Published in Church and Life No 16 (1824) 20.10 to 2

One of the most famous of medieval pilgrimage sites was the murder-scene of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. After the Reformation of Henry VIII and the desecration of that Saint’s tomb and relics, St. Thomas’ memory in the English psyche at least, lost its glimmer.

 However the Becket story was once more stimulated in the 20th Century, on the wave of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and the critically acclaimed, and Academy Award winning 1964 motion picture, Becket, starring Richard Burton in the title role, and Peter O’Toole as Henry II. However the gruesome nature of Becket’s martyrdom, has overshadowed the original cause of the dispute between his once good friend, the King, and himself.

 Professor Frank Barlow in his biography, Thomas Becket, details what brought Church and State to the point of murder. To Barlow the answer is not as simple as the desire of the King to acquire wealth from the Church; the King did indeed have very real grievances, that pre-existed Becket’s speedy and politically motivated enthroning as Archbishop. According to Barlow, Henry the Second’s chief dispute with Becket was how the law in England had become in recent times, increasingly dualistic, the laity and clergy being tried differently for the same crimes. Soon after Becket had been installed as Archbishop, Henry had attempted to confront this issue, head-on, believing that his good friend, would acquiesce. What Henry discovered, was a friend, who had decided to take on his new vocation as Archbishop with a mettle and dedication, that the King had not perceived would be the case, when he thought up the ‘expedient’ appointment. Becket did not wish to harbour criminals within the ranks of the clergy, but he refused to be a prelate who readily handed over their judgement to a secular authority. Barlow writes: “The problem of how to treat criminous clerks, that is to say priests and clerks defamed or accused of committing a serious secular crime, a felony, for which, in the case of the laity, the penalty was death or mutiliation as well as confiscation of their land and chattels, was becoming tricky. Two contentious issues were emerging: how should they be tried and how punished? In the past bishops had not exerted themselves unduly to protect clerical malefactors haled before a secular tribunal. Of many cases they would have heard nothing: to some they may have turned a blind eye. When necessary, they stripped the criminal of his clerical orders and left him to his fate as a layman. Sometimes, especially when it was an ecclesiastical crime, such as heresy or rebellion against ecclesiastical authority, they actually invited or required the lay power to inflict a corporal punishment. By the second half of the twelfth century, however, some of these attitudes were less easy to maintain. The clergy was becoming more distinct as a separate order in society; theologians were inclining towards the view that holy orders were indelible; knowledge of canon law was spreading; and there was greater administrative efficiency. But, as soon as ‘benefit of clergy’ emerged as a useful pleas for clerical criminals, it not only frustrated and irritated royal and other secular justiciars but also created the impression that the number of criminous clerks was growing fast.” (Barlow, 1986, p. 92). Barlow goes on to write that what precipitated the great stand-off between Becket and Henry was one such case; a case of a cleric of Worcester who had killed an honourable lay-man in order to defile the dead man’s daughter. Both the Archbishop and the King wanted to see the cleric, (and other such miscreants), tried – however the dispute was – whether Church or State had the greater right to do so.

 In any event Becket’s eventual murder in the Cathedral, highlighted one man’s preparedness to die for the Church – but it also gave rise to the entrenched, cancerous growth of clericalism; for a powerful king had attempted to challenge ecclesiastical authority in his realm, and was now doing penance in a sackcloth at the fresh laid tomb of his adversary. It would take a few hundred years for Henry the Eighth to set the ledger squarely in favour of the State.

 One of the key findings of the 2009 Murphy Report in Ireland was that a culture of clericalism assisted in the perpetration of the crimes that took place within the Church of that nation. Clericalism, or the phenomenon where the ordained ministry moves over time from a Sacrament of Service, to a Sacrament of self-Service, is by no stretch of the imagination, a modern occurrence, evidently seen in the Thomas Becket and King Henry II, scenario. No less of an authority than Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, spoke at length in his The Book of Pastoral Rule, of the dangers of the ordained ministry, left on its own, from constant vigilance and scrutiny.

 A master of Pastoral Care, Pope St. Gregory the Great (540 – 604), is embraced by both the Catholic Churches of the East and West for his endeavours to set out clearly a template by which, pride within priestly ranks can be tempered, so that the priest, because of his ordained status, does not become so elevated in his mind, that his private and public actions begin to take on an air of being beyond reproach. Implicit in Pope St. Gregory the Great’s guidelines is his acknowledgement that when pride begins to become endemic throughout a community, or diocese of priests – the laity, not only suffer, but they are at very real moral, and perhaps, physical danger. St. Gregory the Great clearly states that the priesthood should have a respect afforded to it – because of the charism granted to it by the Holy Spirit – but similarly, the priest must be worthy of this respect – worthy as he is a humble servant of Christ. Clericalism is fostered when the priest or group of priests begin to perceive themselves as being above reproach – this is caused by the death of God in their hearts; for no priest would elevate his actions over the teachings of the Church, if he believed that God was vigilantly present.

 So important was the necessity for good priestly ministry that in his second Chapter of Part One, of the Book of Pastoral Rule, Pope St. Gregory the Great points out that: “Indeed, pastors “drink the clearest water” when, with an accurate understanding, they imbibe the streams of truth. But the same “disturb the water with their feet” when they corrupt the study of holy meditation with an evil life. Obviously, the sheep drink that which was muddled by feet when, as subjects, they do not attend to the words that they hear but imitate only the depraved examples that they observe. While the laity thirst for what is said, they are perverted by the pastor’s works as if they were to drink mud from a polluted fountain. Consequently it is written: “[Bad] prophets are a snare of ruin.” Likewise, the Lord speaks again of [evil] priests through the prophet: “They were a stumbling block of iniquity to the house of Israel.” (Pope St. Gregory the Great, 2007, pp. 31 & 32).

 St. Gregory the Great concludes his chapter with powerful words aimed at all the clerics of the Church – words of warning, that they risk damning not only their soul, but the souls of those they lead if their actions become perverse. This perversity need not be of a sexual nature, although this has become in recent times the most scandalous result of clericalism – a conspiracy of silence, within the priesthood. Graft, simony, lies, nepotism, hypocrisy, are all crimes against the priesthood. St. Gregory the Great’s ancient warning speaks over 1400 years – yet speaks with an immediacy that belies its Age; for sinfulness is sadly perennial; and wantonness has a place in the heart irrespective of technological advance, and educational progress. St. Gregory the Great concludes with words instructive as they are words of dire warning: “No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely … Moreover, because such a sinner is honoured by the dignity of his rank, his offenses spread considerably by way of example … Whoever, therefore, gives off the appearance of sanctity but destroys another by his word or example, it would be better for him that his earthly acts, demonstrated by worldly habits, would bind him to death than for his sacred office to be a source for the imitation of vice in another. Indeed, his punishment in hell would be less terrible if he fell alone.” (Pope St. Gregory the Great, 2007, p. 32).

  Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth.