Saint Thomas of Canterbury

Behind Saint Thomas More, my primary political hero, lies today’s saint, Thomas à Becket, after whom he was named. The coincidences are numerous. Both were born in London’s Cheapside; both trained as lawyers; each rose with reputation for genius and probity, to become Chancellor of England and the King’s right hand; and fell, for Christian principle, defending the freedom and independence of the Church against impositions by the civil power. Both were, in the end, murdered by the royal henchmen. The kings in question — Henry II and Henry VIII — were neither of them mere custodians of their realms. Both were ambitious, both credited by nature with extraordinary gifts of intelligence, energy, and personality; with a terrifying charismatic charm, when they chose to display it. Neither could bear contradiction.

Power went to their heads. Henry VIII became, by degrees, one of the true monsters of history; Henry II was a more slippery case. He had his own Saint Thomas directly murdered, not judicially murdered after a show trial. Later, in affected remorse, he allowed himself to be publicly whipped for his crime; then cleverly bought into Thomas à Becket’s spreading martyr’s cult for his own political purposes.

The great achievement of Henry Tudor was to initiate the great schism of western Christendom, by his seizure of all Church estates. Henry Plantagenet’s had been to lay the foundations of English Common Law, and supporting institutions of modern governance. To those who worship state power, in the “Whig interpretation,” both kings were “on the side of history” — that schoolboy history of “progress” and “enlightenment”; the history that every conscientious Catholic is on the wrong side of.

Today’s Idlepost is actually a footnote to yesterday’s. It turns on a passage from the First Book of Samuel (or “First Kings” in your Douays): the eighth chapter, verse 10 through 18 or so. The Israelites want a king. Samuel tells them prophetically what kings are all about. They want a Covenant, not with their Lord, but with a law-giving king, as every other nation. They long to be “normal.”

Do not be confused by offices and stations: “the king” will stand for any national power.

In Christian or in ancient Hebrew terms, the Covenant is between God and His people. It is not, as earthly kings have long maintained, between God and any nation state. There is no “divine right,” of kings, or of electorates.

The officers of state are only officers of state, and themselves must answer to the highest power — not above but alongside their peoples. In Christian terms, they are answerable to Christ, through the Church he founded; to the Spirit that animates that Church; to God in the universal Kingship of Christ.

Let me be plainer. The Covenant is not a collectivist arrangement. It is actually the opposite of a collectivist arrangement, and was so from the beginning. The true Christian teaching stands in anticipation of, and opposition to, the ideals of that “Reformation,” which worked themselves out as a spiritual as well as contractual relation between the People and the State (exalted in “Americanism”). The Covenant is instead with persons, both vertically in their relations with God, and horizontally in their relations with each other: cor ad cor loquitur. To love God and to love thy neighbour: that is the whole teaching. Everything follows from that.

This is a politics in opposition to politics; a politics that produces martyrs, for the principle at its heart cannot be explained to the Princes of this World.