January 2019 Print

Politician to Prelate: Man Can Only Serve One Master

by Benjamin Bielinski

Model Bishop for Clerics

If we could hear the voices of history which voice would echo through the ages? Which voice would be able to guide us through the difficulties of our modern time? There is one voice, one man above the rest, whose heroic words, actions and life provide an answer to the most persistent questions and dilemmas that plague Catholics in our modern era. That man was lowly born and impoverished, but through grace, intelligence and effort he climbed to the highest position of civil government and thrived in that role. But it was just a role. After years of excellent civil service, he left politics to defend the Church against the very government he helped create. This heroic defense of Holy Mother Church cost him not only his career, power, and social standing, but also his life. This man is the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

Becket the Politician

Ambition, Skill & Talent

Born in 1119, Thomas Becket was the son of Gilbert and Matilda Becket who lived in Cheapside, London. His parents were devout and gave frequently to the poor. His father Gilbert was a knight of the lower class gentry and held a number of properties throughout the city that could have sustained an elevated future for his son. However, a devastating fire reduced the family to poverty and Thomas was compelled to earn his living as a clerk in the house of a wealthy family friend. He quickly demonstrated his aptitude for running the large household’s affairs and it was here that his future career began to take shape. His prodigious talent did not go unnoticed and when a position in the household of Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury became vacant, he was recommended for the role.

This position proved pivotal as it allowed Thomas to develop his knowledge of the law and politics. After a number of years in service, Archbishop Theobald, realizing Becket’s potential, sent him to France to study civil and ecclesiastical law. Upon his return to England, Becket’s intelligence and knowledge of law was quickly put to the test on the level of national importance. The heir to the throne of England was in question and murmurs of rebellion where everywhere. It was this case that brought Thomas into proximity with the future King of England, Henry II.

When King Henry I died, he left no male heir, so the throne passed to his brother Stephen. Stephen was a terrible king who had no skill for ruling. He spent the next 10 years, the entirety of his reign, in constant fear of other nobles usurping his crown. As a consequence, the country fell into chaos, London became decrepit, and his citizens came to hate him. But Henry’s daughter had a son, and when he came of age it was proposed that he be crowned king in Stephen’s place and in place of his heirs. Stephen fought violently against this suggestion.

In the middle of this political turmoil, Thomas approached the king and suggested two options: Either the Archbishop of Canterbury would forcibly remove Stephen’s crown and anoint the young Henry; or Stephen could appoint Henry as his successor when he died. Stephen reluctantly chose to remain king for the rest of his life and made the announcement that Henry would be his adopted son and would continue the line of succession. Upon this treaty being realized, “The popular voice did not hesitate to attribute this happy result to Thomas Becket and Archbishop Theobald was among the first to do honor to his young counsellor, who had really inspired and directed all the negotiations, and had therein shown his superiority by the elevation and justice of his views, the pliancy and decision of his character, and by his prudence and zeal.” (Monsignor Demimuid, St. Thomas A Becket, p. 31., 1909) It is clear that without the considerable political skill exhibited on the part of Becket, Henry II would never have been crowned king. In recognition of this feat, Archbishop Theobald made Thomas Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154.

After Thomas had been ordained, it was but a matter of weeks when King Stephen died and Henry II was crowned king. Henry immediately choose Thomas Becket as his new Chancellor and Archbishop Theobald gave his full support. Thus it was that Thomas Becket, a man born of meager means, so quickly gained a position in England that was second only to the king himself. Much can be said of Becket’s character at this point. Moving from his lowly status to that of Chancellor is by any natural understanding impossible. But Becket was a man of principle who inspired loyalty and impressed all with his intellectual abilities. While God’s grace and providential plan was certainly at work, it is by his strength of character that Thomas Becket achieved so much with so little.

Becket the Chancellor

Strength, Power & Vanity

“From the moment Thomas appeared at the royal Council, he eclipsed everyone else; his unrivalled capacity, [and] the irresistible fascination of his person, had soon acquired for him the confidence and friendship of Henry, who by degrees gave him so great a share in all his affairs, and loaded him with so many honours, that he virtually made him the first among the ministers and dignitaries of his Court.” (idem)

The kingdom in 1155, after years of the contested reign, was totally in shambles. Virtually every aspect of the court and all municipal buildings were in neglect. The transformative nature of the rebuilding under Chancellor Becket was nothing short of astonishing. But even these marvellous feats in England were further surpassed by the political and strategic alliances that Becket forged abroad on Henry’s behalf, especially in France, making Becket indispensable to the king and his crown.

