Nineteen years ago today, I attended Evensong at England's Canterbury Cathedral on this Christmas week feast of St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170), the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred at Vespers in that very Cathedral on this very date. In 1992, it was St. Thomas Becket’s Anglican successor as Archbishop of Canterbury who led the celebration of Evensong, the highlight of which came at the end of the service when the Archbishop led the congregation down to the exact site of St. Thomas’s murder, where we listened to a contemporary medieval account of the famous event.
It is really quite striking that three of the six intermediate days within the Christmas Octave commemorate martyrs. There's St. Stephen the Protomartyr on December 26, the very day after Christmas. Then, on December 28, come the Holy Innocents, who are, of course, themselves an integral part of the Christmas story (although generally downplayed in the compulsory cheerfulness of most Christmas carols - the "Coventry Carol" being the great exception). And today, December 29, the Church recalls the medieval martyr St. Thomas Becket, who gave his life for the Church's freedom and liberty from encroaching executive and judicial interference on the part of the State. (In the old calendar, in the 2nd Mass of Christmas, there was also a "commemoration" of St. Anastasia, a holy woman martyred on December 25, during the persecution of Diocletian. So the Christmas Octave has actually commemorated four martyrs for much of its history!)
Obviously, no one is being martyred in the United States right now. But Church-State tensions do seem to be on the rise. Being denied a government contract to provide care for victims of sex-trafficking or having to shut down Church-sponsored adoption services because of intrusive government demands is not quite the same as being forced to shed one's blood for the independence of the Church, of course. But the analogy between the ambition of the modern liberal state to control so much of civil society and the comparable ambition of King Henry II is evident enough. The analogy also benefits from recalling that King Henry (who was in many respects really a great ruler) was originally Becket's friend and patron. Likewise many of the challenges to Church-run institutions today stem in part at least from their having become in effect partners with the State by having accepted (and desired) government contracts, etc. From a public-policy perspective, it has been beneficial for society that government has helped fund Church-run institutions' social services. But has it perhaps produced another problem and so contributed to the present situation of tension?
According to today's New York Times, some 62% (nearly $2.9 billion in 2010) of Catholic Charities' annual revenue derived from government. Catholic Charities - as even the New York Times admits - "is one of the nation's most extensive social service networks, serving more than 10 million poor adults and children of many faiths across the country." There can be no doubt that government aid has enabled the Church to accomplish a lot more social service than it could possibly have accomplished relying on purely private charity. From a public-policy perspective, society as a whole - and its neediest and most vulnerable members in particular - will be the biggest losers if Church institutions feel compelled to curtail their services because they cannot conscientiously cooperate with the State's social agenda.
It would be interesting to evaluate the net benefits and losses to civil society from the modern State's progressive assumption of control over so many areas which were once the primary province the the Church (in part because the pre-modern State was often relatively weak and in no position to assume control in areas such as education, etc.).
Looked at from the perspective of the ministry of the Church, however, perhaps the relevant analogy for the future will not be the medieval experience in which the Church was the primary player in civil society but that of the ancient Church before it became an established part of the the social order. Early Christians were widely noted for their charity, for how they cared for one another and for the sick and the vulnerable - all in marked contrast to traditional pagan Roman religion which generally did not concern itself with such matters. The Early Christians acted the way they did as an expression of who they had become by their faith in Christ, but they obviously did not expect their modest local efforts at social amelioration to solve all of Imperial Rome's social problems.
The Church must always continue to do its utmost to feed the hungry, minister to the sick, protect the weak, and champion the immigrants among us. But, given the encroachments of the ideologically motivated modern State, perhaps the Church will in the future no longer be able to do so on the scale both Church and society been accustomed to expect.