Sunday, December 31, 2006

Belloc on Becket

Friday was the feast of Thomas Becket, so I thought I'd put up this summary of the story by Hilaire Belloc.

The story is briefly this: A certain prelate, the Primate of England at the time, was asked to admit certain changes in the status of the clergy. The chief of these changes was that men attached to the Church in any way even by minor orders (not necessarily priests) should, if they committed a crime amenable to temporal jurisdiction, be brought before the ordinary courts of the country instead of left, as they had been for centuries, to their own courts. The claim was, at the time, a novel one. The Primate of England resisted that claim. In connection with his resistance he was subjected to many indignities, many things outrageous to custom were done against him; but the Pope doubted whether his resistance was justified, and he was finally reconciled with the civil authority. On returning to his See at Canterbury he became at once the author of further action and the subject of further outrage, and within a short time he was murdered by his exasperated enemies.

His death raised a vast public outcry. His monarch did penance for it. But all the points on which he had resisted were in practice waived by the Church at last. The civil state's original claim was in practice recognized at last. Today it appears to be plain justice. The chief of St. Thomas' contentions, for instance, that men in orders should be exempt from the ordinary courts, seems as remote as chain armors.

[...]

Now the Catholic approaching this wonderful story, when he has read all the original documents, understands it easily enough from within.

He sees that the stand made by St. Thomas was not very important in its special claims, and was probably (taken as an isolated action) unreasonable. But he soon gets to see, as he reads and as he notes the rapid and profound transformation of all civilization which was taking place in that generation, that St. Thomas was standing out for a principle, ill clothed in his particular plea, but absolute in its general appreciation: the freedom of the Church. He stood out in particular for what had been the concrete symbols of the Church's liberty in the past. The direction of his actions was everything, whether his symbol was well or ill chosen. The particular customs might go. But to challenge the new claims of civil power at that moment was to save the Church. A movement was afoot which might have then everywhere accomplished what was only accomplished in parts of Europe four hundred years later, to wit, a dissolution of the unity and the discipline of Christendom.

St. Thomas had to fight on ground chosen by the enemy; he fought and he resisted in the spirit dictated by the Church. He fought for no dogmatic point, he fought for no point to which the Church of five hundred years earlier or five hundred years later would have attached importance. He fought for things which were purely temporal arrangements; which had indeed until quite recently been the guarantee of the Church's liberty, but which were in his time upon the turn of becoming negligible. But the spirit in which he fought was a determination that the Church should never be controlled by the civil power, and the spirit against which he fought was the spirit which either openly or secretly believes the Church to be an institution merely human, and therefore naturally subjected, as an inferior, to the processes of the monarch's (or, worse, the politician's) law.

A Catholic sees, as he reads the story, that St. Thomas was obviously and necessarily to lose, in the long run, every concrete point on which he had stood out, and yet he saved throughout Europe the ideal thing for which he was standing out. A Catholic perceives clearly why the enthusiasm of the populace rose: the guarantee of the plain man's healthy and moral existence against the threat of the wealthy, and the power of the State--the self-government of the general Church, had been defended by a champion up to the point of death. For the morals enforced by the Church are the guarantee of freedom.


Europe and the Faith (Introduction) The emphasis, marked in bold above due to italic quotation, is Belloc's own.

Worthwhile Becket-related activities include reading The Parson's Tale, which is, of course, the sermon preached by the Parson to the pilgrims as they draw near to Becket's shrine at Canterbury, their intended destination. You can also read Edward Grim's eyewitness account of Becket's murder and, of course, if you can find it, T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

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