of the
sovereign and the sovereign's government.
I began with noting some anniversaries. We meet this evening on October
16, the 36th anniversary of the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul
II. This year we also mark the 25th anniversary of the peaceful defeat of
communism in central and eastern Europe, the rolling back of the Soviet
empire, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact—all of which was dramatically
manifest in the breaching of the Berlin Wall. What happened in November 1989
at Checkpoint Charlie was a consequence, in part, of what happened in the
Sistine Chapel on October 16 eleven years earlier. Saint John Paul II would
not claim credit for his role, but he did comment on what took place in 1989
in a manner that is relevant to our topic:
"In the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the principle that force
predominates over reason was carried to the extreme. Man was compelled
to submit to a conception of reality imposed on him by coercion, and not
reached by virtue of his own reason and the exercise of his own freedom.
This principle must be overturned and total recognition must be given to
the rights of the human conscience, which is bound only to the
truth, both natural and revealed."
The spirit of the age was once absolute monarchy. In the 20th
century, when ancient monarchies fell after the Great War, a new
totalitarian spirit of the age emerged. Saint John Paul continues:
"The recognition of these rights [of conscience] represents the primary
foundation of every authentically free political order. It is important
to reaffirm this latter principle… because in the developed countries
there is sometimes an excessive promotion of purely utilitarian values…
making it difficult to recognize and respect the hierarchy of the true
values of human existence…"
John Paul, who suffered the occupation of his country by both the Nazi
regime and the Red Army, knew well that the State, no matter how configured,
must be limited by the truth about the human person and society. For him,
these truths are not a matter of ephemeral opinion but are discovered by
natural reason—what we might call political philosophy—and revealed truths,
which are no less true because some arrive at them by faith. The determined,
creative, peaceful witness that overthrew communism 25 years ago was
informed by both, and was symbolized powerfully by two great heroes of the
period, Lech Walesa, who literally wore his Catholic faith on his sleeve in
the image of the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra, and Václav Havel, a
non-believer who taught us that the power of the powerless lay precisely in
their witness to the truth, in their insistence on the rights of conscience.
In his analysis of 1989, Saint John Paul warned that there exist spirits
of our age that are opposed to the rights of conscience. I would point out
two that I have encountered in my service in public life.
I was first elected to Parliament in 1997 as a member of the Reform
Party. At that time, one spirit of the age was an aggressive democratic
populism that insisted that MPs should vote against their conscience, even
on questions pertaining to human dignity, if popular opinion in their
ridings ran against it. Defenders of the rights of conscience had to argue
against this populist intolerance for conscientious principle. For example,
as a Reform candidate, I made clear that I would vote in accordance with my
conscience in the defence of human dignity in opposing capital punishment,
regardless of the results of a given opinion poll on a given day.
Seventeen years later, that populist spirit of the age is less
influential, but there is another spirit of the age challenging even more
directly the rights of conscience. To take an example from my home province
of Alberta, in the last provincial election, the then-premier said that she
found the very idea of conscience rights "frightening."
Just consider that for a moment. A Canadian premier said she found the
very idea of conscience rights—rights enshrined in the Charter, rights
written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights broadly
regarded as foundational to liberal democracy—to be "frightening."
More recently, you will have noted that both the leaders of the
opposition and of the third party in Ottawa have said that on any matter
pertaining to the unborn—even a matter as innocuous as a nonbinding motion
expressing concern about the practice of sex-selection abortion—their MPs
would not even be permitted to vote in accordance with their own
I do not raise this point in a spirit of partisanship, but because of its
broader implications, and not just political but social implications.
Indeed, Mr. Trudeau's determination to supress the conscientious convictions
of his colleagues on matters of such profound meaning is a radical departure
from the best traditions of his own party, to which I myself belonged as a
young man. As the great former Liberal Minister Clifford Lincoln—famous for
his refusal to bend to the abrogation of linguistic rights in Quebec—wrote
in response to Mr Trudeau's innovative approach:
"If our major political parties truly want to represent our open
society, surely they owe it to us to be open-minded themselves and not
become closed forums of uniform thought and positions on matters of
Your own esteemed Archbishop, Thomas Cardinal Collins, pointed out in a
public letter in response that faithful Catholics—and he specifically
included Pope Francis—would not be eligible to stand for office as
candidates for the Liberal Party under this new intolerant policy, which
violates the principle of pluralism. But these calls to respect pluralism
and conscience had little effect on the policy. Indeed, more recently, Mr.
Trudeau insisted that on life matters, neither the rights of conscience nor
freedom of expression apply. It is a new spirit of the age.
