A stained glass window of St. Thomas Becket at St. Alban’s Cathedral in St. Albans, England. CNS photo/Gene Plaisted, The Crosiers

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Becket’s freedom fight echoes in pandemic

  • January 7, 2021

As 2020 closed, it was regrettable that the public observations of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom (Dec. 29, 1170) of St. Thomas Becket did not take place due to pandemic restrictions.

St. Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury when England was united in the Catholic faith. He was killed in his cathedral by court officials acting at the behest of King Henry II, who wished to exercise more control over the Church than Becket judged was his right. A discussion of the life and decisions of Thomas Becket would have been particularly useful in the present moment.

Becket, much like St. Oscar Romero, another martyr killed at the altar, did not enjoy universal acclaim during this life and ministry. A fine article by Dan Hitchens in the January issue of First Things put it this way:

“The common criticism is that Becket was too harsh, too rigid, too ready to see apocalyptic possibilities around every corner. One of the battles he fought, late in life, was for his right to anoint the king’s heir: The pope had decreed that Becket would perform the ceremony, as the traditional duty of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the king asked the Archbishop of York to do it, which Becket took so badly that he convinced the pope to excommunicate his fellow-bishop. At the time, and for centuries since, Becket has been seen by many as an extremist, a man who could start a fight in an empty room.”

That’s not all there is to Becket, of course, and his heroic defence of the liberty of the Church stands as a signal moment in the history of religious liberty and human rights.

Today religious liberty questions arise in the context of pandemic protocols. Are those who protest them guilty of Becket-like intransigent extremism, or are they Becket-like in a heroic defence of inalienable rights?

There are restrictions on religious gatherings from coast to coast and, for the most part, they have not been viewed as violations of religious liberty. Formally that is because the directives have been supported by those who do have authority over religious worship, namely the bishops. Substantively it is because — again, for the most part — houses of worship have not been singled out for discriminatory treatment.

Recent developments in British Columbia indicate a revisiting of the issue. In late November the B.C. government put an effective end to in-person worship, extended to the new year. The measure had certain anomalies, pointed out by the Archbishop of Vancouver, Michael Miller.

Twelve-steps groups — like Alcoholics Anonymous — could continue to meet in the church basement, but an equivalent number of people could not gather for Holy Mass in the church above. Religious gatherings were put at a comparative disadvantage.

“It seems that religious institutions are not being treated with the same consideration regarding the number present at religious gatherings compared to that at secular indoor gatherings,” Archbishop Miller said.

A secular response came by way of an open letter to B.C. authorities from the B.C. and Canadian Civil Liberties Associations. In general, those groups are not seen as especially friendly to religious causes. Nevertheless, the Dec. 17 letter makes the case the unconstitutional discrimination is taking place.

“Religious in-person gatherings and worship services have been suspended under the order and only drive-in, virtual or remote religious services are permitted,” the open letter states. “This stands in contrast to the rules that are in place for a variety of other venues, including schools and workplaces, restaurants, pubs and bars, and retail establishments. While it appears that perhaps the orders attempt to distinguish between social activities and commercial activities (limiting the former more significantly than the latter), in our view a religious service does not fit easily into either of these categories. Moreover, an attempt to define which venues are ‘essential’ necessarily involves highly subjective value judgments.”

That is the argument about unequal treatment. But the civil liberties associations go further, pointing out that if there is to be differential treatment, it should be in favour of religion, not against it.
“In any event, we are writing about an activity that is constitutionally protected,” the letter states. “Individuals engage in in-person worship services for a variety of reasons, but to compare these services to a night at the movies or theatre does a disservice to this constitutional right.”

St. Thomas Becket was killed 45 years before Magna Carta, which guaranteed first of all the “liberty of the Church,” and his martyrdom was a seed that bore fruit in that declaration. His witness still bears fruit today.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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