Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More. I suppose that their biographies must be so familiar that it is scarcely worth going over them again. But I’d like to look at one aspect of their martyrdom.
Among the many jobs I have done, I was once Catholic chaplain to a large public school called Charterhouse. I had the joy, on one occasion, of arranging the first (and the following year, the second) public Catholic Confirmation ceremony ever to have taken place there. On discussing the ceremony with the eighteen boys to be confirmed, we spoke about hymns, and the boys enthusiastically requested ‘I Vow to thee my Country’.
Well, I interposed my veto, and though you might think that an odd thing to do, I think that my reasons were most important. Now don’t get me wrong; I actually think that it is a good thing that the boys have been encouraged to develop a healthy patriotism in the school. Running down one’s country has become rather the fashion these days, and it is good to find English boys proud to be English—I am Irish, and proud to be Irish. My concern lay rather with the content of what is loosely called a hymn, but which might better be called a patriotic song or anthem. My reason is that the words raise one or two very worrying things which can too easily slip past if one is not careful.
My first objections are in the first lines. I vow to thee my country, all earthly things above, entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love. Now, as we know from our catechism, vows are things that ought never to be rashly taken, and, second, to elevate one’s country to a supernatural status is very nearly blasphemous, quite apart from the matter of considering one’s own country to have this semi-divine nature, and, presumably, superior to other peoples’ countries. But my most severe objection was in lines which follow; the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best, and goes on to add the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
Now, I was not at all happy that my boys should be publicly vowing to unquestioningly obey their country in whatever that country should require. The twentieth century has presented us with all too vivid an illustration of just where that plea that ‘I was only obeying orders’ and ‘My fatherland required it of me’ has got us. It took the trials at Nuremberg to establish firmly in the mind of governments and people that there is a natural law which is written on men's hearts, and which takes precedence over any earthly authority. If they did not know, then they should have known that what they did was evil.
Men were executed for murder at Nuremberg for carrying out orders, because they should have known that such atrocities as were demanded by the Nazis went contrary to Natural Law, which has to take precedence over any earthly command.
A most interesting principle, when you come to think about it, recognised by a civil law, that no government, however powerful, has the right to compel somebody’s conscience to do what it wishes. The mere wishes of an earthly government do not make an act right when it is wrong. This is just what the Catholic Church has been saying all along. We may commit a sin under duress, or pressure of various kinds, whether it be threat of torture or execution, and this may lessen the degree of our culpability, but this pressure can never make a bad act become good.
Perhaps, then, you can understand why I have such an objection to that song I vow to thee my country: despite the poetry of the words, and the very splendid tune, I had no wish to witness my boys vowing to do whatever their country should command them without thinking whether it was right to do so.
For English Catholics, this important principle ought to be particularly clear. The glorious martyrs of the Reformation period were faced with precisely this dilemma. Saints John Fisher and Thomas More were not simply foot soldiers, but very senior officials in the government. Their country demanded something that they knew was wrong, and despite the fact that almost all their neighbours and friends gave way, they held firm, believing that no matter who was commanding this thing, mere pressure or earthly authority could not make wrong right.
And, of course, true patriotism is not about doing whatever the fallible human authorities at the top of the heap order, but about doing whatever is best for one’s country, as far as one can assess. It is about obeying one’s conscience in order to make this country, and indeed the world, a better place. I forget who said those famous words: it is better to light one small candle than sit cursing the darkness—but the words are apposite and true.
All this misinterpretation of patriotism has had a curious spin-off, at least in this country, and probably in others too. It makes people believe that what is legal is what is right. In 1967, I think it is true to say that the majority of people thought that abortion was wrong. But not wrong because it is wrong per se, but because it was against the law. Once the law said it was all right, then public opinion has swung around also. This is the way that history has led us; now the state holds not just our civil obedience, but our consciences as slaves also.
Now, of course, peoples’ consciences do sometimes assert themselves—often after the act has been committed,—and the perpetrators realize that they have done something wrong and seek forgiveness, but the very fact that this does happen should alert us to this real principle of right and wrong that is buried within us, which we call the natural law.
The government is trying desperately at the moment to re-impose some sense of morality. [These were the early Blair days] But they will not succeed. They cannot, because they seek to legislate in this area where legislation is not competent to decree. They are themselves repeatedly morally compromised, and they seek to achieve an internal allegiance of the British peoples to the legal system which they, flawed people themselves, have set up.
This was the mistake of Henry VIII. He sought internal consent to what he decreed, because he decreed that what he decreed was right, just because he decreed it. People may obey out of fear, but internal conscience must not be manipulated in this fashion. Earthly government is incapable of rising above all earthly things—the contrary to the song, which decrees that the country is ‘all earthly things above’. Time and time again we see that it is all too earthly, just like the rest of us.
To make a god of ones country is in the end to commit idolatry, and More and Fisher realized this. There are more important principles than patriotism, however genuinely good and important patriotism is.
Three quotations come into my mind at this moment. The first is from that film of the early 1980s, called Chariots of Fire. You may remember that the film is all about a Presbyterian runner refusing to compete in the Olympics for Britain on a Sunday. One official grumpily remarks to his friend ‘in my day it was country first, God second’. The second quotation is from the [then] Anglican Chaplain at Charterhouse, when I nervously told him of my veto of ‘I vow to thee my country’. He surprised me by agreeing with me—this I had not expected in Charterhouse, that most patriotic of schools—and saying that he had banned it himself, simply saying that there was not a line in the song that could not have been written by a convinced Nazi. The third quotation, and perhaps the most apposite, is from one of today’s saints, Thomas More. His last words, in fact: ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first!’