How the Sainthood of the Archbishop Became the Epiphany of the King
One Sunday morning in the unlikely setting of the residential wasteland of Queens, NY, a friend I only thought I had known cited the famous quote of T.S. Eliot, words, he said, that had changed his life. As we lumbered through the barren streets of a non-descript neighborhood of non-descript houses and miniscule front yards of dry yellow grass, he suddenly took my arm and apropos of nothing pronounced:
“The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
To the two young men walking through dismal Queens, both inebriated with the hubris of youth and morning vodka, two doubters unmindful of even the possibility of God and the debate raging about it, those words spoken in the suburban desert rang simple and humbling, menacing and earth-shaking. Silence followed. Neither of us commented.
I have never seen the play performed or the film of the same name. I recall chiefly the scenes of debauchery of two young friends of 12th century England, one a King, the other his Chancellor. But, the text of Murder in the Cathedral is enduring, as befits a Nobel writer (1948). From time to time I pull out the azure and deep red Faber & Faber edition of the book, anxiously awaiting the lines I first heard on that hot Queens street. In these spring days of Pope Benedict’s bid for more and more temporal power and after seeing a documentary on the tragedy of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, I repeated that old ceremony.
Maybe you have to live in Rome to be aware that the church-state struggle not only continues but has intensified. The Roman Catholic Church seems to see temporal power as the chief aim of its ministry on earth. In any case, without any pretences of literary criticism on my part, I find that Eliot’s play is an auspicious start for a look at the age-old struggle. Though much has been written about the issue and I fear I will not find much original to say, the importance today of the subject of secular vs. religious power justifies the effort ... also for the reader. So, pray stay with me.
Perhaps it is a matter of approach, which I intend changing: unlike T.S. Eliot I am more interested in the social aims of King Henry II than in the qualms of conscience of Archbishop Thomas Becket.
In 1163, the two friends, Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and the English King, Henry II (1133-1189), quarreled over the respective power roles of church and state. So stormy and furious was the dispute that Becket subsequently escaped to France to rally support for the Catholic Church against the pressures of the State of Henry II. Seven years later, after an apparent reconciliation with his old friend Henry, he returned to England only to be murdered in his Canterbury cathedral by four of Henry’s knights.
His assassination foreshadowed similar political murders of Martin Luther King and of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the altar of a chapel in El Salvador in 1980, both murdered by reactionary death squads. Like Becket’s early relationship with the King, Oscar Romero was at first considered an ally of the ruling oligarchy of El Salvador in the grip of US imperialism. After he was named Archbishop in 1977, mounting repression, attacks on the clergy, murders of priests and the misery of the poor changed his views. Romero became a spokesman for the poor and the message of Liberation Theology so despised and feared by the popes of Rome. Oscar Romero boycotted the new President’s inauguration on July 1, 1977, denying him the blessing of the Catholic Church, and declared the election invalid. Romero outlined in a sermon a moral justification for mutiny against state power. As Thomas had intimated 800 years earlier, Romero said: “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom."
Finally in 1997 the procedure for his canonization began. Though he is widely called San Romero in El Salvador, a martyr for the faith, the Roman Church still drags its feet. Joseph Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict XVI, has no love for Liberation Theology which he fought tooth and nail. Recently the Pope said cryptically that Romero “merits beatification”, a statement since deleted from official transcripts. Meanwhile controversial figures such as Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, head of Opus Dei and the Italian mystic Padre Pio who claimed he healed the blind have recently become saints.
In the England of Henry II, the Crown and the Church were at war for supremacy. Thomas was weaker and had to die, a martyr’s death. Three years later he was canonized and pilgrims flocked to his tomb, including a repentant Henry II himself, in search of epiphany.
The reality was less a story of martyrdom—which Thomas in Eliot’s play viewed suspiciously as a human weakness—than it is a story of a political assassination, relevant in all times, as in the USA, as in El Salvador. While Romero’s assassination was in the name of capitalist imperialism, Thomas was murdered by the State of King Henry II in order to supplant Church law with his State courts and trial by jury and constitutional and legal reforms—the wrong thing though for the right reason.
Eliot’s play—and his view—is thus not just about the murder of Thomas à Becket. It is also about standing up for what is right in the face of the temptations of both power and glory. Henry expected Thomas to allow him to exploit his friendship and his church title in order to abuse the power of the Church for the benefit of the State. Thomas refused—a courageous display of not giving into power’s pressures. Here, the right thing for the wrong reason!
