Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world and set off an internet maelstrom on Feb. 10 with news that he would resign the papacy at the end of the month. Countless questions immediately arose about why he had done so and what happens next. At the same time, myriad attempts to define his legacy, some more or less fair, began in earnest. It thus seems an opportune time for lawyers to reflect on one event that will surely be regarded as a defining moment of his papacy: the historic address at Westminster Hall in September 2010.

Westminster Hall, of course, was the sight of one of the most famous trials in history some 475 years earlier. A visitor on July 1, 1535, would have seen a frail, sickly Sir Thomas More — the former lord chancellor of England, a lawyer, and one of the most beloved and respected humanists of his day — ushered into the great hall to stand trial for high treason.

The tension was palpable, even though the outcome had been pre-determined and the deck was stacked firmly against him. More had no notice of the charges against him until they were read in court that morning, and he had no lawyer to represent him. The panel of 15 judges presiding over the trial included the father, brother and uncle of Anne Boleyn, who had a vested interest in seeing More condemned.

The principal charge against More was that he had "maliciously, traitorously, and diabolically" denied Parliament’s power to proclaim King Henry VIII to be the supreme head of the church in England. Acting as his own lawyer though he was too weak to stand for any length of time, More asserted that his personal view of the act of Parliament was a matter of conscience that he had shared with no one, and that as a matter of law he could not be punished for silence. After 15 minutes’ deliberation, a jury of 12 men nonetheless found More guilty and sentenced him to death.

The drama, however, was not over. After the verdict, More invoked a procedure to challenge the indictment on the grounds that the act was invalid because no government or monarch had any right to interfere with matters internal to the church. Among other things, More emphasized, the first clause of the Magna Carta guaranteed that the church in England would be free from all such interference.

For a brief moment, it almost seemed as though More’s argument might carry the day, as the judges looked at each other in uncertain silence. When the chief justice finally spoke, however, he side-stepped the issue altogether, proclaiming in effect that, if the act of Parliament was lawful, the indictment was sufficient. Judgment was quickly entered against More, and he was beheaded four days later.

Learn From the Past

More’s trial and the well-documented antagonism between England and the Roman Catholic Church over the next four-plus centuries set a stage rich in irony as a frail, aged Pope Benedict stepped to the podium in Westminster Hall on Sept. 17, 2010. He did so amid warm applause from members of both houses of Parliament and various other dignitaries. Acutely aware of the historical significance of the moment, Pope Benedict wasted no time addressing it:

In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

If it is impolite for a guest to talk about religion and politics, someone forgot to tell Pope Benedict.

He went on to explain that both faith and reason have important roles to play in the discernment of the objective moral principles that must guide the development of law and legitimate civil discourse in any well-functioning democracy. The very existence of such principles is increasingly called into question by a society that repeatedly finds new ways to marginalize religion and submits to a dictatorship of relativism that holds — absolutely — that objective truth does not exist and that there are no absolutes.

If one enduring theme emerges from Pope Benedict’s eight-year pontificate, it will be his unwavering crusade against the prevailing culture of moral relativism in its various manifestations. "Religion," he explained, "is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation." If it is not allowed to flourish free from coercion by the state, it cannot serve this vital function.

Pope Benedict concluded the address at Westminster Hall with a call for dialogue and respect at every level of society between the worlds of reason and faith, before sounding a prophetic final warning:

For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies — including associations linked to the Catholic Church — need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed.