By Dr. Michael F. McLean
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Legatus-Aquinas Forum
March 24, 2012

“It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.”

Murder in the Cathedral, p.74

T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral is a dramatic representation of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket, later Saint Thomas Becket. As the above quotation makes clear, Becket gave his life rather than betray his conscience — a conscience which demanded that he place loyalty to the Law of God above loyalty to the Law of Man.

Eliot provides very little by way of explaining Becket’s situation. A little history might be helpful. The proximate cause of the conflict between Becket and King Henry II was the question of who had primary jurisdiction over clerics accused of crimes — the Church or the State. King Henry claimed that the ecclesiastical courts were too lenient in exacting punishments, which could include flogging, fines, degradation, and excommunication. Despite the acquiescence of certain bishops, out of respect for Church law and the authority of the Pope, Becket resisted the King’s efforts to bring these cases into the jurisdiction of the secular courts.

Matters came to a head in January of 1164 when the King sought Becket’s formal and public acceptance of the “Constitutions of Clarendon” — 16 articles which attempted to restrict ecclesiastical privileges and curb the power of the Church and the extent of papal authority in England. One of the provisions of the “Constitutions” required that clerics be tried not only in ecclesiastical courts but, afterward, in secular courts as well. Becket’s refusal to accept the “Constitutions” culminated in his flight to France in October of 1164.

Steadfast in his conscientious resistance to the “Constitutions,” which he regarded as attacks by the King on the independence of the Church, Becket was nevertheless willing to make certain concessions. In 1170 enough of a reconciliation was reached that in December of that year Becket returned to England [which marks the beginning of Eliot’s play], bringing with him, however, sentences of excommunication for two of the cooperating bishops. Four knights who came from France — the four knights of our play — demanded absolution for the bishops, but Becket would not comply, resulting in his murder in the Cathedral of Canterbury.

The conflict of conscience depicted in Eliot’s play is not only of historical interest. In an address delivered at the Tenth Bishops’ Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in 1991, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said,:

In the contemporary discussion on what constitutes the essence of morality and how it can be recognized, the question of conscience has become paramount, especially in the field of Catholic moral theology. This discussion centers on the concepts of freedom and norm, [or, in other words] on the apparent conflict between self-determination and external determination by authority… Morality of conscience and morality of authority, as two opposing models, appear to be locked in struggle with each other…

Conflicts of conscience have occurred throughout the Church’s history. As you know, Catholics, and others who believe in religious freedom, are locked in a struggle of conscience with the Obama Administration today over the Administration’s mandate that all health insurance plans provide coverage for contraception, sterilization, and certain abortifacient drugs. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy products that violate their consciences. This should not happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.” Archbishop Chaput described this mandate as “coercive and deeply troubling in its implications for the rights of conscience.”

The question of conscience has long occupied a central place in Catholic moral theology. In his Disputed Questions on Truth, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “a correct conscience binds absolutely and intrinsically… whoever believes that something is a command [of conscience] and decides to violate it wills to break the law of God and, therefore, sins.” Conscience, according to St. Thomas, is the act of judging whether some action should or should not be done or, after it has been done, of judging whether it was right to do or not. The judgment of conscience is made by considering the action in light of the principles of the Natural Law placed in our souls by God Himself.

An example of such a principle might be: “I must not do anything which is forbidden by the law of God;” conscience judges that “this act of theft is forbidden by the law of God,” and so judges that “I must abstain from this act of theft.” Another example of a general moral principle might be: “Taking an innocent human life is contrary to the Natural Law and should not be done;” conscience judges that “this act would be the taking of an innocent human life,” and so judges that “I must abstain from this act of taking an innocent human life.” In Becket’s case, the general principle might have been: “I must always obey the Law of God and the Church;” the judgment of conscience might have been something like, “acquiescing to the Constitutions of Clarendon would be to disobey the Law of God and the Church,” and the consequent judgment that “I must not acquiesce to the Constitutions of Clarendon.”

The Catholic Church has always taught that the judgments of a rightly formed conscience must be obeyed. Conscience is the voice of God and the echo of God’s law within us. Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman put it well when he wrote that “conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator.” Contrary to the Obama Administration, which has offered Catholics and others opposed to the HHS mandate a year to “adapt” their consciences to its new rule, the Catholic tradition insists that the judgments of conscience are to be respected, nurtured, and preserved.

Newman warned that the image of God found in conscience could “fade away and die out [in] men who transgress their sense of duty and [as a consequence] gradually lose their sense of shame and fear.” The image of God, he continued, “if duly cherished may expand, deepen, and be completed … by means of education, social intercourse, experience, and literature.” Cardinal Newman believed that the mind must be carefully formed on the basis of “natural” conscience, not just any conscience, and to a mind so formed “the world, both of nature and of man, will give back a reflection of … the One Living God.”

In our contemporary crisis of conscience, we have one advantage that Thomas Becket apparently did not have. Our struggle resembles Becket’s, inasmuch as it is with the United States government, on the one hand; on the other, however, is the United States Constitution and its First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Becket gave his life “to the Law of God above the Law of Man;” in our case, the law of man, rightly understood, is in accord with the law of God.

I am cautiously optimistic that the Constitutional protection of religious freedom will prevail in the present conflict. But there are no guarantees. Murder in the Cathedral is a meditation on martyrdom. Memorable are the words from Becket’s Christmas sermon: “A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.”

In his reflections on martyrdom in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas makes three points I would like you to consider. First, that martyrdom is an act of virtue because it “consists essentially in standing firmly to truth and justice against the assaults of persecution.” Second, that martyrdom proceeds from charity which is the virtue that commands it. Third, that martyrdom is an act of the greatest perfection for it is “the greatest proof of the perfection of charity, since a man’s love for a thing is proved to be so much the greater, according as that which he gives up for its sake is more dear to him…” In the words of St. John, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In Eliot’s play, Becket seems to question his own motivations when he says, “The last temptation is to do the right deed … for the wrong reason.” In light of St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion, however, I have no doubt that he would concur that Thomas Becket is a true saint and a true martyr.

It is well to reflect with Eliot, St. Thomas, and St. John on martyrdom anytime. Perhaps, however, it is especially appropriate to do so now. We can’t be sure how our present struggle will turn out; for all we know, God may be calling some to martyrdom today.