In our lives we don’t have someone as powerful as Henry II breathing down our necks (not yet, at least). But we do face moral challenges. How to say No … at the risk of being different? Join the majority or dare to remain independent? Display your intelligence or be "cool" all-American and act dumb?
As Oscar Romero showed, power struggles are not all the same. But the issues in this play are disturbingly real and perilously relevant to today's world: man’s nearly meaningless place in the conflicts of the era of authoritarian military-industrial power combined confusedly with the churches of philistine fundamentalism, God-is-on-our-side hypocrisy dominating human affairs.
On the first level, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is a play in verse about the dangers of temptations on the way to sainthood or power. Thomas Becket resisted several temptations coupled with cajolery and threat. He is offered a return to political power alongside King Henry while at the same time he is accused of disloyalty to the nation and his ecclesiastical office and threatened physically. He is tempted with a return to his halcyon youth with his friend Henry, and the concomitant danger of being forgotten by history.
Though tempted by sainthood and lured by power, Thomas sees martyrdom and pleasure as human weaknesses. To the tempters he responds with those famous words:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
The temporal power of the Roman Catholic Church refers to the political and governmental activities of the Church as distinguished from its spiritual mission, its eternal power in contrast to secular power.
As Dostoevsky showed in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, centuries after Jesus Christ a world church grew up in His name. The Popes of Rome named themselves His vicars on earth. The former Papal States in Italy, which included Rome, had achieved the status of a country with relations with other countries. When on Christmas day in the year 800 the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor, the Church gained power over the entire Holy Roman Empire. Church and State were one. In our times, though officialy separated, Church and State are often one. Temporal power remains distant from religious doctrine and the pastoral mission, its temporal bent is in fact one of the Church’s worst aspects. Despite the Church’s explanation that temporal power is one of those unavoidable bridges that must be crossed in order to disseminate the Catholic faith, what can the doctrine of Jesus Christ have to do with power on earth? Besides, over and over again religions have shown they have no capacity whatsoever for temporal power.
We don’t have to go far to see the proof in practice today in the exercise of power in the USA under the sway of the mystical sort of Americanistic religious persuasion bordering on voodooism infected with the disease of false religion.
As Henry II had done before him, Napoleon abolished the Church’s temporal power and in his conquests dissolved the Papal States as natural rivals for power. Temporal power was then restored to the Church by the Congress of Vienna of 1815 when Napoleonic laws were abolished. Immediately the reactionary Church back in power returned to the destruction of modern improvements, forcing society back to medieval days, in Italy banning vaccination against smallpox which then devasted Papal lands. The Jews were again locked in the Rome ghetto, while the Church’s historic neglect of the environment made of Latium—except for rich Papal estates—the most godforsaken and abandoned part of Italy.
Finally, the new Italian Republic which united the diverse states of the peninsula declared an end to the Papal States. Formally, the Church’s temporal power ended in 1929 with a treaty, the Concordat, between the Vatican State and Italy, according to which the papacy was to have no more political interests in Italy and the rest of the world.
Did its meddling end? Not by a long shot. The influence of the Roman Church continues to be worldwide. It has diplomatic relations with many nations of the world, which maintain in Rome two embassies: one to Italy and one to the Holy See! Now what the hell is the Roman Church doing with embassies? And why should Argentina or the USA, Gabon or China, maintain diplomatic relations with a church? And from day to day, from year to year, from election to election, the Church continues to meddle in Italy’s and world affairs. After he was elected Pope in 2006, one of the first acts of Benedict XVI was a triumphant cortege in “Italy”, just across the Tiber River from the Vatican.
Since then the Bavarian Pope and his bishops pressure Italy on a spectrum of civil issues such as marriage and the role of the family, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage and all progressive legislation. Internationally, the Pope makes statements in favor of peace but carefully refrains from serious criticism of the United States from where come substantial funds to pay for the huge Church bureaucracy. In ethics, the Church line is the “defense of life” in all its aspects. But during his recent visit to the USA, Pope Benedict didn’t take strong positions against capital punishment there.
Faith and Politics
Before shifting my point of view to Henry, a few words about Eliot’s faith and a guess at his reasons for writing this powerful text, the second and underlying level of his play. The question is germane. Though he embraced Christianity, one wonders if Eliot really believed? In his play, King Henry only hovers in the background as the representation of Thomas’ past of pleasure, the present of contrast and threat, and the mysterious future. Thomas à Becket stands on center stage. As if Eliot were searching in the Archbishop’s psyche for answers about his own faith—the temptations, doubts and hesitations Eliot the super but uncertain intellectual felt about his faith and his choices.