Friends, it is no secret that I am a pro-life member of Parliament, by
which I mean that I believe in the inviolable dignity of the human person,
the sanctity of human life, and that a compassionate society should seek to
welcome the vulnerable with generosity. For the entirety of my service in
Parliament, however, the policy imposed on Canada by the 1988 Morgentaler
decision has been confirmed by the repeated decisions of Parliament not to
modify the ruling and subsequent jurisprudence. I am a minister of a
government and member of a party that have a clear policy of not introducing
any government legislation on this matter. As an MP and a minister of the
Crown, I must accept that the democratic process often resolves matters
contrary to my own preferences and convictions. In democratic politics, no
one ever wins all the time.
But I cannot accept that, for myself or for others with diverse and
well-reasoned positions, certain convictions about human dignity or public
justice are to be completely excluded from democratic discourse. It is one
thing to enter the debate and lose; it is another not to be permitted to
enter the debate at all. The price of being faithful to one's conscience
should not be exclusion from the public life of one's country. We cannot be
intolerant of reasoned, conscientious convictions in the name of tolerance.
Liberal democratic institutions— such as political parties—cannot engage in
the illiberal suppression of ideas. A pluralistic society cannot adopt a
monistic approach to profoundly important questions about justice and the
Again, this is not a partisan point. The reality is that threats to the
rights of conscience arise in different political systems, in different
political parties, in different political eras. My point is not that there
are shortcomings in any particular party. The spirit of the age blows where
it wills. My point is not even to call attention to the specific situation
of Catholics in public life. My desire, rather, is to encourage you,
stewards of the law, to do your part to defend the rights of conscience of
all, in all environments, as the foundation of the liberal democracy that is
our blessed inheritance as Canadians.
Here allow me to make another point. Robustly defending the rights of
conscience is not something that is good for legislators alone; much less is
it special pleading for people of faith in the public square. It is
something that is essential for the health of the entire political system.
This point was made with cogency by Pope Benedict XVI in two historic
In 2010, Benedict visited the Mother of Parliaments, addressing the great
and the good of British society in Westminster Hall only a few metres from
where Sir Thomas More was condemned for his fidelity to Benedict's
predecessors. It was a historic moment, and Benedict spoke of the rights
enumerated in section 2(a) of our Charter, the rights of conscience and
"Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve,
but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I
cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of
religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some
quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.
There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be
silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. ... These
are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of
believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the
legitimate role of religion in the public square."
I am quoting John Paul and Benedict in the Catholic context of your
Guild, but the point is not exclusively Catholic. Benedict himself referred
to William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist legislator, who took the lead
in outlawing slavery, motivated precisely by his religious faith. We could
likewise point to other great liberation movements, including the American
Civil Rights Movement, which brought the liberating power of conscience to
public life. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful Christian articulation of the
rights of conscience and the duties of justice in our time is the 1963
Letter from Birmingham City Jail by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King,
Pope Benedict made another parliamentary visit the year after
Westminster, this time to the federal parliament in his native Germany.
Addressing the Bundestag in Berlin, Benedict quoted Augustine of Hippo, who
noted in the ancient world that if there is no acknowledged truth to guide
the pursuit of justice, which is the goal of politics, then the State can
degenerate into a lethal assertion of power. Augustine put it bluntly:
"Without justice—what else is the State but a great band of robbers?"
For Benedict to quote those words in the federal parliament of Germany,
with its troubled history, further amplified the impact. Yet the impact of
Augustine's question needs to be felt in every society. The truth that
guides the pursuit of justice— of peace, order and good government—needs the
witness of conscience. The witness of conscience, including the consciences
of people of faith, therefore offers a valuable contribution to the common
good of society, and has certainly made a positive contribution to the
development of Canada these past 150 years.
Let us end where we began, with Saint John Paul's extension of Saint
Thomas More's patronage to legislators and statesmen on November 5, 2000. On
that occasion he said:
"Thomas More's life is truly an example for all who are called to serve
humanity and society in the civic and political sphere. The eloquent
testimony which he bore is as timely as ever at an historical moment
which presents crucial challenges to the consciences of everyone
involved in the field of governance. As a statesman, he always placed
himself at the service of the person, especially the weak and the poor.
Honour and wealth held no sway over him, guided as he was by an
outstanding sense of fairness. Above all, he never compromised his
conscience, even to the point of making the supreme sacrifice so as not
to disregard its voice. Invoke him, follow him, imitate him! His
intercession will not fail— even in the most difficult of situations—to
bring you strength, goodnaturedness, patience and perseverance."
—Homily of John Paul II, Jubilee of Government Leaders,
Members of Parliament and Politicians, November 5, 2000
May that wish, that benediction, of Saint John Paul II be upon us this
And, as we sing in our national anthem, may God keep our land glorious