St. Thomas Becket — A Saint for This Season?

The martyred Archbishop of Canterbury has much to teach us about Church state relations today.

Thomas Becket forbids Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester, and Reginald de Dunstanville, 1st Earl of Cornwall, to pass sentence on him.
Thomas Becket forbids Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester, and Reginald de Dunstanville, 1st Earl of Cornwall, to pass sentence on him. (photo: James William Edmund Doyle / Public domain)

December 29 is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket. The martyred 12th century bishop is known for his opposition to the then overreach of state power in the person of England’s King Henry II. 

Across the world today there is a renewed clash between the Church and state authorities so does this medieval saint have something pertinent to say to contemporary Catholics? 

His biographer Father John Hogan thinks so. A priest of the Diocese of Meath (Ireland), he has been working in parish ministry and teaching since ordination. In addition, he founded the Fraternity of St. Genesius as a means of prayer for those in the arts and media, and has co-hosted the EWTN series: Forgotten Heritage. His recently published Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church (Our Sunday Visitor) is a timely reminder of what Catholics in general and bishops in particular are called to witness to in any era. 

Book cover OSV
Book cover for 'Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church.'

The Register spoke to Father Hogan December 17, 2021


What is the relevance of St. Thomas to Catholics today? 

As a man who sought to do his duty and stay faithful to Christ and the Church in the midst of great opposition, he serves as a model of steadfastness and fidelity. Christians today find themselves in difficult circumstances. In the West, with the dominance of ideologies, which prove not only to be anti-Christian but also anti-human, the world has become a “cold place” for people of faith. Christians are struggling, and a growing number are being persecuted. Thomas’ principled stand, often alone and misunderstood, even by his supporters, can encourage us to be steadfast in serving Christ, remember that He is with us. Thomas is an exemplar of fortitude for modern Christians. 

On a personal level, Thomas was a complicated man, he had his issues, as we would say today; he had to confront his own nature and his flaws. In this, he speaks to modern men and women and encourages us not to lose heart as we confront our own failings. Conversion is at the heart of the Christian faith; it is a gradual and often a difficult process. When he recognized he had to change to carry out his duty to God and the Church, he embraced that process and realized that he had no option but to trust in God. His personal struggle, his trials and sufferings led him to a deeper relationship with God. Facing the hopelessness that seems to dominate the world today, Catholics can learn from Thomas: only prayer and an intimate relationship with God will sustain and transform us.


Does his life and death give us insights into the limits of any accommodation between Church and State? 

The Church in Thomas’s time was very different to ours. The concept of the separation of Church and State did not exist, the two worked together and they seemed to get on quite well most of the time, even if tensions arose from time to time. I think Thomas’ life and death serve as a warning to us in the Church, not to rely on the State, to be prudent in dealing with it. That is because there is always a tendency in the State, no matter how noble or democratic, to control, to see itself as the ultimate master. As history teaches us, whenever the Church “got into bed” with the State, it always spelled disaster for her; she was wounded. Mutual respect and tolerance are vital, but the Church must always remember, there is a line in the sand which she must not cross, nor allow the State to cross.


In particular what does he have to say about the issue of religious liberty? 

Thomas would not have recognized the term “religious liberty” as we understand it today. His battle was for the liberty of the Church so that she had the freedom to carry out her ministry without the interference of secular rulers, that she appointed her own bishops, controled her own assets, and has the freedom to preach the Gospel unhindered. 

Thomas’ struggle was one within the larger “Investiture Crisis” of the 11th and 12th centuries, which emerged following the reforms of Pope St Gregory VII. Up until then secular rulers thought they had a governing role to play in the Church, an understanding which had developed following the Emperor Constantine’s prominence in the Church in the 4th century. It is a problem that has plagued the Church for centuries and led people like King Henry VIII, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, the revolutionaries in 18th century France and even Xi Jinping today, to think the Church must be controlled by the State. If we want to consider Thomas’ struggle in contemporary terms, in terms of religious liberty, I think we could say that he warns against the intrusion of secular authorities into the religious realm. 


 What does he have to say about church politics? 