Among spiritual thinkers and seekers, Eliot had read especially Dante and returns to him as often as to Shakespeare. Dante, whose universe is dominated by Satan and whose Hell has much more to do with Church politics and secular politics than religion. Eliot must have known what he would say if only he had faith! If only he lived in a world of faith. In the voice of Thomas Becket in the end seeking to purify his motives for accepting martyrdom, Eliot says it: “I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper, And I would no longer be denied.”
Most certainly the writer had his doubts. Not as Dostoevsky, yet, a tremor. A clairvoyant glimpse toward the future. I believe Eliot wanted to believe but I don’t believe he really believed or even believed he believed. Born to an age of avant-garde thought defined by its rejection of faith in God, Eliot made faith respectable. Yet his faith seems to have been based chiefly on hope. And it was largely aesthetic, prompting Harold Bloom’s remark that T.S. Eliot aspired to the triple identity he claimed of royalist, Christian, and classicist “with considerable bad faith.” In his Notes Toward the Definition of Culture written after World War II, Eliot wrote of religion in the USSR some lines pertinent today, especially the last phrase:
“From the official Russian point of view there are two objections to religion: first, of course, that religion is apt to provide another loyalty than that claimed by the State; and second, that there are several religions in the world still firmly maintained by many believers. The second objection is perhaps even more serious than the first: for where there is only one religion, it is always possible that that religion may be subtly altered, so that it will enjoin conformity rather than stimulate resistance to the State.” (my italics)
Or the concomitant danger of conformity of the State to religion, he might have added, to reflect the case of puritan America.
You can encounter those super believers anywhere, those supercilious religious people who feel superior, convinced that God sustains their actions. The result is the disconcerting assurance that the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan are holy and that war crimes are just. In their view the just war is a religious war. Religious wars are just. Religion is at the heart of many of history’s wars. The fundamentalist Fascist State has always used religion as a tool to manipulate people. The organized religions through which Power works become malleable tools for perpetrating the crime of wars of conquest. This is not necessarily the fault of the religious impulse in human beings. It is the fault of organized religion which today justifies the odious slogans of “our way of life” and “they (the others) hate our freedoms.” It is the way the self-proclaimed vicars of Christ exploit organized religion.
If not for Eliot’s own religious hang-up, his play Murder in the Cathedral could have centered on politics, not morality and religion. Instead the play is seen strictly from the Church’s point of view.
In that sense the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury was of less importance then than the assassination of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador today. Thomas’ was in fact more a rogue killing by soldiers who thought they were carrying out what their King wanted done. Maybe Becket died from an act of stupidity—which was most certainly not the case of the murders of Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King. Power knew exactly what it was doing.
Still, because of the power of the Church in the England of Henry II, murdering an archbishop was a dangerous act. Not so for the perpetrators in the El Salvador of our times where the hierarchy of the Roman Church stood on the side of brutal imperialist-capitalist power. To Eliot and the modern reader, Thomas’ murder was of less importance than the democratic belief that not even the king is above the law. For that reason, I believe, Eliot centered the play on Becket’s motives for sainthood, not on his resistance nor on Henry’s potential quest for redemption, and who knows? perhaps he really hoped for an epiphany. Though the play was written at the time of the rising of Fascism and Nazism in Europe and can be understood also as an individual's opposition to authority as in the Greek play Antigone, Becket’s internal struggle over his opposition to Henry II is in my reading secondary.
Having come into conflict with secular authority, the Archbishop is visited by a succession of tempters urging him alternately to avoid conflict and give in to the King, or, to seek martyrdom. While three priests consider the rise of temporal power, Becket instead reflects on the inevitability of martyrdom, which, though he embraces it, he also interprets as a sign of his own fatal weakness. Eliot’s Becket thus becomes a Christ figure whose role is the martyr, reflecting the writer’s own quest for faith—aesthetic or genuine, who knows? In any case, like Christ, Eliot’s Becket is led step by step to provoke violence against himself and to submit to it. Self-murder or suicide? Or martyrdom of both suffering and the resulting glory?
Henry II, Great Grandson of the Norman Conqueror
Though the King never appears in Eliot’s play, his shadow is a powerful presence, his power fills Thomas’s past and present. “O Henry, O my King” he laments, while chorus chants: “The King rules.” Yet, though a shadow, the King is human. And Power is real. The priests declaim: “But as for our King, that is another matter.” Or: “Had the King been greater, or had he been weaker Things had perhaps been different for Thomas.”
