King and Aquinas on Marching for Conscience

In a time of upheaval it is valuable to listen to the wisdom of our ancestors so we find ourselves meditating on teachings from Dr. King and Thomas Aquinas.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash.

Dr. King invokes conscience as the core of his marches and demonstrations in pursuing civil rights. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King writes: “Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” 

This is what marchers do: They expose evil and shine light of human conscience.  In the wake of the murder of George Floyd the world is marching and protesting racial injustice and a sense of conscience is on the rise.

When I was a teen ager attending public high school in a very WASP society in the 1950’s, I picked up the message that Martin Luther was a man of conscience for standing up to the corrupt religion of Rome in his day.  The lesson that came through, in extolling his words “Here I stand, I can do no other” was that Luther invented the concept of conscience.  I commend him for his courageous stand.

The Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou speaking at our 33rd Anniversary Dinner of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.

I was deeply surprised, therefore, thirty five years later, to read these thoughts about conscience from Thomas Aquinas who lived 300 years before Luther:

It is a grievous matter for anyone to yield to another what ought to be one’s own….Conscience is more to be obeyed than authority imposed from the outside.  By following a right conscience you not only do not incur sin but are also immune from sin, whatever superiors may say to the contrary….The dictate of conscience is more binding than the decree of external authority. 

Uprising & Abolition: Angela Davis on Movement Building, “Defund the Police” & Where We Go from Here on Democracy Now!

I invoked these passages from Thomas Aquinas (himself a Dominican) when I took my stand against sexism, patriarchal pessimism and anthropocentrism in the Catholic Church.  I sent the Master General, who was threatening to dismiss me after 34 years in the order over “disobedience,” the very passages I am citing here in today’s DM.  Unfortunately, his only response was my dismissal papers.  Not a word about Aquinas on conscience.

Says Aquinas: To go against one’s conscience is to contravene the law of God.”  

Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, march in Washington, D.C. for a new moral society. Photo originally posted to Flickr by Becker1999.

What is conscience?  For Aquinas, “conscience is the dictate of reason” that tells our will what to do and “will that disobeys the reason…is always in the wrong.”  Conscience is our decision making about what is right and wrong, our decisions about what is just and unjust. 

Therefore “a correct conscience binds absolutely and perfectly against the command of a superior.”  There is a law higher than human law–“one ought to obey God more than human beings.”  And “those who obey kings rather than God, in matters where they ought not to obey them, make kings their gods: ‘We ought to obey God rather than humans’ (Acts 5:29).” 

Little wonder that King invoked Aquinas in his Birmingham Letter.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 474-477.

See Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest, pp. 180-195, 240-246.

Banner Image: Women’s March 2017 – Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, D.C. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you see people marching in the name of conscience around the world?  How wonderful is that?  Are you marching too?

Do you agree with King that injustice must be exposed before it can be cured?

Recommended Reading

Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way. 
“The teaching of Aquinas comes through will a fullness and an insight that has never been present in English before and [with] a vital message for the world today.” ~ Fr. Bede Griffiths (Afterword).
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake

Join Matthew Fox in this special free video event Wednesday June 17 at 5:30pm PT

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13 thoughts on “King and Aquinas on Marching for Conscience”

  1. Avatar

    Why are you so obsessed with Thomas Aquinas? What I’ve read about him doesn’t impress me. He was very subservient to Papal authority and believed in a literal Hell. Why don’t write more about Teilhard de Chardin, who did believe in the Cosmic Christ?

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Dear Richard, all thinkers have flaws in their thinking, and that goes for Aquinas and Teilhard as well. We are not obsessed with Aquinas, but one of the greatest thinkers of the middle ages cannot be ignored or passed over. He is considered a Doctor of the Church, and he has written many things that show that he (even unbeknownst to him) was a creation-centered mystic and prophet in the true sense of the word, for prophet means “one who speaks forth the truth.” And as for Aquinas’ belief in Hell… Jesus also believed in a literal hell, should we ignore him as well because of his belief???

      1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
        Richard Reich-Kuykendall

        Here I will present Matthew’s own response:
        “I also appreciate Teilhard de Chardin’s work on the Cosmic Christ and much else and have written about him in my two books on the
        Cosmic Christ and also in my book “Christian Mystics.” But currently, as I am sure you are aware, the world is rocking from the murder of a black man by a white police man and the trauma and echos of 500 years of racial genocide and oppression at the hands of colonialism and slavery are rising. Plus the coronovirus and climate change that are bringing our species to its knees.
        “Dr. Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” did not cite Teilhard de Chardin. He cited Thomas Aquinas who was much more direcrectly attuned to issues of justice and moral outrage than was Teilhard. It is Aquinas, not Teilhard, who ushered in the important concept of the “common good” into our culture. It’s interesting that Thomas Berry, a serious student of Teilhard insofar as he insisted on putting creation and the universe forward as “the most excellent thing” in the universe and moving beyond anthropocentrism. So Aquinas is in many ways a mentor to Teilhard. I love them both.
        “In my most recent book, “The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times,” I lay out the powerful teachings of Aquinas that apply to the fierce times we are undergoing and will be undergoing. Many people do not know the real Aquinas, we deserve to however. Teilhardian scholar and scientist Llia Delio, has written a rich Forward to that book in which she was truly awakened by my book, that she had not know the real Aquinas before. Maybe you too could profit from this new understanding of Aquinas which is based on many of his biblical commentaries and other works that have never been translated before.”

  2. Avatar

    I will join the ONLINE march with The Poor People’s Campaign this weekend, June 20 and invite all to consider this too. Check out

    1. Avatar
      Margaret Rose Hess

      Me, too, Susan. My favorite thing about joining so far has been all the resource material available on the site, including the “We Rise” songbook, especially since all our choirs have been cancelled . Check it out and sing along:
      See you at there (I’ll be that alto singing loud, off-key, and proud)!

  3. Avatar

    So glad you took on the Vatican. I was raised Catholic with a priest who was an uncle. He was conservative – I had my own thoughts and would voice them. He would say, “Where did you come from?” I think it was from my conscience, which also must include the wisdom of the heart. You really helped heal me when you spoke of “Original Blessings”. But of course, a child is a blessing and arrives with her/his original blessing. Thank you.

  4. Avatar

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

  5. Avatar

    a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour.
    When I was in my twenties my conscience is different, now that I’m in my 70s
    I certainly had flaws ,still do.
    I had to inform my “conscience” by reading ,studying ,meditation, on many subjects
    Left/right wing politics, l/right wIng economics ,religions ,ecology etc and eventually having an awakening, an transcendental experience
    interconnectedness What dani said above
    Hopefully come to make right decisions
    Stay safe

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Good point Billy. OUr consciences evolve and change according to the understanding we gain from reading, study, meditation and simply being with different people of different perspectives. You stay safe too !!!

  6. Avatar

    You may have heard that god is in us, or that the Buddha or Christ Is in us.
    But for most of us this is an abstract notion.We have such a vague idea of what Buddha or god or the Christ actually is
    In the buddhist traditions, Buddha resides inside us as energy-the energy of mindfulness,- The energy of concentration, and the energy of insight that will bring
    About understanding,compassion,love,joy, togetherness and no discrimination
    Some of our friends in the Christian tradition speak about the Holy Spirit as the energy of god. Wherever the Holy Spirit is, there is healing and love gives rise to conscentration and insight gives rise to understanding etc
    This energy of a Buddha or a Christ if you are inhabited by that energy, you are a Buddha a Christ,at least for that moment. And that energy can be cultivated and can manifest fully in you
    Thich Nhat Hanh
    Stay safe
    Love Billy

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