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;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.
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
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.