Winter 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 349-356.

Mary Ann Fatula:
      Current Trends: The Power of the Human Word

Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.

DURING this time when we celebrate the mystery of the Word made flesh, we reflect on a year coming to a close, a year that in a unique way has brought home to us the power of the human word. In 1987 we have celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of our Constitution, four pages of words which, despite their serious deficiencies, still have the power to guard our basic political rights and to serve as pattern for emerging democracies such as the Philippines. On the other hand, this bicentennial year also has brought us scandals like those uncovered in the Iran-contra hearings -- hearings which have shown us how easily even public officials desecrate the most sacred of human words, those we say under oath. In a paradoxical way, these events of 1987 focus our attention on the human word's power either by its truth to create life and freedom or by its deceit to diminish and destroy them. As we celebrate the Word made flesh for us, it is illuminating to reflect on another government official, servant of this Word, the sixteenth-century Thomas More, who freely went to his death because he would not perjure this word given under oath.


Our Constitution itself remains a living witness of the power of the human word, when spoken and lived in truth, to free the human spirit. Yet, two hundred years later, it is difficult for us to realize the extent to which the whole venture of forging a constitution for our country nearly ended in disaster. Eleven years after the Declaration of Independence the young confederacy, threatened anew by the possibility of European takeovers, faced extinction precisely because union among the states was for all practical purposes non-existent.

Adopting a unified political system was literally a matter of life and death for the United States, but no continental Congress had authorized this 1787 meeting of states' delegates. Thus the secrecy of its sessions. The sweltering heat of Philadelphia from May to September so exacerbated the distrust, jealousy, and rancor among the delegates that differences -- those between North and South, large and small, slave and non-slave states, advocates of a powerful central government and proponents of states' rights -- seemed insurmountable. Alexander Hamilton walked out of the meetings, and George Washington wrote that he regretted having had anything to do with the whole business. Under these circumstances, that the convention produced a document which two hundred years later still guides the nation's political processes is nothing less than miraculous.

The constitution the delegates forged under the inspiration of Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire resulted in a document absolutely revolutionary for its time. In an age of monarchs and despots, it was not simply the delegates but through them "the people of the United States" who spoke with one voice and pledged to one another their sacred commitment to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty" for themselves and their posterity.

To be sure, the document is a product of its own historical age and is marked by fundamental defects. A bill of rights was adopted only in 1791; amendments procured the abolition of slavery only in 1865, and certain civil rights for blacks were achieved only in 1868 and 1870. Direct election of senators and women's vote were made possible only in 1913 and 1920. And we still struggle today to gain basic economic, social, and educational rights for all. Yet even with its limitations, the constitution has made a profound difference not only for the people of the United States but also for the nations of the world. Its belief in the ability of a people to govern themselves through elected representatives, its system of separation of powers as well as checks and balances, and its future-oriented provision for amendments have contributed to making it the direct or indirect pattern for the written charters of 160 of the 170 nations in the world today.

The Constitution of the United States thus stands as a living witness to the power of the human word, when lived in truth, to foster life and freedom in the world. It is all the more ironical, then, that in this year devoted to celebrating the human word's power for good we have also witnessed the deceit of public servants who have operated above the law and outside the system of checks and balances at the heart of our Constitution. What is worse, more than a few of us have come to accept dishonesty on the part of our government officials as necessary and even laudable. In some cases, public opinion has rewarded the lies of a public servant with the celebrity given to a national hero. In these circumstances, it becomes even more clear that the democratic government guaranteed by our Constitution can be only as honest and committed to integrity as its people are.


Because the lies of our public officials often reflect the deceit we tolerate in ourselves, it is not only they but also we ourselves who need the redemption we celebrate in the coming of the Word made flesh among us. This is why Robert Bolt's insights into the significance of a public servant like Thomas More and the meaning of the words we say under oath have particular relevance for us today. They bring home to us a forceful lesson about the power of the human word by its truth to ennoble or by its deceit to corrupt both our government officials and our own selves as well.

In the introduction to his play A Man for All Seasons, Bolt writes that he is not a Christian, yet he was powerfully drawn by the figure of Thomas More as a "hero of selfhood,"(1) the antithesis of public officials who perjure themselves with the same ease with which they might take a drink of water. Bolt's More has an insatiable appetite and capacity for life. In fact, More's personal and social successes were astounding, and his circle of friends included the most prestigious people of his time. Through the indulgence of his friend King Henry VIII he had just been made lord chancellor of England.

But the king faced a crisis: for national security, so he thought, a male heir was needed, and Henry's present marriage had to be declared invalid. Even if More did not believe this, all that was asked of him was a simple lie that would manifest his "loyalty to the present administration" (p. 99). Cardinal Wolsey had warned More that his duty as a statesman was fidelity to his office and not to his "private" conscience: he could do as others of his friends had done and say under oath what he did not believe. Yet this is precisely what he would not do.

Why, with his lust for life, did More choose death rather than perjure himself? Bolt's answer to this question hinges on his analysis of the meaning and power of the human words which constitute an oath -- an analysis particularly relevant for us in the context of this past year's events. Bolt emphasizes that when we take an oath or vow we equate the truth of our statements with nothing less than our selves; we offer ourselves as the guarantee of our words. In Bolt's view, More did have an insatiable appetite for life; but he also had an "adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and where he left off" (p. xii). And when he is asked to state as true what he did not believe to be true, and to state it on oath, that is, to offer his own self as the guarantee of his words, he can no more perjure himself than prostitute his soul as some cheap trinket.