It must be mentioned that Becket, while still being a moral man, was not immune to the vanities of his position. Remember at this time, he was still the Archdeacon of Canterbury, and yet nothing about his current public role nor his manner of dress indicated that he was a deacon of the Church. It is said that a prior happened upon him playing chess while he was lavishly dressed in highly fashionable and ornate clothing. “How can you wear such dress. It would be suitable for a falconer; you are a cleric and so by Order and Jurisdiction, and moreover Archdeacon of Canterbury, Dean of Hastings, Provost of Beverley, Canon of several cathedrals, Administrator of the Archbishopric and soon perhaps to be Archbishop.” (idem) Becket may have been vain, but nothing he did as Chancellor contradicted his future actions as bishop. He was at all times chaste and just, keeping both the interests of the nation and the Church in mind.

Becket the Archbishop

Consecration, Obligation & Duty

After Becket had been Chancellor to the king for almost eight years, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, died. It is unknown when the king first devised the plan to make Becket an Archbishop but it is well know that, as soon as the king’s intentions were made public, Becket was against them. Becket knew the king well and was fully aware of his desire to control everything in his realm including the Church. The following prophetic statement was made with chilling clarity by Becket to the king. “You will ask concessions from me which it will be my duty to refuse; your enemies and my detractors will profit by this to excite you against me; you will withdraw your friendship, and, in its place will entertain for me a mortal hatred.” (idem) The king persisted with his intention to have Becket made Archbishop of Canterbury which was not surprising. The king never suspected that Becket’s loyalty to the throne was the principled result of Becket’s fine character and not, as the king vainly assumed, mere loyalty to his own person. Becket’s friendship with the king must have been grounded in virtue as we will see its outcome. On the contrary, the king’s friendship was rooted not in virtue but in personal loyalty. It was precisely this flawed friendship on his part that would eventually be so wounded by the virtuous actions of Becket even though they were in fact the only right course of action. This difference sets Becket apart from many bishops of our day. A cleric living according to his ordination could never compromise the truth out of love for a person, as this would be disordered and an eternal disservice to them both.

Upon his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, the transformation of the man was as miraculous as his restoration of London. The man who once quite literally ran the politics of the nation and dressed like a courtier was now irrevocably a high servant of the King of Kings. It is no easy thing to change the course of one’s life and orient oneself around a new pivotal purpose. Becket’s fine character responded immediately to his new duties and everything of note in his previous life, both friendship for the king and the respect of court became less than secondary. The center of Becket’s life was no longer the throne, the kingdom or the king, but rather the Magisterium, the Church and the pope and this pivotal shift was apparent from the first moment he was made Archbishop of Canterbury.

War Against the Catholic Church

Civil Authority vs. Divine Authority

To more fully understand the following battle between Church and State we must understand the nature of a king’s authority. The authority by which any king may rightfully rule is bestowed by Holy Mother Church through the Pontiff and delegated through his ministers. So then, the papal authority after having granted the civil authority its power, cannot be subject to that same civil power, without in some way compromising the Church’s divine authority.

First Attack & First Rebuttal

Taxation of the Catholic Church by the Crown

The Council of Woodstock was the first attempt to place a direct tax on the Catholic Church by the King of England. It began by the abuse of a custom. It was the custom of the time that local sheriffs be paid two shillings, by the Church, for every hide of land. The king argued that the money would be given directly to the king for his own purse. “The archbishop resisted him, to his face, saying “Not from us, should this be given as revenue, my lord the king, saving your pleasure. But if we have been served by the sheriffs in a worthy manner. . .we will not withhold contribution to their aid.” The king enraged by the archbishop’s words replied, “By the eyes of God, it will be recorded as the king’s revenue. Nor is the (your) right to contradict me.” The archbishop responded, “by the reverence of the eyes which you have sworn, my lord the king, from the whole my land and by the right of the Church, not a single penny will be given.” (James Craigie Robertson, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, p. 273, 1885). It was the custom of the time that a stipend be given by churches to sheriffs for protection of property. But this stipend was only given after the Church decided that protection had indeed taken place. This incident emphasises how important the point of civil taxation of churches was to the saint as it was the very first time Becket had ever publicly disagreed with the king. This was a moment in which the strength of one man changed the course of history. This act, this one virtuous choice in time, created a chain of events that could have enslaved the Church had a man of lesser virtue been given the choice. Becket’s choice was so immediate and firm it is doubtful that he ever saw a choice at all but simply did what he knew was right regardless of the consequences.

