Last night I watched Becket, the 1964 film with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole about the relationship between Thomas Becket and Henry II—the famous friendship that ended in assassination. The performances were superb, and the script was surprisingly rich. But the portrayal of Becket as defender of the Church, her beliefs, and her privileges got me thinking, particularly the scene in which he excommunicates a nobleman who has murdered a priest.
The singing of the Dies Irae, the splendor of Becket’s robes, the fierce ringing of the dread anathema—the violent extinguishing of the baptismal candle. As I watched Burton change from compassionate cleric into terrible judge of souls, I cheered Becket on, my fist pumping, the way that, as the background music in a film swells, one cheers on the army as it sweeps down to crush the enemy.
But beyond the Hollywood excitement lies a challenging notion that seems to have become unpopular in our time. Unlike Henry, Becket did not see the Church as political faction or a birthright or a society with which one identifies at one’s convenience. He believed in a Christianity with consequences. Of course, the vengeance of Hollywood does not belong in the church. But the virility with which Becket stood to defend the faith shines clearly as an example for us today.
So does his willingness to acknowledge that some men who claim to be Christian have rejected Christianity in belief and in deed, and that their rejection should be honored by the Church. To cheer for this is not to call for a new Torquemada. It is to call for the non-negotiability of the faith.