The Witness in the Cathedral

By John Hill

The following essay was selected as the second-place winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the OSV Institute for Catholic Innovation. For his essay, John Hill was awarded a $1,000 scholarship.

“I submit my cause to the judgment of Rome. / But if you kill me, I shall rise from my tomb / To submit my cause before God’s throne.” These immortal words from the play Murder in the Cathedral were spoken by St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, immediately before his martyrdom. Becket had been the friend of King Henry II of England until matters of the Catholic Church severed their friendship. When St. Thomas Becket conscientiously opposed the king’s attempts to control the Church in England, Becket knowingly put his life at risk. Rather than let the Catholic Church be oppressed by the crown, whose appetite for power was ignited by the desire to have authority over Her, the archbishop impeded the king’s direct assault by advocating religious liberty for the Catholic Church. In the key moment of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, the saint ultimately offered his life up to God as a witness to true conscience and religious liberty. Influenced by St. Thomas Becket’s life and death, the members of the Catholic Church in England practiced Catholicism with renewed vigor and fought to keep the government out of ecclesiastical affairs, remaining faithful to Her apostolic foundations.

In 1118, St. Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, England, to his mercantile parents who emphasized religion, education, and morality. After familiarizing himself with other great minds of England and becoming an archdeacon, St. Thomas Becket was chosen to become chancellor to King Henry II. In this role, Becket glorified England without paying any heed to the Church’s struggles. Thomas and the king lived a merry life until the king decided to use their friendly bond to overpower the Catholic Church in 1162. It was at this point in Becket’s life, this occasion of his ordination as Archbishop of Canterbury, that he spiritually awoke.

Much to the king’s chagrin, Thomas discovered his spiritual backbone. “Becket's allegiance shifted from the court to the Church inspiring him to take a stand against his king,” and the companions’ relationship was promptly halted. Contrary to his life as chancellor, Becket began to defend religious liberty, fighting significantly against lay investiture and illegal seizure of the Church’s property. Wielding his newly acquired spiritual authority, he excommunicated deserving nobles and maintained the Church’s freedoms. But, in 1163, the battle over religious liberty intensified as the hungry power of the crown attempted to strip the Church of Her right to try Her own criminals. St. Thomas Becket eventually declared his formal opposition to these encroaching practices of the king and firmly adhered to his belief, because “behind this loomed the larger and ever-present concept that the freedom of the Church would be endangered if [the Archbishop] yielded an inch.” The immediate result was the king’s counteraction—proposing several “Constitutions at Clarendon” and asking every bishop to swear to uphold them, even though they stated that the king had ecclesiastical authority (and unfortunately, many of the pressured English bishops supported Henry). Outnumbered, Becket stood firm in his refusal to support the decrees of the king. In exile, Becket fled to Catholic France, but he knew that one day he must return to lead his flock as he was ordained to do.

Henry took all he could from Becket, including his wealth, his land, his family, and his friendship with him. The pope then threatened the king with excommunication, so Henry conceded to letting Becket come home to England to resolve their conflict. Upon his return in 1170, the greedy king’s quarrel with St. Thomas Becket was reignited when the archbishop excommunicated the bishops who betrayed their office and agreed to the “Constitutions at Clarendon,” the declarations which attempted to strip the Church in England of her religious liberty. Frustrated by the inconvenient actions of his old friend, King Henry II exclaimed, “Who will rid me of this insolent priest?” As word of the royal wrath spread, Becket knew his end was near.

Five men, boiling with vengeance for their king and for their country, entered Canterbury Cathedral to find their archbishop. They cornered Thomas Becket into a place where he had spent many hours praying for his eternal salvation. At last, they struck him down within his episcopal seat and mutilated his body. As an eyewitness to the martyrdom and a biographer of Becket’s life, Edward Grim was inspired by “how intrepidly - how devotedly and courageously - he offered himself for the murder… so that the affairs of the church might be managed according to its paternal traditions and decrees.” This act of sacrifice articulated Becket’s message of freedom of conscience more capably than any words he could have spoken. While Henry’s impenetrable pride restrained him from removing his Church-suppressing laws, Becket imprinted a lasting mark on Henry’s heart, as well as on the hearts of many Englishmen. Henry repented, saying “confession before the bishops present, and[,] with much trembling and reverence[, ]approached the tomb” of his heroic friend, and many other pilgrims visited the cathedral to experience miracles on Becket’s behalf. St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, his witness to religious freedom, filled the Catholic Church in England with a zeal to fight the encroaching government and uphold conscientious beliefs.

St. Thomas Becket, in the eyes of the world, was a failure. He lost his friend, and he lost his life, but, moreover, his cause did not make a physical change in the mind of King Henry II, who continued to encroach upon the ancient traditions of the Church. Yet, “he that shall lose his life for [Christ’s] sake, shall find it” (Matthew 16:25), just as Thomas Becket did. Catholics learn from Becket that they are not called to succeed in worldly terms; rather, they must strive for holier things. Nothing should impose on religious freedom. Becket became spiritually victorious in the eyes of God as he provided his life of conversion and sacrifice as a witness for generations of Catholics in England, including St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. To this day, Becket represents following one’s conscience, standing for religious liberty, and finding freedom from sin, not that one may experience temporal gains, but that one may be truly and eternally free with God in Heaven as champions for the cause of religious freedom. As every child of God is endowed with the right to pursue their eternal salvation, it is imperative that such a freedom be protected, even at the cost of life itself, just as St. Thomas Becket demonstrated.

John Hill writes from Spring, TX.