Second Attack

Charging of Criminal Clerics by Civil Court

The delicate balance between civil and ecclesiastical authority has always been precarious. King Henry’s pretense for this second attack was that the ecclesiastical courts of the Church were too lenient on criminal clerics. This excuse resonates with Catholics in the world today, as we too are faced, not only with bad clerics, but also a hierarchy that refuses to take definitive action. Modern bishops seem to forget the responsibilities of their ecclesiastical role. We find elevated members of the clergy pandering to the whims of the media and relinquishing the Church’s authority to the civil government. But our situation isn’t new and weak bishops have plagued the Church from its conception. As early as the year 325, St. Athanasius illustrated this fact with his famous example: “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” Becket’s example is one that both protects the Church from civil control and bad clerics.

The following is the description of the case of two clerics who were accused of crimes and tried by Becket himself. In 1163, the royal judges tried several times to contest the sole right of the Church to judge clerics. On one occasion, two clerics were accused of homicide. Thomas Becket immediately summoned them to appear and be judged before the ecclesiastical court. “One of them, a clerk in the diocese of Worcester, against whom, as far as we can judge from history, no decisive proof was alleged, was [still] condemned. The other was pronounced innocent.” (Monsignor Demimuid, St. Thomas A Becket, p. 88, 1909) These cases coupled with others created what the king then thought was an opportunity to establish precedent for civil intervention. The king summoned the prelates of England and demanded that those who had been found guilty must at least be tried again in civil court. The bishops of England, frightened by the words of the king were prepared to surrender until Becket fiercely corrected them for their weakness. “I see,” he exclaimed, “that you easily choose the part of feebleness and indolence, and that provided you call these [actions] by the false name of prudence, you are quite resigned to let the liberty of the Church be stifled. Who then has been able to fascinate you to such a degree, rash prelates? What use is it to try to disguise under a borrowed title, that which is manifestly iniquity on your part? Is it wisdom to consent to the total ruin of the Church of Christ?” (p. 92 idem) The clerics at this time sided with Becket. The king retaliated by seizing all of Becket’s goods and property with far worse to come. These are the actions of a prince of the Church.

Aware of the fallen nature of man, aware that evil men can enter the Church, Becket protected the Church by castigating bad clerics and thereby removing the pretense, created by their clerical abuse, for a civil government to intervene. In our day, the question arises, “How can we trust today’s ecclesiastical hierarchy to rightly judge and condemn bad clerics when it is the very same hierarchy that gave these bad clerics their power to begin with?” The answer is simple. Today’s hierarchy is at fault but that doesn’t mean tomorrow’s will be. The only other ruling body is the civil government, but as this is not a system ruled by Catholic principles, we would effectively be enslaving Holy Mother Church to a body of men that consistently fail to understand even the most basic tenants of morality. Consequently, once the precedent is set for civil intervention against bad clerics, what is to prevent the government from stepping in against good clerics that don’t agree with the laws of the land on homosexuality, abortion and the like?

Third Attack

The Constitutions of Clarendon

In the year 1164, the king convened the lords of the realm as well as all bishops and prelates of the kingdom to the castle of Clarendon. Without warning, he then commanded that all present acknowledge and adhere to all previous customs of the land concerning relations between Church and crown. Becket, after having stipulated that the interests of the Church would be protected, swore to uphold the customs of the land as did all the other bishops. Unfortunately, these “customs of the land” were never written down and certainly never enforced as no one was obliged, until now, to follow them by law. The king, having acquired the good-faith oath of Becket and the clergy, proceeded to “summarize” these customs into 16 articles and codify them into law.

The 16 articles, known as the Constitutions of Clarendon, gave ultimate authority to the crown. They severed the tie between the bishops of England and the pope. They limited the powers of Church prelates by taking away their authority to settle disputes, collect debts, excommunicate and elect bishops or prelates. Furthermore, all ecclesiastical seats that would become vacant in the future would henceforth be owned by the king and consequently all revenue they created would be the king’s own. All ecclesiastical ministers would not be allowed to leave the country without consent of the king nor would visiting prelates be allowed to visit or move about the kingdom without the express permission of the king. These 16 points are truly frightening in their scope. If they had ever been fully implemented, they would have essentially created an English “church” similar to the future Anglican Church or Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, created by the governing communist party in 1957, both of which reject the authority of the Holy See and appoint their own bishops. One cannot help but see the reflection of our modern crisis in this lesson from history. The Church is already enslaved in China as a direct result of the civil authority gaining power over the Church’s clerics. Without courageous bishops, what other countries will gain control of the Church by limiting its powers and eventually assimilating it entirely?

