Why Religious Liberty (and Thomas Becket) Really Matters

When consolidating their control over society, authoritarian regimes know that extinguishing political, civil and economic freedom is never quite enough. All authoritarians recognize that taking religious freedom seriously limits their capacity to interfere with the ability of people (including non-believers) to pursue and draw conclusions about religious truth; the decisions of people to make choices consistent with their religious beliefs; and the external activities and internal life of religious organizations. In short, robust conceptions of religious freedom make a truly authoritarian state that much harder to realize.

The significance of religious liberty—and, more particularly, libertas ecclesiae—for freedom more generally has been well-understood for centuries. The famous words recorded in the Gospel of Luke, “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—and to God what belongs to God” (Lk. 20:25), were revolutionary in their implications for how the West subsequently understood the nature of government. No longer could the state claim the divine characteristics with which it was invested by the pre-Christian pagan world. Instead the state—and its rulers—were now, like everyone else, sub Deus. Moreover, the Greek phrase for church, ekklesia, comes from combining the word kaleo (to call) with the prefix ek (out). This particular aspect of Christianity irked the Roman authorities so much that they accused the early Christians of atheism. Why? Because to belong to the Christian church meant that you were a member of a community which respected the state’s authority but did not practice the religion of the state. To the Roman mind, that meant you were effectively godless.

It was therefore no coincidence that the subject of the distinguished historian John Guy’s new and powerful biography, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, constantly invoked this passage from Luke’s Gospel in his eight-year struggle to protect the church’s liberties against one of the most ruthless of England’s Plantagenet monarchs, King Henry II. Most people are familiar with Becket from the 1964 film Becket (adapted from Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu). As Guy’s book makes clear, the film is not always historically accurate. Henry and Becket were never, for example, as friendly as the film suggests before Becket became archbishop of Canterbury. What, however, is not in doubt is that the real Becket understood what was at stake in his effort to prevent King Henry from gradually reducing the church in his realm into a mere appendage of the state—something, Guy observes, Henry’s namesake with the many wives was to achieve 365 years after Becket’s murder.

Like his previous biographies of Sir Thomas More and Mary Queen of Scots, Guy’s treatment of Becket reflects a Leviathan-like command of detail; an ability to see all the moving parts and present them as a comprehensive whole; a willingness to cut through the hagiographies that often cloud the truth about his chosen subjects; and, refreshingly, no particular political or religious agenda. In Becket’s case, Guy highlights just how much his life’s trajectory was shaped by two factors. The first was a background of medieval European dynastic politics in which many rulers sought not only to consolidate their territories against each other, but also to centralize power within their territories. As presented by Guy, medieval society was a rather worldly world in which the egos (including Becket’s) of powerful men and the occasional woman clashed on a regular basis. It was also a society in which more-than-a-few secular figures primarily viewed religious beliefs and ecclesial institutions as either potential supports or obstacles for stamping their authority upon the political order. Some things never change.

This same medieval world, however, was also one in which insistence upon particular immunities from royal power was becoming more pronounced. Nicknamed lux Londoniarum after his death, Becket (himself the son of a merchant) retained many of the habits and meritocratic values of a born Londoner. The inhabitants of this increasingly commercial city, Guy stresses, “passionately believed that they should be governed by themselves, remaining free to arrange things in their own interests and not in those of the lord who happened to own the land on which their houses were built” (5). From this standpoint, the libertas ecclesiae for which Becket fought served as a surrogate for the freedom of other individuals and institutions vis-à-vis royal authority. To that extent, Guy’s book indirectly reminds readers that, notwithstanding Whig theories of history, the birth of freedom begins neither with the Reformation nor the various Enlightenments.

The second background factor influencing Becket’s life was the movement for reform then sweeping through the church in Western Europe. Initiated and lead by Pope Gregory VII (circa 1015-1085) and his immediate successors, the Gregorian reform simultaneously sought to cultivate ascetic values throughout the church, toughen church discipline against sexually-dissolute and financially-wayward clergy (simony being a major vice), and radically diminish temporal rulers’ grip upon aspects of church life.

