Thomas Becket, Defender of Religious Privilege
Accompanied by somewhat morbid spectacle, a fragment of the elbow (!) of Thomas Becket (1118-70), an Archbishop of Canterbury who came to a rather sticky end, has been briefly returned to England.
A bone believed to be a fragment of St Thomas Becket’s elbow has been carried into Canterbury Cathedral, 845 years after he was murdered there. St Thomas was killed by four knights inside the cathedral in 1170 after he fell out with King Henry II.
The fragment is now kept in Hungary. It had arrived on loan.
King Henry II [had] made his close friend Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161. The friendship came under strain when Becket stood up for the church in disagreements with the king. In 1164, Becket fled to France, returning in 1170.
On the 29 December 1170, four knights, believing the king wanted Becket out of the way, murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was made a saint in 1173 and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a focus for pilgrimage.
…The shrine at Canterbury containing most of Becket’s remains was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII when the practice of venerating saints was condemned.
To say that that is a rather incomplete description of the split between Henry and the archbishop is an understatement.
But first the Catholic Herald:
[Westminster’s] Cardinal Vincent Nichols encouraged priests to persevere in their ministry despite distressing circumstances, during his homily yesterday for the Jubilee of Priests at Santa Maria Regina degli Apostoli alla Montagnola in Rome.
The cardinal said: “A priest who is always complaining about his troubles, about his lack of free time, about his lack of money, about his companions, about his bishop, is a counter-sign. Yes, there is hardship; but, yes there is faithfulness; yes, there is resurrection, the true source of our daily hope, joy and perseverance.”
The Cardinal also mentioned the visit of the Hungarian relic of St Thomas Becket as a reminder of the saint who “became a symbol of the resistance of the Church to powerful and unscrupulous rulers”, saying that Thomas should be an “inspiration” for all priests.
Take a look at this from The Spectator, written back in 2012:
Accommodation between the temporal and spiritual swords, Guy passingly indicates, was getting harder. The claims of papal sovereignty and church or canon law, backed by powerful ideals of spiritual authority and moral regeneration, were ever extending. Becket and his associates liked to invoke the Church’s ‘liberty’ against forces of tyranny and oppression. What they meant was its right to independence of, and immunity from, the secular power, through papal protection and the exemption of the clergy from the courts that tried and punished the laity. Any king worth the name, brutal or not, would have fought back.
What the church was after was not religious liberty (not a commodity much in evidence in early-Medieval Europe), but religious privilege (not least the clerics’-and cleric was a widely defined term on that era— immunity from the law of the land), a theme that still resonates in today’s political debates.
That Cardinal Nichols fails to acknowledge this is…telling.
Over at the Huffington Post, Ronald Lindsay of the Center of Inquiry weighs in:
What was the nub of the dispute between Henry II and Becket? Henry—who is rightly considered a ruler who did much to reform the English legal system, laying the foundation for English common law—wanted clergy accused of serious crimes tried in secular courts. Becket insisted that clergy be tried only in ecclesiastical courts. These courts were ineffective and lax, allowing many serious offenders to escape punishment. Church discipline was as meaningless for clerical murderers and thieves in the 12th century as it has been for clerical sexual predators in our times. It’s worth noting, by the way, that as much as one-sixth of the male population in England could claim “the benefit of clergy.”
Becket’s defense of special privileges for clergy didn’t justify his subsequent murder, of course, but neither should his murder transform him into someone who should be honored for his advocacy of religious freedom. He didn’t advocate religious freedom; he obstinately argued for immunity from the law for the church and its clergy.
As Lindsay notes:
The blurring of the distinction between true religious freedom and special privileges for the religious has, unfortunately, affected current public policy debates. In the last few years, not a day goes by when someone isn’t invoking religious liberty when they really mean religious privilege.
And then there is the national issue. It is (or ought to be) a fundamental principle that English law is determined in England.
Conflicts over rights of law and property assumed in Becket’s mind, as he steeped himself in biblical and theological study, a cosmic import. Quickly the quarrel spread to Rome and to the courts of Europe. How international it now looks, set as it was in a Europe to which the Church gave a coherence that modern bureaucracy cannot match.
The Reformation, by nationalising the Church and subjugating it to the state, ended all that. Henceforth Henry II’s interpretation of Becket’s international lobbying as treason, questionable at the time, would seem uncontentious. Henry VIII had Becket’s shrine demolished and despoiled. ‘There appeareth nothing in his life’, the Tudor king proclaimed, ‘whereby he should be called a saint, but rather esteemed to have been a rebel and traitor to his prince.’ Even Charles I, whose readiness to back an archbishop of Canterbury bent on restoring lost powers of the Church would baffle his subjects and help cause the civil war, declared, to the relief of the earl who heard him, that ‘he thought Thomas Becket as arrant a traitor as ever was’. The state had won.
No, the nation had won. Henry VIII was, to say the least, an accidental liberator, but he had established the principle that in England English laws prevailed.
Writing in 1972, as Britain teetered on the edge of joining what is now the EU, the British politician Enoch Powell, undeniably controversial, and undeniably erudite, wrote this:
The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.
Indeed. And the same was true of the dispute between Becket and Henry II, a dispute on which Becket was on the wrong side.