Summary: There have been conflicts throughout two millennia between secular authorities and the Church, and the conflict between Thomas Becket and Henry II is reflected in the American situation today, but Jesus and the Church are not about power, but love.
St. Thomas Becket 2012
December 29–in the Christmas Octave
We come to the end of a year that many in the Church see as an overall catastrophe. Our faith is in more peril in this country than at any time since the suppression of the No-Nothing party and the KKK. Most critically, this coming August, the Administration has ruled that with narrow exceptions for places of worship, every employer has to begin paying 100% of sterilization and early chemical abortion costs. That, as we know, is just the camel’s nose under the tent. Ultimately we will almost certainly be forced to pay for all abortion. Murdering babies is now seen, as in Communist China, to be a public good.
But secular governments, whose primary mode of operation is to exercise power so they can remain in power, have always been trying to bring religion under their control. Solomon built his Temple to the Lord almost as a private chapel, right next door to his palace. One of the terrors of the Assyrians is that their god was Ashur, that is, the state. When they conquered a people, they destroyed or bore off their gods and left their temples in ruin. When the Catholic Church began to spread in the Roman empire, persecutions often centered on the demand that Christians offer incense to the political leader, Caesar, as a god. Catholics, of course, had to refuse. The prayer affirmation “Jesus is Lord” was seen by the authorities as an act of treason, since the Christian would refuse to say “Caesar is Lord.” Even after the Christianization of the empire, the emperors were constantly trying to coopt the Church leaders into doing their will, instead of God’s. It is particularly noteworthy that a good deal of the East-West schism of 1054 had to do with the fact that the Byzantine emperor found the Eastern bishops and patriarchs easy to control, and the Pope in Rome impossible to manage, so the unity of the Church was broken for political reasons as much as religious ones.
For many historians, the political and religious feud over investiture–the right of the Emperor to choose bishops in his realm–was one of the key events of the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory VII refused to recognize this right, and Henry IV insisted on it. In 1076 Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry, who formally held his Emperor title at the Pope’s bequest. Not quite a year later, Henry made pilgrimage in the January snows over the Alps to Gregory’s retreat in the fortress of Canossa, begged forgiveness and was absolved and restored to communion. Later Henry took up the war against Gregory but the principle was established–in matters of religion the secular ruler had to yield to the authority of the Church.
About a hundred years later, another famous feud–even more famous–broke out between Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He had been Henry’s chancellor, and his being appointed Primate of England was probably calculated to bring the English church even more firmly under the King’s control. But Thomas insisted on the right to try clerics for any crimes they may have committed. Henry worked hard to control the church and weaken its allegiance to the Pope. Ultimately Henry put Thomas on trial for contempt and malfeasance. Thomas, convicted, fled to France, but stopped short of excommunicating Henry because Henry was threatening everybody in sight. When three English bishops, to curry favor with the King, crowned Henry, something only the Archbishop could licitly do, Thomas excommunicated them. Henry then said something like "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?" Four of Henry’s knights murdered Thomas in his cathedral, during the celebration of Vespers. Ultimately Henry was humbled and the tomb of Thomas in Canterbury became a famous shrine and place of pilgrimage. Such a pilgrimage gave rise to Chaucer’s epic Canterbury Tales. But the battle was not over. Henry VIII inherited the royal lust for power and in 1538 destroyed the shrine and the remains of the saint.
Secular power uses force–force of arms, force of regulation, force of taxation–to maintain its power. The assumption is that the public good is whatever those in charge thinks is good, and that people will only comply with that good by being forced. Motivation is all external. Christ and His Church can have nothing to do with that. People will only do the good willingly if they are changed from within. Conversion of heart by grace. Thomas experienced that metanoia, and gave his life for that truth. The English bishops in Henry VIII’s day–all but one–capitulated to the royal power and stole England from the true faith. Today we need to pray that our bishops have the same resolve as Thomas in our conflict with our government.