I want to share with you one of the most compelling defences of religious freedom I have ever read in my entire life. And I want you to try to guess who wrote it afterwards — with no cheating!
It's from an excerpt of a speech given in 2014 at the annual Red Mass Dinner hosted by the Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Toronto.
More is the Patron Saint of Lawyers and Jurists, who was beheaded by Henry VIII when he objected to the English king appointing himself the head of the Church in England, and changing the rules of the Church to conform to the King's will.
"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 due.
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.
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 common life.
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 and religion…"
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 ancient liberties.
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."
Stop. Make your guess without reading ahead.
That speech was written by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, delivered when he was a senior minister in Stephen Harper's cabinet and widely regarded as one of the most principled and thoughtful defenders of religions from government overreach on the face of the planet.
Fast forward just seven years, and now Premier Jason Kenney is the man in charge in Alberta while three pastors — Tim Stephens, Artur Pawlowski and James Coates — were imprisoned for defending their churches from government COVID restriction on places of worship and methods of worship.
A lot can change in a pandemic, including one's moral compass.