Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thomas Becket, Ecclesiastical Corruption, and Intervention by the Civil State

Last week, it was reported that some British academic statist listed St. Thomas of Canterbury among the ten worst Britons of the last 1,000 years in the BBC History magazine. John Hudson, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, said Becket divided England in a way that was "unnecessary and self-indulgent," and that "He was a founder of gesture politics with the most acute of eyes for what would now be called the photo opportunity."

Of course Becket divided England! He served as a great counterweight to the oppressive state, and that division kept the average Englishman living at a level of humble domestic prosperity for centuries. And that's why he is great saint for our times. Here's what the then-Protestant Chesterton said about St. Thomas in one of my favorite books, What's Wrong with the World (1910):

When four knights scattered the blood and brains of St. Thomas of Canterbury, it was not only as sign of anger but a sort of black admiration. They wished for his blood, but the wished even more for his brains. Such a blow will remain forever unintelligible unless we realize what the brains of St. Thomas were thinking about just before they were distributed over the floor. They were thinking about the great mediaval conception that the church is the judge of the world. Becket objected to a priest being tried even by the Lord Chief Justice. And his reason was simple: because the Lord Chief Justice was being tried by the priest. The judiciary was itself sub judice. The kings were themselves in the dock. The idea was to create an invisible kingdom, without armies or prisons, but with complete freedom to condemn publicly all the kingdoms of the earth. Whether such a supreme church would have cured society we cannot affirm definitely; because the church was never a supreme church. We only know that in England at any rate the princes conquered the saints. What the world wanted we see before us; and some of us call it a failure. But we cannot call what the church wanted a failure, simply because the church failed. Tracy [one of King Henry's knights] struck a little too soon. England had not yet made the great Protestant discovery that the king can do no wrong. The king was whipped in the cathedral, a performance which I recommend to those ho regret the unpopularity of church-going. But the discovery was made, and Henry VIII scattered Becket's bones as easily as Tracy has scattered his brains.
I suppose my point is that exactly because some twit academic Scots fascist reviles Becket as an advocate of something outside the reach of the state--something beyond and greater than the state--is why we should give Becket, and his fellow English martyr from a few centuries later, John Fisher, special veneration these days.

Too many Catholics--even orthodox and Traditional Catholics--cheer on when the state injects itself into ecclesiastical affairs. No matter how corrupt, how awful things are, the intervention of a civil government into the matter diminishes the Church. Better, perhaps, that a mob (quickly formed, quickly dispersed, of no lasting threat to the Church herself) solve the problem of a theiving bishop or a seminary or abbey "with tendencies" than the leviathan, the permanent presence with the ultimate power to coerce, interject itself into Church affairs. In Europe since the end of the first part of the Great War (or from the masonic revolutions in Italy, or the French Revolution, or from the "reformation," or from whenever) and in North America since the 1960s and 1970s (or before...point to your favorite reference), the state has exerted more and more control over her, sometimes in seeming benevolence (where it the taxes for the benefit of the Church in order to maintain her physcial structures) sometimes in more directly adverse ways (by threatening to tax the Church out of existence or fine and jail its clergy when they speak out against fashionable sins).

When some reprobate wearing the mitre brings shame to his office, many Catholics, of the sort that know better, are too quick to cheer that the government steps in when ecclesiastical superiors fail. They were happy, for instance, when the Maricopa County DA interjected himself into the governance of the Phoenix diocese under O'Brien's malfeasance, and they cheer on when the plaintiff's bar extracts money from one corrupt diocese after another, stupidly failing to see the obvious--that this imposes additional suffering on the flock instead of justly punishes the shepherd. They fail to see that the harm done by those government intrusions will ultimately be worse for the Church than the ecclesiastical malfeasance itself. Becket saw more clearly. John Fisher saw more clearly. Recall that the despoilation of the monasteries and the destruction of Catholic England occurred on the pretense of fighting corruption.

Then again, an obvious practical problem with Becket's view of the Church, as framed by Chesterton, is that there are very few Beckets, or even potential Beckets, among the servants of the servants of God. We can all name no more than a handful of them in the North American church. Fred Henry of Calgary, of course, and Burke, Bruskewitz, Doran, might rise to the occasion, plus we could all round out our half dozen with a couple of other names which we might disagree on, but the pool is still pretty small (maybe Chaput, Olmstead, etc). Very few men in the hierarchy have demonstrated the mettle to be a judge of the world. But of course, as Chesterton goes on to say, we can't disprove that a system where the Church outside the state--that there was true separation of Church and State, in that the Church was not subject to the State, would work. Perhaps the Pontiffs of the twentieth century would have been more diligent in their episcopal appointments if bishops had a more practical, temporal role in society. Perhaps such men would rise to the occasion, and weak men have when finally put to the test in episcopal and papal office. We can only speculate, and hold out that the world might be better if it stood as a counterweight to the state.

But I digress.


Might I suggest that you go over to Hilary's post on omens for what folks with more perspective may someday see as the beginning of the second dark ages. Click here.

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