Today is the 39th anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision. (Tomorrow, Monday, will accordingly be observed in all U.S. dioceses as a “Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children”). But Roe v. Wade did more than just abolish all laws protecting fetal human life - catastrophic as that was. It also set in motion a current and continuing "culture war" in the U.S. That in turn has set the stage for the latest conflict caused by the current Administration's ideological insistence on including coverage of contraceptives in its health insurance mandate - i.e., the latest HHS requirement that they be included among the "preventive services" to be covered in healthcare plans.
Here in Rome, the memory of the martyrs is ever-present. Their relics - and a multitude of churches built to house their relics and celebrate the martyrs' memory - testify to the prominence of martyrdom in the early Church and its continued salience as the pre-eminent form of Christian witness and the pre-eminent exercise of heroic virtue. Only yesterday, the Church's calendar recalled the martyrdom of the 12-year virgin St. Agnes (c. 291-304), who gave her heroic witness during the "Great Persecution" under the Emperor Diocletian. Of St. Agnes, St. Ambrose famously said: “All are amazed that one not yet of legal age can give her testimony to God. So she succeeds in convincing others of her testimony about God, though her testimony in human affairs could not yet be accepted. What is beyond the power of nature, they argue, must come from its creator.”
Nor is martyrdom some ancient phenomenon associated solely with the early Church and so absent from our more "enlightened" times. (Would that such were the case!) In fact, however, martyrs have witnessed to the faith and lived lives of conscientious objection to the imperial demands of Emperors and States in every age - including our own, which has in fact produced more such heroic witnesses in the past 100 years than the era of Roman persecutions did.
The prominence of the martyrs in the present as well as in the past, constantly called to the Church's attention in its liturgical life is a reminder to all that, while conflict with worldly power ought never to be sought for its own sake, worldly powers seem to have a certain buit-in tendency to seek to provoke such conflicts between themselves and the consciences of those for whom citizenship in the kingdom of God is even more precious than any transient earthly commitment.
The past century has seen any number of modern Diocletians - both small-scale tyrants and the dictators of powerful states inspired by totalitarian ideologies. As citizens of a free society, we have been the beneficiaries of institutionalized limits upon the power of the modern liberal State to insert itself between citizens and their consciences. In the face of new challenges to those limits, religious citizens have expressed their dissent and availed themselves of the courts - successfully in the case of the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision protecting religious instituions from the invasive reach of anti-discrimination laws. It remains to be seen what will happen with this latest assault on religious liberty being attempted under the spurious guise of universal health care.