The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thomas Becket and the Honor of God

Today marks the feast day of Thomas Becket, a figure I have found to be of interest for years. Enough so that his struggle with Henry II prompted a full length exploration of Becket's fight for clerical immunity from secular law, and its role in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis. (The link goes to the first draft of the article; the revised--and, in my opinion, much better--version will be published by the Journal of Law and Religion in 2012).

Becket's fight was in a cause that today we could call dubious at best--even in his own day, William, canon of Newburgh,declared that Becket and his supporters brought the crisis on themselves “since they were more intent on defending the liberties and rights of the clergy than on correcting and restraining their vices.” And, his vision of clerical supremacy could be stunningly arrogant, as displayed in a letter he wrote to Bishop Gilbert Foliot, in which Becket compares priests to “Gods,” and declares that Henry should follow the example of the Emperor Constantine, who, refusing to process indictments or bishops, “burned the documents in their presence, saying to them, ‘You are gods, appointed by the true God. Go, and decide your cases among yourselves, because it is not fitting that we men should judge gods.’” (See Anne Duggan, ed. & trans., 1 THE CORRESPONDENCE OF THOMAS BECKET, Letter 96 at 439, 441 (2000)).

And yet--there is something about Becket that captures the imagination. Courage he had, no doubt, and sincerity. After much thought about him, I'm left thinking that he applied medieval notions of kingly honor to the Honor of God (a recurrent phrase in his correspondence and answers to Henry's supporters), and as such could quite reasonably have believed that defending the land, prerogatives, possessions and dignity of the Church were all implicated in defending God’s honor. Any yielding on his part regarding any of these would be a sin, which would not be made right unless restitution and something more, to erase the perceived derogation of God’s honor, were done. Hence his penance after the Council of Clarendon and his dramatic resignation of the archbishopric into the hands of the Pope. Histrionic Becket may have been, but there is no reason to doubt that he held his views sincerely.

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