Monday, December 29, 2014

Canterbury Tale, I: State v. Church


A few years back, say, a century or so, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson wrote a short biography of St. Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose shrine was one of the four great pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, as anyone who has ever read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales can (or should be able to) tell you.  This being the anniversary of Thomas’s murder at the instigation of Henry II Plantagenet, it seemed appropriate to interrupt our regularly scheduled posting for some alternative entertainment.

Becket's Murder
No, this isn’t a lead in to a slightly risqué story.  Just a risky one, especially these days when questioning the growing power of the State earns you the opprobrium of being labeled naïve, a conspiracy nut, or wearer of tin pie plates (with or without pie in them).

Even mentioning Benson can get you halfway there.  He is best remembered today not for his insightful historical and mainstream novels, but for those he himself labeled “sensational,” the most famous of which, Lord of the World (1907), is a devastating satire on the secularism and materialism of Edwardian England, and which is usually mistaken as some kind of apocalyptic prophecy.  (Hardly.  If you want to understand Lord of the World, and its companion “counterblast” The Dawn of All from 1911 in context, you will find the retrospective in So Much Generosity quite useful, perhaps even enlightening.)

So.  St. Thomas à Becket.  What’s the Big Deal?

Robert Hugh Benson
The introduction that Benson wrote to his short biographical sketch indicates that his main object was to highlight the problem of worship of the State instead of God — a deification that meant virtual godhood for the ruling classes . . . as Thomas Hobbes and Walter Bagehot hinted.  This was an ancient pagan idea that surfaced again with the Reformation.  It spawned a resurgence of the creaking “Divine Right of Kings” so beloved of a significant number of Catholics disappointed with the presumed failure of democratic government and the steady march of modern civilization away from religious belief of any kind.

Unfortunately, while the faith of such individuals is undoubtedly great, they fail to realize or understand that they are espousing a position directly at odds with the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church.  They insist, even in the face of explicit papal and magisterial statements regarding individual sovereignty, democracy, and the proper roles of Church and State — which have never changed, despite the changing forms in which the roles manifest themselves — that democracy, individual sovereignty, free will . . . even the venerable doctrine of the separation of Church and State, the very issue that both Saint Thomas à Becket and Saint Thomas More died supporting, is anti- or non-Catholic.

"Law is Reason, not Will"
There is, of course, a deeper problem in all this, but one that we will only touch on here. That is, a great many people today of all religious beliefs insist that faith must rule over reason. Most likely rooted in a reaction against the rapid growth of secularism, the fides solo — “faith alone” — stance is itself a non-Catholic doctrine, deriving from the great debate of the Middle Ages over whether God’s Will or God’s Nature (“Intellect”) was preeminent.  Yet another Saint Thomas — Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” — won the debate for the Catholic Church in favor of God’s Nature. That is, we are to understand Revelation and Tradition in light of what little we can know of God’s Holy Nature, which we see reflected analogously in human nature.

That is, if we interpret a passage in the Bible or an encyclical as meaning that we may take property from the rich to redistribute to the poor, we must “measure” that interpretation against the standard of the natural law.  When we see that the human race has always and everywhere condemned theft — a violation of private property — we must conclude that private property is proper matter of the natural law.  Theft cannot be justified, any more than the killing of an innocent human being — whether or not the State recognizes that human being as a “person.”  As the solidarist political scientist and jurist Heinrich Rommen explained,

“It follows from the fact of natura vulnerata as well as from the ethical character and goal of community life, and of the state in particular, that positive human laws are absolutely necessary for determining the further inferences from the first principles in the interest of a more exact and readily discernible establishment of order and for the setting up of institutions needed for community life. The natural-law prohibition of adultery implies at the same time an affirmation of marriage and of the general norms that are most needed for its functioning as an institution. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ presupposes the institution of private property as pertaining to the natural law; but not, for example, the feudal property arrangements of the Middle Ages or the modern capitalist system. Since the natural law lays down general norms only, it is the function of the positive law to undertake the concrete, detailed regulation of real and personal property and to prescribe the formalities for conveyance of ownership.” (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law.  Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 59.)

Even good thieves are punished.
There is, of course, a strictly determined set of circumstances — much more rare than many people today like to believe — when, due to immanent danger of death or permanent disability, it becomes licit to take what you need (not want) for yourself or your immediate dependents from the superabundance of another. “Superabundance” means that which the nominal owner clearly does not need, will ever need or, even, in some instances, want in order to maintain himself and his dependents in a manner befitting his station in life. In that case, the absolute minimum that is needed (again, not simply desired for an improvement in the “quality” of life) becomes “common property.” The needy individual may take only what he or his dependents need . . . after exhausting all other recourse.  Yes, and it must be repaid if and when the opportunity presents itself.  There's also nothing to say that civil authority won't punish you — and legitimately so, for setting a bad example, however just your cause . . . remember Billy Budd?

What has this got to do with Becket?  Quite a bit, actually.  As we will see, Becket’s presumed intransigence stood in the way of Henry II getting what Henry wanted, and that he believed was in the best interests of the State (meaning the best interests of Henry).  Becket didn’t break any law.  What ticked off Henry, in fact, was Becket’s insistence that Henry obey the law when Henry believed it was not expedient.  Solution?  Give a few stupid people the idea that you would be pleased if someone would rid you of this innocent, albeit inconvenient, person for reasons of State.

#30#

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