Thomas knew how convoluted Church politics could be, he was mired in it. He knew how to play the game, but in the end, he understood that fidelity to Christ was vital, and nothing should undermine it. By the time of his death, he was sick of the machinations of bishops and clergy and their attempts to compromise the liberty of the Church either out of fear or to appease King Henry II. When he became a bishop himself, he was confronted by the reality of the office, what we understand as the three duties of a bishop: to govern, to teach and to sanctify. He reoriented his life so he could fulfill those duties as faithfully as he could. Thomas learned that those duties and a love of Jesus Christ and his flock should dictate how churchmen conduct themselves, not the byzantine loops of ecclesiastical politics and agendas. This explains why he was so frustrated with Pope Alexander III, a good pope but one fighting to prove the legitimacy of his pontificate and trying to keep European monarchs onside as allies. 

No one can escape politics, but those in the Church must transcend politics, speak plainly, deal with others directly and honestly, and certainly not compromise the faith or retreat to the safety of ambiguity. For all his flaws and his unreasonableness at times, Thomas was direct; you knew where he stood, he was prepared to fight. Perhaps that is why he and [the 20th century’s] St. Oscar Romero seem to be brothers in the spirit. 


Most people know St. Thomas through the 1964 film Becket, how historically accurate is that depiction? 

Given my fascination with Thomas as I was growing up, I loved Becket. However, the more I read, the less I liked the movie, and now I can barely watch it. 

It has many historical inaccuracies, and these emerge from the play the movie is based on: Jean Anouilh’s Becket. For one, the dispute between Thomas and Henry was not one between an Anglo-Saxon and a Norman – they were both Norman. Anouilh’s play and the movie are concerned about ethnic dispute, collaboration and resistance, what is civilized and what is barbarian, not the actual, complicated struggle of politics and faith, human sinfulness and the story of men who misunderstand each other because one man is of the world and the other is gradually being dragged into the Kingdom of Heaven. 

In the play and movie, there are also undertones of homoeroticism in the relationship between the men; often hinted at by some historians, but there is no evidence for this. Apart from these major inaccuracies, there are a host of little ones. 


What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research of St. Thomas? 

That Thomas is a much more complicated man than often portrayed in secular and religious histories - infuriating, reckless, and yet calculating and even wise. In terms of his personality, he could be distant, officious. I was surprised at how few people loved him in life. Many respected and admired him, but it is said that only three people were known to have loved him: his mother, Henry II and Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, his mentor.  Thomas is known to have loved his mother, Henry II and Henry’s son, Henry, whom he educated in his house and considered a son. Thanks to the devotion which has built up in the centuries, Thomas was and is much loved by so many, but it is heart-breaking to think that he may not have had the experience of warm human relationships and may have meant he experienced great loneliness. But then, that may have been another reason for him to find refuge in God.


What do you think is the particular holiness of this saint?

If we had known Thomas in his time, we probably would not speak of his holiness. Those who knew him would not have considered him a Saint at all; it was his death that changed people’s view of him. But he had been growing in holiness, little by little. We could say that he was a man who, for all his public persona, was “hidden with Christ in God”, as he struggled to become a better man and a good bishop. He persisted, quietly and often painfully, giving himself to God in prayer and penance, consciously aware of his mistakes and pride. 

His desire to be a good bishop came from his sense of duty; in the end, that sense of duty led him to realize that only the sacrifice of his life could bring peace. And he was prepared to offer that sacrifice. Thomas’ particular holiness was the hidden, daily struggle to be what Christ wanted him to be, and that drama was at the heart of the long journey from a man of ambition, an ordinary, decent Catholic, to a man prepared to die for Christ and the Church.


Why did you write this book? 

I wrote this book to spend time with Thomas. He has always fascinated me. As a writer, I think there is no better way to engage with someone than writing about them. I also wanted to offer him something, a tribute of sorts. His personality was not clear cut, he was complicated, and I felt modern Catholics needed to rediscover him as he was, rather than as portrayed by historians who do not like him or an unrealistic piety that has turned him into a plaster statue representation of defiance. 

I was also conscious of his relevance for us Christians today, that he is a witness of hope for us, one who encourages us to take a stand for what is right. The title I chose for the book was simply Thomas (the publisher changed it) because, for me, the aim of the project was to allow people to encounter him on a personal level. 


Was it worth spending so long with St. Thomas? 

Yes, without a doubt. The more one engages with Thomas, the more one comes to understand him and what he was trying to do; the more you come to love him. He seems to be a saint who makes his presence felt, and then seeks to bring you to God.