An underlying theme of Guy’s biography is how Becket himself personified these changes. During the secular phase of his life, Becket was somewhat of a clothes-horse, a passionate (even obsessive) hunter, and not at all averse to using the sword when serving as Henry’s Lord Chancellor. A charismatic man’s man, Becket combined these characteristics with a talent for bureaucratic-infighting and self-advancement in the ecclesiastical and temporal spheres. Yet while exposed to the same temptations as anyone else seeking advancement in the medieval world, the pre-Canterbury Becket was never the cynical, slightly-depraved figure played by the actor Richard Burton in Becket. The Catholic faith, its rituals, and moral teachings were always central to Becket’s life. That said, Guy demonstrates that Becket did not undergo some type of Damascus conversion (this being a common hagiographic device used in many medieval and patristic lives of saints). Nevertheless Guy affirms that, at some point, Becket began embracing more ascetic ways and an intense devotional life, a process which accelerated over time.

This shift seems to have paralleled Becket’s increasingly vigorous stance against Henry II’s claim to govern the church in accordance with what the monarch claimed to be “ancestral customs.” In Becket’s mind, the conflict quickly moved beyond jurisdictional disputes and turf wars. Here Guy maintains that John of Salisbury (circa 1120-1180) was especially influential in convincing Becket that Henry was well on the way to becoming a tyrant. Apart from writing a Life of Becket and witnessing Becket’s murder, John was the author of Policraticus, perhaps the most influential medieval treatise on political philosophy. While this book underscored the divine right of kings, it was one of the first texts since Cicero’s De Officiis to discuss the nature of tyranny. Not only did Policraticus affirm that the ruler was as subject to divine and natural law and the subsequent demands of right reason and morality as everyone else. It even claimed (as Thomas Aquinas did almost a century later) that tyrannicide might be legitimate as a last resort in extreme circumstances.

As a series of historical events, the Becket-Henry conflict did not play out as a straight clergy-versus-royal-officials affair. To an extent unmatched by previous Becket biographers, Guy demonstrates just how often Becket found himself arguing with and occasionally excommunicating clergy who took the king’s side. While generally supported by Pope Alexander III, Becket was never able to take the pope’s backing for granted. This was partly because Alexander had his own political battles to fight and was constantly being lobbied and sometimes threatened by Henry’s ecclesiastical and temporal supporters. But it also reflected the fact that many church leaders took seriously the legitimate claims of temporal authority and, above all, their desire to avoid pretexts for temporal rulers to drag parts of the church into schism.

But perhaps the most outstanding feature of Guy’s book is the manner in which he uses the source materials to take us “inside” Becket’s personality. What emerges is not a saint in the sense that this word is often frivolously used today. Instead Becket is presented as a man rather anxious about his middle-class background, remarkably quick-tempered, somewhat of a dilettante during his secular career, and who made several strategic errors in his quarrel with Henry. Alongside these errors and character flaws, Guy illuminates Becket’s extraordinary single-mindedness, his capacity to see through Henry’s apparently unending dissimulation, and his remarkable self-mastery in the face of severe intimidation and lethal force. Regarding the latter, Guy stresses that Becket was perfectly aware that his insistence upon the church’s rightful autonomy was putting his life in danger: so much so that Becket seems to have been not at all surprised when Reginald fitz Urse, Richard Brito, William de Tracy, and Hugh de Morville appeared in the courtyard of his episcopal palace at Canterbury on that cold afternoon of Tuesday 29 December 1170 with murder on their minds.

In his public life after death, Becket has assumed an iconic status for those seeking to defend religious liberty per se. Becket himself (like Thomas More) would have found that a rather strange notion. Becket’s concern was with the church’s freedom from undue temporal interference, rather than a more general conception of religious toleration. That development had to await, among other things, the wars of religion and what none other than Benedict XVI has described as one of the American Revolution’s many positive results. In the Catholic Church’s case, it also required careful rereading of scriptural, patristic and scholastic sources in order to recover Christianity’s original affirmation of religious liberty in the sense of immunity from coercion and as a necessary precondition for freely embracing religious truth.

And yet as Islam’s present traumas should remind us, a religion’s capacity to make distinctions between the spiritual and temporal realms makes a difference to the more general growth of freedom. As Guy points out, Henry VIII’s looting and destruction of the sanctuary of St Thomas Becket in September 1538, his burning of Becket’s remains, and the king’s posthumous designation of Becket as a “rebel and traitor to his prince” had a clear political purpose. “Only a monarch not unlike the earlier Henry,” Guy writes, “set on building a regional church under tight royal control, ring-fenced by the coast, as an integral part of a centralized state controlled by himself, could have spoken that way” (348).

It was of course the voice of tyranny, for which libertas ecclesiae and the life of Thomas Becket never cease to serve as constant reproaches.