Though the author T.S. Eliot leaves little room for partisanship, after a time I began to side with the shadow which is King Henry. In real life his struggles against a strong-willed wife and unruly sons and his relationship with his friend Thomas Becket detract from his accomplishments and lasting influence on Anglo-Saxon judicial systems. Eliot however did not favor the King role at all, which the Tempter notes when he offers Thomas eternal glory after a martyr’s death:
“When King is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Saint and martyr rule from the tomb.”
Henry II improved the affairs of his kingdom, reaching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Though he failed to subject the Church to his courts, his judicial reforms endured. His centralized system of justice and modern court procedures replaced the old trial by ordeal. He initiated the concept of “common law” administered by royal courts, thus encroaching on feudal courts and on the jurisdiction of Church courts. He decreed that priests should be tried in royal courts, not in Becket’s ecclesiastical courts.
Henry’s aim was the overthrow of the feudal system, unknowingly paving the way for the role of the bourgeoisie and capitalism and making him an active link in Marx’s historical dialectic. To achieve that he had to control the Church by combining under the crown of England both State and Church. Neither Becket nor the faith could stand in his way. He didn’t eliminate the Church; he absorbed it and used it. For the same reasons modern political leaders of West and East use it, wrapping themselves in religious language and religious issues—our Christian values, our Christian heritage and God is on our side.
Now, a leap ahead of five centuries to the English Revolution and the three civil wars beginning in 1642. Henry II couldn’t know what he was setting in motion and would have been horrified at the results. For the most radical achievements of the English bourgeois revolution were the temporary abolition and permanent weakening of the monarchy, confiscation of both Church and aristocratic estates. Though not a working-class movement with a revolutionary theory, the English Revolution declared the monarchy “unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people.” Henry’s impulse resulted centuries later in the execution of the King, a redefinition of the English monarchy and the “dangerous and useless” House of Lords, and the proclamation of a republic.
That is not to say that those 17th century men were particularly foresighted. Still, until recent times western men could see our problems in secular terms because our ancestors had put an end to the use of the Church as a persecuting instrument of political masters.
As long as the power of his State was weak, as Henry II understood, the Church could tell people what to believe and how to behave, as does Pope Benedict XVI—I just read he is called in the USA “ B16” as if he were a stratospheric Flying Fortress bomber. For behind the threats and censures of the Church, all the terrors of hell fire are real for its unfree believers-subjects. Under Church control as in El Salvador social and political conflicts became religious conflicts.
In 17th century England the haute bourgeoisie was terrified of the revolutionary torrent it had let loose. It needed a reformed monarchy responsive to its interests, to check the flow of popular feeling. It also needed the Church of England, The fear then was today’s fear: that the people of our world will rise in revolt in mighty numbers against the rotten capitalist order, which as Marx predicted is rapidly hanging itself with its own rope. Religion was truly seen as the “opium of the people.”
For organized religion remains largely the close and inalienable ally of political power.
A second lesson of the historically under-rated English Revolution was the Revolution’s need for organization. Men must choose sides. To decide, they must know what they are fighting for. One learned that freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are the first freedoms to fight for. The ruling bourgeoisie needed the people … yet it feared them. Therefore it kept also the monarchy as a check against too much democracy. The condition of the petty bourgeoisie of 17th century England was similar to that of the former middle class in the USA today, where what was once the middle class, filled with all its false consciousness, is dependent on the corrupt system, dominated, crushed and rocked to sleep by the blandishments and rewards given them by the minute upper class.
Therefore, in order to change things, the urgent need for a movement of the lower classes—and an informed and educated class to lead the way—both liberated from the binds of religious fundamentalists in the pay of the system.
Is that not where we are today in the good old USA?
Civilizations and cultures have meanwhile gone their own ways, some helped along the way, some hindered. Revolution to revolution, social progress and social setbacks. Who knows if civilization has really peaked and its time is up? While we battle for survival, the question of social evolution remains open. The State-Church equation is different today. The issue is Power itself, Power in which religion is so enmeshed as to be one and the same with the disastrous results before us.
As Thomas Becket says to the tempter suggesting a return to his past of power and glory, “singing at nightfall, whispering in chambers”:
“We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
The same time returns. Sever
The cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.”
© Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is a Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press. www.windriverpress.com. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, www.wastelandrunes.com. He lives in Rome. Contact