One night in December, 1170, King Henry II of England, so the story goes, cried out in exasperation, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Prompted by that outburst, four knights in his entourage saddled up their horses, boarded a boat for England – Henry was holding court in France that Christmas, half of which constituted his Angevin Empire – and made their way to Canterbury Cathedral. There they set about murdering the Archbishop on the steps of the high altar as he was about to say Mass.
Why? Because Henry II and Archbishop Thomas á Becket were at loggerheads over their respective rights and duties. It all started over a case in which a criminal cleric had received what was deemed to be a too-lenient sentence in a Church court. At that primitive stage in the development of the common law system the respective jurisdictions of Church and State were not as defined as they are today. Church law was universal and codified to a degree that could not be matched by secular law. The law of might-is-right was still very prevalent as the law of the land in that age. Clerics had a right to be tried in Church courts just as the aristocracy had also the right to be tried by their peers in the House of Lords – or the Great Council as it was then known. But things were changing.
Henry II, although a rough and brutal man of his time, was one of the great law-making kings of England, seeking to bring the rule of law to bear on all in his kingdom. In this he clashed with the Church, particularly in the person of Thomas á Becket – who at one time was his Chancellor, as well as his bosom friend and companion. Church law was founded on Christian principles of justice, charity and mercy and ultimately was there to serve the work of the Church in the salvation of souls. To be able to do this work effectively, its freedom from the secular power was deemed essential. On this principle Becket had to make a stand against the incursions of the King – whose business was patently not the salvation of souls. Make a stand he did, and paid for it with his life.
Becket became a martyr and the place of his death and burial became one of the great shrines of medieval Europe. Henry repented his outburst, took responsibility for its consequences and came to the Canterbury and did public penance. How private that penance was is another matter. Becket, however, in the long history of the tensions between Church and State in the realm of lawmaking, remains a powerful symbol for all those who have to proclaim themselves in every age, as St. Thomas More did, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Becket’s influence still resonated in the 16thcentury when the English king finally did what Becket was essentially protecting the Church against – its domination by the secular power. Legend has it that Henry VIII, after he had executed St. Thomas More for refusing to recognise him as head of the Church in England, also had Becket tried. He then had his remains exhumed, and subsequently burned for his alleged treason. It is only a legend – but legends have their own way of telling the truth.
The great battle between those who set their hearts on the life of this world and those who have a clear vision of life here as but an integral part of an eternal life, seems endless. It is always there to some degree. But sometimes it flares up into all-out conflict – as it did with the persecution of the first Christians. So too, with the wars of the Protestant Reformation which were settled eventually with the acceptance of that horrific compromise, Cuius regio, eius religio, which translates as “Whose realm, his religion” – the ruler will tell you what religion you must adhere to. Most horrific of all among the persecutions of believers were the horrors perpetrated in the twentieth century by the twin evils of communism and national socialism.
At times the conflict is a clearly defined struggle of good and evil. At other times not so. Such was the struggle between Henry II and Thomas á Becket. Both men were seeking justice in their own way – and while Becket’s vision of man and his destiny was a superior one to that of Henry, he was compromised to a degree by the evil perpetrated by those whom he sought to serve – and save – through the agency of a free and untrammelled Church.
Eight-hundred-odd years separate us today from the battle between Henry and Becket but there are signs that the Catholic Church in Ireland is now engaged in a conflict that in many ways is not dissimilar to theirs. The Church in Ireland has been tragically and shamefully compromised by its members, its servants, high and low. By their shameful acts of abuse and by the blundering response of some to those crimes, it has been left vulnerable to attack and is in danger of being crippled to the extent that its very raison d’être, evangelization and the salvation of souls, is compromised. As it seeks to protect itself and its mission it is accused of seeking to protect its “power”. Nonsense. The Church seeks neither power nor any rights other than those on which it depends to fulfil its sacred duties.
Now, in the Irish Republic, under the guise of “wise” lawmaking, under the guise of a “prudent” extension of the rule of law, the administration of one of its most precious sacraments is under threat, the sacrament of the reconciliation with God of men and women, burdened by the sins of their fallen nature. A law is being proposed to the Irish parliament, requiring Catholic priests to break the seal of confession, a privilege of the repentant sinner which has existed for the past 2000 years. By this law any priest to whom a penitent confesses a sin of sexual abuse of a minor – sins of murder, treason, drug-dealing and all the rest are not of the same gravity as this one sin, the law implies – will be obliged to report the sinner and his sin to the police. The proposed law will probably not fly anyway. Its inherent inconsistency, its impractability, its ignorance of the very procedure in the confessional – where a confessor in principle does not identify the person confessing – will bring it down.
But the more serious implication lies in the very fact that it has been proposed. It is an interference by a secular state in the spiritual and sacramental mission of the Church, the very principle for which St. Thomas á Becket died.
A Catholic knows that when he talks to a priest in Confession, that priest to whom he is speaking is there in persona Christi. He comes to talk to him because he is truly sorry for sinning against God and his fellow men, because he fully repents and looks for grace to help him never to offend again. Under the law now being proposed in the Irish Republic, that confessor, in persona Christi, will leave that confessional and report what he has heard to the secular power. Forget contrition, forget penance, forget repentance – just go and take your punishment from the judges of the secular courts and from the tabloids and all who read them and are longing to drool voyeuristically over your sordid sins. Seek first the justice of your secular power. Forget the rest, it effectively says.
It is difficult not to see all this as part of a pattern, manifesting once again that endless battle between the temporal and the spiritual. The secular state of our day has taken from Christians their concept marriage and redefined it out of existence – first with divorce, and then with other aberrations. In Ireland it is now about to take the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation and destroy it with a penal law the like of which has not been seen since the 18th century. There is a famous Irish ballad called The Croppy Boy. The boy in question, a young soldier in the Irish rebellion of 1798, came to the priest’s house for confession. The redcoats had got there before him and one of them, impersonating the priest, heard his confession in which he spilled all the beans of his rebellious life. When he had unburdened his soul the redcoat revealed his true identity.
With fiery glare and with fury hoarse,
Instead of a blessing he breathed a curse:
“Twas a good thought, boy, to come here and shrive,
For one short hour is your time to live.”
“Upon yon river three tenders float,
The priest’s in one – if he isn’t shot –
We hold this house for our lord and King,
And, Amen, say I, may all traitors swing!”
The boy in the song tells us his sins. There is nothing shocking about them. There is no mention of sexual abuse. It is just a story. But the shock of the song is that a man took the place of God in a sacred place, a man intervened and corrupted an act by which God has willed to bestow forgiveness and restore supernatural life to a repentant sinner. It is the very same shock which Catholics in Ireland experienced when their Prime Minister announced last week that the sacred seal of the Sacrament of Confession was going to be abolished under Irish law. The stand taken by Thomas á Becket is a stand for all time.