The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Thomas Becket and his Times

Today, the Feast Day of St Thomas Becket, presents a poser: On the one hand, Becket was clearly a man of great courage and of belief. On the other hand, as I note in my latest article (the JLR final version is greatly improved in my opinion, over the working paper), Becket and Henry fell out over clerical immunity from secular jurisdiction for criminal behavior, including rape. Becket's defense of his position, as set forth in his letters, is not persuasive to modern ears, and was controversial even then:
It is certain that kings receive their power from the Church and the Church not from them, but from Christ. . . . You have no power to give rules to bishops, nor to absolve or to excommunicate anyone to draw clerks before secular tribunals, to judge concerning breach of faith or oath, and many other things of this sort which are written among your customs which you call ancient. . . .
God wishes that the administration of ecclesiastical affairs should belong to his priests, not to secular rulers, who, if they are of the faith, he wishes to be subject to the priests of his Church.
. . . God Almighty has willed that the clergy of the Christian religion should be governed and judged, not according to public laws and by secular authorities, but by bishops and priests.
Christian kings ought to submit their administration to ecclesiastical prelates, not impose it on them . . . Christian princes should be obedient to the dictates of the Church, rather than prefer their own authority; princes should bow their head to bishops rather than judge them . . .
(Quoting W.L. Warren, Henry II at 513-1. A complete text and translation of these letters appear in Anne J. Duggan, 1 The Correspondence of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury 1162-1170 (2001) as Letter 74 (at 292-99), and Letter 82 (at 328-43).

Becket's intransigence on this issue led to a tradition of immunity that, even after secular law ceased from recognizing it, remained enshrined in canon law. It contributed, I argue, to the culture of clericalism that led the Roman Catholic Church to refuse to cooperate with secular law enforcement investigating sexual abuse by priests for decades. In the context of the undeniable failure of the Courts Christian to adequately address criminal misbehavior by clergy, it would be all too easy to agree with Becket’s contemporary, William, canon of Newburgh, 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."

So why did Becket take this stand? I suspect (and argue in the article) that Becket 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.

A complex belief, rooted in medieval notions of kingship that the early church would not have applied to God, and one which has outlived its time, if indeed it properly ever had a time. Becket's tragedy was that of his age--and has had repercussions down to the present day.

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