[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Becket: A Tragic Hero, in a Bad Cause

On the feast day of Thomas Becket, I always feel impelled to note his profoundly ambiguous legacy. On the one hand, his death was the stuff of legend--fearlessly confronting the four knights who came to murder him, impelled by King Henry II's rash words.

On the other hand, the cause for which he fought--clerical immunity from the secular law--has prove over the centuries to be an incredibly ill-conceived one. The legacy of clericalism and cover up has cost the Church and the faithful dearly. (You can read an earlier draft here.) And Anne Duggan's edition of his correspondence does not exactly palliate his less noble aspects; I came away from it more sympathetic toward Henry than I had been previously--and Duggan is an admirer of Becket.

I have to admit that there is something about him that catches the imagination. And there is the great moment in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, portraying Becket rejecting the last, most insidious temptation--to use the Church's power for self-aggrandizement:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Perhaps it wasn't true to events (Gilbert Foliot thought that exactly the offense Becket was guilty of, and he was no fool.) But sometimes when the facts don't work out, we honor the intent anyway.

A problematic saint, Becket--the font of much good, but also of much harm. A great man despite his flaws? Perhaps; but perhaps it is wiser to view him as a man great in his love for God and the Church, but lacking the critically important virtue of prudence.


rick allen said...

I've never quite clicked on this argument that Becket's stand somehow led to child abuse cover-ups. There are surely a few intervening causes. Even to characterize the issue as "clerical immunity" seems to miss much of the point. Becket, as I see him, most dramatically embodies, in the English-speaking world, the movement most closely identified with Gregory VII to free the Church from the dominance of secular rulers. I understand, from an Anglican perspective, that not everyone would agree that such independence is desirable. And if, at that time and place, the specific issue was clerical criminal immunity from secular law (well, and other issues raised by the Constitutions of Clarenden), we know, as lawyers, that important principles are often established in the defense of less-than-savory characters.

At the risk of blowing my own horn, I made a few notes on the Gregorian reform for what is (roughly) Hildebrand's thousandth birthday:


Becket's martyrdom in the defense of that great shift strikes me as noble and appropriate. His life was a mixed bag (as with most saints, canonized and otherwise), and he certainly lived up to the old saw that nothing became him so much in life as his leaving it. But I'm always happy to think of him at Christmas time--especially after having to think about Herod.

Anglocat said...

As I say, Rick, Becket does catch the imagination. But his battle for clerical immunity from secular jurisdiction led to "benefit of clergy" and, although secular law whittled away at that, the Roman Catholic Church never accepted the legitimacy of secular jurisdiction over the crimes of clergy, and made it a delict under the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law to cooperate with a secular authority's investigation of alleged crime by a cleric. See Canons 2234, 2236, 2341. In Command and Coercion, linked in the post, I detail the argument between Henry and Becket--and it's pretty clear even from Duggan's edition of the correspondence that Becket insisted that clerics could face no sanction from the state unless stripped of their clerical status--and even then, he refused to agree to any punishment for the offense leading to laicization beyond losing clerical status.

I agree that important principles are made in legal processes with dubious characters--but the legal principle, I submit, is wrong, as demonstrated by the decades of trying to preserve that immunity by suppression and cover up at the expense of the victims.

That doesn't detract from Becket's heroism; he died heroically, for his vision of what the faith required. But he was, on the presenting issue, quite simply wrong.

rick allen said...

Exclusive church jurisdiction over clerics in itself doesn’t give me any more problem than exclusive federal jurisdiction over state crimes arising out of the performance of federal duties (Tennesse v. Davis, 100 US 257 (1880)). And in the twelfth century (at least from what I glean from Pollock & Maitland) royal criminal administration was not markedly superior to ecclesiastical (“benefit of clergy,” arbitrary as it was, surely was a salutary check on the severity of punishment under common law). So I think it’s a little anachronistic to look at Becket’s actions from the perspective of our Hobbesian assumption of a unitary secular sovereignty.

The jurisdictional issue was, after all, only part of a greater struggle over the appropriate competences of king and Church (Clarenden also, for example, forbad excommunication of the king’s tenants-in-chief without his leave). And it wasn’t of course only Becket; St. Anselm, a predecessor in the primatial see, was exiled twice for resisting royal claims. So it seems to me that confining the “presenting issue” to a right to suppress and cover up not only misses the specific issue—jurisdiction to try—but also ignores the larger conflict which ended, in England, with Henry VIII’s assertion of royal headship of the Church.

From that perspective I have to admire the Church of England for keeping Becket on the calendar. And though I also understand the lack of enthusiasm, I think characterizing his stance as a justification for contemporary episcopal negligence and cowardice is less helpful than seeing his actions in the context of the Gregorian and Cluniac reforms.

Anglocat said...

We're going to have to agree to disagree, then. I think that the martyrdom of Becket and the strength of devotion it inspired has hallowed his cause which I'd argue was on balance wrong even in the 1160s--even William of Newburgh critiqued Becket's position as "more interested in the rights of clerics than in redressing their wrongs" and the Empress Matida silenced Becket's envoy to her by pointing to cases of notorious clerics flouting the law. Not to mention the abject failure of the ecclesiastical justice system in adjudicating (or rather, not adjudicating) the charges against Archdeacon Osbert of murdering Abp William of York. But, as you note, at least in 1160, Becket could point to gross inadequacies in secular jurisdiction. So at least then Becket had some point--although canon law had no interest in protecting the victims, and no effective means of punishment.

The problem is, though, that the international cover up in the Twentieth Century *wasn't* "contemporary episcopal negligence and cowardice"; it was the only way to comply with the Pio-Bendictine Code provisions I have cited, certainly in nations that did not have concordats with the Vatican (such as the US) allowing one or the other sovereign to try priests and other clerics. That's why popes as disparate as John XXIII (who promulgated Criminale Solicitaciones) and John Paul II (who quite simply, booted the issue) are equally involved in the cover up. After the 1984 Code came into effect, the situation is more muddled, and there is an argument that cooperation with secular jurisdictions may have been permitted. However, the Cardinals, bishops and priests in power then had been formed by the Pio-Benedictine Code, and that was the culture they knew.

And, yes, I believe not wanting to surrender the independence won by Becket's blood was a cause of it.

Anonymous said...