Final Attack

Flight of Becket and Illegitimate Coronation of Henry III

Soon after these articles were published, Becket was accused by the king of unpaid debts to the crown. This accusation was completely fabricated by the king and only partially supported by his newly-ratified articles. Numerous appearances were made by Becket in court, all of which ending in him being found guilty, being given a sentence of “imprisonment until all debts were paid.” Becket fled the country to seek counsel from Pope Alexander III. The pope fully supported Becket’s innocence and repudiated the actions of Henry II. Alexander wrote the king numerous times, both exhorting and warning him of the danger of excommunication should his actions continue.

These despotic actions of Henry were not ignored by the court and, like Henry’s predecessor King Stephen, there were rumors of rebellion among the nobles. Henry, to avoid a possible uprising, decided to have his son Henry III crowned king. But the coronation of an English king can only take place with the express permission of the pope and be officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since the archbishop was now in exile, Henry foolishly forced a hasty coronation expressly against the wishes of the pope. This rash act was sufficient to incur an extreme penalty. With the permission of the pope, Becket formally pronounced all those who took part in the coronation, both laymen and clergy alike, excommunicated. While Becket’s course was clear, to excommunicate a friend, even a bad one, is a terrible thing with terrible consequences for those receiving it. However strong any natural friendship was between Thomas and the king it was clearly never an impediment to virtue. True charity, on the part of all men but especially clerics, is to admonish sinners so that they might abjure their wrong actions, repent and enjoy their eternal reward. This is true friendship, not as the world defines it, but as Christ wills it to be.


Lasting Example of the Saintly Archbishop

Soon after the pronunciation of excommunication, the king made it known that Becket was allowed to return to his episcopal seat. It is unclear whether the excommunication created in the king a desire for peace or if he was simply plotting to ease the return of Becket and thereby hasten his demise. Regardless, Becket came home and Canterbury’s people and clerics rejoiced.

It was but a few short weeks after Thomas’ return that Henry requested that the excommunication be lifted immediately. Without hesitation, Thomas Becket made it clear that only the pope could absolve the crimes committed by the king. It was after the intentions of Becket were made known that the king uttered those ill-fated words: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights left the king’s presence that day and began the journey to Canterbury. It is unclear if murder was their initial intent, but it was certainly the final result. The archbishop gave a sermon Christmas morning which showed that there was little doubt as to the end that would soon be his.

“Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate the deep meaning and mystery of our Masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the passion and death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. ...Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of peace. He said to His disciples, ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors…? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea... What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives. . . Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the date of the birth of Christ?… I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birthday, to remember what is that peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” St. Thomas Becket thus addressed his faithful for the last time knowing well what lay ahead. The words of this of saintly archbishop echo through the centuries long after the halls in which they were uttered have fallen and the men who first heard them had vanished from the earth. They speak of a man who lived a life defined by principle and not popularity. A man who loved sinner’s enough to rebuke them for their errors instead of tolerating their sin to the detriment of the Church and the loss of their eternal souls. The world cannot measure St. Thomas Becket’s life because he fully rejected it even after he had achieved all it had to offer. This man, this bishop, living in light of his consecration, secured peace for the Catholic Church in England for centuries. He created a shining example for the modern era of what a true bishop can be if only he remembers that his sacred duties are to the Church and not to any other people, government or ruling authority on earth. We must call on the clerics of our time to return to their sacred obligations. These clerical obligations include the punishment and defrocking of those that abuse their sacred office, vows and holy orders while continuing to encourage and support those clerics who are struggling to bring these pernicious bishops and priests to true justice within the confines of the ecclesiastical court.

Saint Thomas Becket’s death so horrified all of Catholic Europe that within weeks King Henry II was compelled to do public penance by monastic flagellation and make a formal public renunciation of his errors. The king also recanted all 16 Articles of Clarendon and relinquished all customs of the realm that might in anyway limit the authority of the Church, before Pope Alexander III. This act acknowledged the absolute and universal authority of the Church over souls, the very thing St. Thomas Becket laid down his life to defend.