On this the Fifth Day of Christmas, the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and medieval martyr. According to the famous account of Becket’s martyrdom in Canterbury’s cathedral, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral’s door, Thomas opened it himself, saying, « The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God. » Exactly 30 years ago today, I was at Canterbury for this feast, where, after Evensong, the Archbishop of Canterbury led us in procession to the site of Becket’s death, where an original account of the saint’s martyrdom was read.
Of course, that Archbishop was Becket’s successor but in a Church and state totally transformed less than four centuries after Becket’s death by Henry VIII’s Reformation. No wonder the Reformation removed Becket’s feast from the calendar and destroyed his sumptuous shrine! Becket represented a pre-Reformation Catholic approach that envisaged a certain sort of partnership between Church and State. The Reformation successfully replaced that with the State in a clear position of dominance over the Church « by law established. »
Nowadays, Becket is seen as a great defender of religious freedom. But 12th-century Europe and 21st-century America are very different in how they understand the relationships between religion and society and between Church and State. Our contemporary American context requires us to understand religious freedom as one constitutional guarantee among others and one occasionally in competition with other constitutional rights and social values.
For this reason, defenders of religious liberty need to sensitive their actual motives when making religious liberty claims, for example, when religious liberty is invoked opposition to the state’s legitimate interest in protecting public health.
Becket’s challenge to today’s Church is not primarily to carve out privileged statuses for religious entities, a strategy suitable for his era but obviously less so for ours. Today’s challenge rather is to convince our culture of religious liberty’s centrality for authentic human dignity and how it can be harmonized with strong and effective government and the recognized rights of others in our constitutional system.
And, whatever else we do, let Becket’s own words never be forgotten, « The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. »
Homily for the Commemoration of Saint Thomas Becket, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 29, 2022.
(Photo: Freedom of Worship, one of the series of four 1943 oil paintings by Norman Rockwell, reproduced that year in The Saturday Evening Post, depicting « the Four Freedoms, » identified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his January 1941 State of the Union Address.)