More will not lie under oath. And when his refusal to do so is labeled as "frivolous self-conceit" in the face of his duties to his country's welfare, More counters that it is not his duty "to say 'good' to the State's sickness." No nation is helped by populating it with liars (p. 154); a country is rather led down the path to self-destruction by public officials who "forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties" (p. 22). Henry is desperate for More's loyalty and asks him why he cannot see what "everyone else" does. Yet it is not really More's governmental position as lord chancellor that finally matters to the king, but rather who More is. "There is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves," Henry tells More, "- and there is you" (p. 55).

Even his daughter, who knows well her father's integrity, reminds him of how he has imperiled his loved ones and reduced them to poverty and constant anxiety because of him. Couldn't he, for this family's sake, just say the words, and still preserve his integrity -- not on his lips but in his heart? But, More gently chides her, what is an oath but words we address to God? To take an oath is to hold our very self in our hands. If at this moment we open our hands and let it slip through like water we need not hope to find ourselves again (p. 140).

This last statement is all the more poignant in light of a scene in which Bolt capsulates the point of his play. Richard Rich has perjured himself by giving his sworn word that More has spoken treasonously against the king. The pay-off for Rich's perjury is his appointment as Attorney General for Wales -- in More's mind, the equivalent to being made overseer of an ant hill. After being sentenced to execution, More asks to see the medallion of Wales which Rich is wearing. As he takes it in his hand, More cannot conceal his bitter amusement. "For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ...But for Wales!" (p. 158).

We are, of course, so used to hearing the kernel of this gospel quotation that we can miss the full force of More's point. Our soul is our self. When we speak any words, but especially the words of an oath or vow, our words contain our self. And when we lie, we sell our very self not only for a cheap trinket, but also, and what is infinitely worse, as a cheap trinket. Bolt observes that perhaps the words of an oath or vow are only so much "mumbo-jumbo" to us today because we no longer have a clear sense of self or of God. Indeed, perhaps a true sense of the self "can only crystallize around something transcendental" (p. xiv).

Thus the paradox which even Bolt's admittedly non-religious stance recognizes: our "self" is non-negotiable only to the extent that it is grounded in the infinite. More's "self' was his very soul, but it was also much more than his own self. "Only God is love right through," he tells his friend Norfolk, "and that's my self" (p.122). Precisely because we find it so easy today to separate our work, our profession, from our spirituality, that is, to separate our self from the God in whom alone this self has its being, Bolt observes that in today's society the "self" is an "equivalent commodity." "There are fewer things, which, as they say, we 'cannot bring ourselves' to do." For this reason, Bolt concludes that in the matter of gaining honesty in the oaths and vows we take, "our prospects look poor" (p. xiv).


As we look back on a year of scandals linked by the common thread of a public trust betrayed -- a betrayal, perhaps, that reflects in some way the private life of each one of us -- our prospects as a nation do indeed in some ways look poor. During the Iran-contra hearings, Secretary of State George Shultz found it necessary to protest that, contrary to the evidence, public service is "honorable," and that no one needs to "lie and cheat in order to be a public servant." Yet even a national news magazine observed that 1987 has witnessed "large sections of the nation's ethical roof ...sagging badly, from the White House to churches ...pressing down on the institutions and enterprises that make up the body and blood of America" (Time, May 25, 1987, p. 26). Perhaps, too often, we have come to expect lying as a necessary duty on the part of our public servants because we tolerate cheating and deceit in our own lives. We may have become in some instances a nation which follows "anything that moves" simply because it costs us too much to do otherwise. In this case, we do get a government only as honest as we ourselves are.

Yet this winter season in which the day's light is short and the night's darkness long still brings us cause for much hope. For we celebrate the presence of the Word in our world, in our nation, and in ourselves, the Word of whom More's avowal is true without qualification: "Only God is love right through ...and that's my self." Jesus, truth itself and crystal-clear Word of God, is the human Word who in his own person speaks the whole content of God's heart. And the content of this Word is the infinite antithesis of our own cowardice and lies, and our own sometimes empty promises and evasions: "The Son of God, Jesus Christ ...was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him" (2 Cor 1:19-20).

"The Word was made flesh"...our flesh. This Word, too, knows by experience the forces which attempt to wrest from us, even in the words we say and the commitments we make for good, our very self. And now, because of his resurrection, there is a Word within us infinitely more strong than our power to betray our own soul for a few pennies. In the words we speak, especially in a vow or oath, there is a deeper Word on whose fidelity we can stake not only our own weak promises of integrity and fidelity but also our very lives. When aligned with the Word who is truth itself, our own human words do have the power to effect what is good.

Other countries who take for granted the dishonesty of public officials are incredulous that the United States could make such a fuss about the Iran-contra dealings. They also express amusement that in the United States a candidate could be forced out of a presidential race because of deceit surrounding alleged marital infidelity. Yet democratic processes precisely like the Iran-contra hearings show that the words of our Constitution still have the power to work for justice in our society. In spite of lies, cowardice, and greed on the part of some of us, including public figures, there are still others among us who, like Thomas More, take the words they say in vows and oaths seriously, and who are willing to risk their careers and fortunes to uphold their truth.

At the end of this year 1987, therefore, we have cause not only to repent, to be converted as individuals and families, as communities and as a nation, but also to celebrate. The Word of God is the deepest word of our human flesh. In this human Word, and as friends and servants of this Word, we and our own human words have the power to be made new again, to convey and to give in our work, in our public service, in our ordinary conversations, in our preaching and teaching, in the myriads of words we speak to God and to one another every day, not some cheap trinket but our selves. We have cause to hope that in the strength of the Word made flesh, More's words may become our own: "Only God is love right through. . .and that's my self." For Jesus, God' crystal-clear Word, has been given to us as power for graciousness and truth, for fidelity and integrity in the very word we utter not only in but also with our lives. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth .... From his fullness we have all received" On 1:14, 16).

  1. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Random House, 1962), p. xiv. Succeeding references to this work will be given in the text by a page number in parenthesis.