Monday, March 29, 2010

Ratzinger, Thomas a Becket, and the Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church

The public is rightly outraged at the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. A priest in Wisconsin had abused some 300 boys and when the responsible church leaders thought that it should be dealt with before public scandal become publicly known, Cardinal Ratzinger (apparently) said that since the man had confessed and been absolved the issue was over.

Of course the institution was trying to protect itself. Smarting from what it thought was great anti-Catholic sentiment in the public community, the decision was to made the drop the proceedings against the offending priest.

What is at work here is not so much the failings of any individual bishop ('What did Cardinal Ratzinger know and when did he know it?') but an institutional failure to properly distinguish between church doctrine and practice and civic law.

The abuse of the 300 boys called out for justice, secular justice. By claiming that the issue had been resolved by confession and absolution the institution failed to properly distinguish between the secular and the religious.

This all sounds vaguely familiar and so I looked back in church history to England and Thomas a Becket and King Henry II. Talk about a full-fledged battle royal over the doctine of the two kingdoms, this was it.

In 1164 Thomas a Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry II was in the twelfth year of his reign. The issue under consideration was whether the king's justice should prevail over the priests who had committed civil crimes. The church said that there would be no civic jurisdiction over priests in any circumstance. The king thought otherwise.

The Constitution of Clarendon (1164) makes for an interesting historical study. The essential part of the agreement was this: "Clergymen charged and accused of anything shall, on being summoned to a justice of the king, come into his court, to be responsible there for whatever it may seem to be the king's court they should there be responsible for; and [to be responsible] in the ecclesiastic court [for what] it may seem they should there be responsible for - so that the king's justice shall send into the court of Holy Church to see on what ground matters are there to be treated. And if the clergyman is convicted, or [if he] confesses, the Church should no longer protect him." [source: Stephenson and Markham, "Sources of English Constitutional History A Selection of Documents From A.D. 600 to the Present," New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1937, p. 73-74)

Of course this was the basis for a great controversy in England. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by soldiers of the King who thought that they were acting in the interests of the king. Becket's martyrdom is one of the great images of the medieval period. While Henry bears moral responsibility for the murder of the Archbishop, he was, in my opinion, right about the issues described at the Constitution of Clarendon.

The moral of the story is this: Pastors make poor kings, and kings make poor pastors.

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