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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

the anti-Becket

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 29, 2006

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Today is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, martyred on December 29th, 1170, in Canterbury Cathedral by agents acting on the wishes of King Henry II. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that "the great matter of dispute was reached in the resistance made by Thomas to the king's officials when they attempted to assert jurisdiction over criminous clerks." Becket defended the Church's right to deal with her own misbehaving priests -- i.e., priests who committed criminal and not merely canonical offenses. Henry demanded civil jurisdiction.

Our moral sympathies today are probably with Becket; our judgment about the legal dispute is probably less clear. We tend to think of the Church's independence in matters of internal governance as a privilege i.e., an immunity from the legal apparatus that binds everyone else. And just as the military is permitted to discipline its own members within certain confines -- on the understanding that it will be quicker than civil authority to detect malefactors and more effective in punishing them -- so too Church's liberties are granted on the understanding that her governors will act more responsibly than their secular counterparts.

After the clerical abuse crisis, that understanding is shrapnel.

Particularly painful in this regard is the maneuvering of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has put church law, and himself, through serial makeovers in his extended dueling with courts, prosecutors, journalists, police, victims, insurers, victim attorneys and the rest of the citizenry interested in his dealings with abusive priests. He's a kind of Becket-in-reverse: invoking the Church's privileges not so as to expose himself to the hostility of civil authority, but to protect himself from it -- and this in such a way that the Church's spiritual ministry is weaker as a result.

In one pose, Mahony presents himself as Friar Roger, the little guy's friend. He's a simple, pastoral, aw-shucks kind of priest who feels the people's pain and, if it were up to him, would turn over the files in an instant and let the healing begin. And besides he's all in favor of openness. But, regrettably, he's been over-ruled by his hard-nosed team of legal advisers, who have their own job to do and who refuse to budge. They say it's a matter of legal principle that priests can't have their files made public: it would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the California Evidence Code and the Seventh Scout Law and many other things that Friar Roger can't say he really understands, but then these men know their business.

For another contingency, we get another pose: St. Roger, the Elizabethan martyr: "Tear ye my tongue & myne eyes from my head, yet shall I ne'er betray that most sacred Seal of the Holy Sacrament of Penance & damn therewith myne immortal soul to perdition everlasting!" We're treated to this act when there's good reason to look into the archdiocesan personnel files to see what was known about molester-priests before they were re-assigned. Somehow the Aura of the Confessional has been beamed onto these documents. It would violate a sacramental secret to let profane eyes gaze upon them, and the Cardinal would sooner be dragged to his death than let this happen.

In another mood -- that's to say, when the insurance companies are threatening not to pay on the grounds that the Archdiocese has withheld info about its liabilities -- St. Roger becomes Mister Rogers: "Well I can't really see what all this fuss is about. We have cooperated fully. Any insurer has all the access he needs into our Archdiocesan archives. We're all friends here, and friends have no secrets from one another. I think there must be some simple misunderstanding or mistake that we can clear up at any time. Why, I imagine in a few days or so we at the Archdiocese and our wonderful friends at the insurance companies will all have a happy laugh about this misunderstanding or mistake."

It goes without saying that there is considerable cross-pollination between the poses, as the situation requires.

Were the courts to demand that the archbishop reveal solemnly contracted secrets, his duty would be to refuse and take the consequences -- even if contempt of court landed him in jail. We could admire that. But it's obvious that the Cardinal's positions contradict each other, and add up to a series of tactically chosen bluffs: "Don't believe the confessional seal line? How about notes from indiscreet psychiatrists? Formation privilege? OK, what if I told you the files only contain address and date of birth ...?"

Among the heathen, the net effect of this bluffing is to increase the cynicism of an already skeptical audience. Among Catholics, the injury is deeper still. A bishop is meant to be a trustee of the Faith, not a confidence man who uses religion for his own purposes. The sacramental seal is not the Cardinal's personal property, which, like a hotel in a game of Monopoly, he can trade away when it suits him in exchange for a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. It may be that Mahony has, rather like Clinton, lied himself into the position of a lovable rogue: the ne'er-do-well who can't tell the truth but who amuses a largely indifferent public by the unctimoniousness (a coinage of Ronald Knox) with which he eludes capture by a slower, more earnest justice system. But there may come a time -- perhaps in the not so distant future -- in which the privileges of the Church are necessary to serve a true spiritual good. A pity, if they've been pawned in order to keep a senior ecclesiastic from facing the consequences of his own negligence.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that Becket's heroic martyrdom caused the lords temporal to rethink their own ways: "All Christendom was horrified, and Henry II, whether from policy or genuine remorse, surrendered his former pretensions while, in 1174, he performed humiliating penance at the martyr's tomb." After the archdiocesan files are clawed open and their content revealed, can you picture the Los Angeles District Attorney, the tort lawyers, and the insurance actuaries performing humiliating penance in the crypt of Our Lady of the Angels?

You cynic.

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